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Exploring How African Americans Shaped Barbecue

Ribs "mopped" with barbecue sauce on the grill. "We're not painting a house; we're fixing a meal. That's why we use a mop" instead of a brush, Mike explains.
Adrian Miller
Ribs "mopped" with barbecue sauce on the grill. "We're not painting a house; we're fixing a meal. That's why we use a mop instead of a brush."

Barbecue is one of America’s quintessential cuisines. For centuries, its impact has moved beyond food - building communities and creating a unique culture.

That’s mainly due to African American barbecue culture and the contributions of Black barbecuers, pitmasters, and restaurateurs. But that history has often been overlooked. Soul food scholar, culinary historian, and barbecue judge Adrian Miller works to restore African Americans to the center of America’s barbecue story. He’ll be sharing how barbecue is an essential part of Black history at the Culture Clash event for Milwaukee Film’s Cultures And Communities Festival.

"So African American influence and barbecue goes back centuries. And for a long time I was one of the people who thought ... Black people invented barbecue. But one of the biggest surprises in my research is to really understand the Native American foundation of barbecue and how eventually that culinary heritage was passed on to African American cooks, who became barbecue's indispensable cooks. But it's a really, really interesting story," says Miller.

Miller notes that while early documentation of southern barbecue is hazy, it starts in Virginia. He describes it as cooking a whole animal over a pit filled with burning coals. Miller says the animal was flipped and turned and seasoned with a vinegar and red pepper flavoring agent. "That was Virginia barbecue and eventually became known as southern barbecue and pit barbecue," he explains.

Early barbecue history is not well documented, according to Miller. He says most of his research comes from oral history and newspapers. One thing did become clear in his research — around the late 19th century the narrative around who was responsible for the best barbecue changed.

"For several centuries African Americans were honored in barbecue culture. You look at newspaper accounts, oral histories, other things, the general consensus was that African Americans were the ones who made the best barbecue, " Miller explains.

Listen to the full conversation
Lake Effect's Audrey Nowakowski speaks with soul food scholar & barbecue judge Adrian Miller about the impact of African American barbecue culture & what drives his passion to restore it to the center of America’s barbecue story.

Miller points to a clear shift away from recognizing the contributions of African Americans to barbecue culture and storytelling in the last 20 to 30 years when the emergence of foodies during the 1990s coincided with the rising popularity of barbecue.

"Foodies who were seeking good, authentic food experiences were asking two questions: what is barbecue and where do I get the good stuff? And the people who were in charge of telling those stories and pointing out the experts and the curators kept promoting white man after white man after white man ... and so that's when we start to see that shift," he explains.

Miller says that by the 2000s, barbecue stories excluded or marginalized African Americans and it's time for that to change.

"If you're going to talk about barbecue in the United States, you've got to include African Americans and also celebrate African American barbecue culture and restore African Americans to the barbecue narrative," he says.

And while Miller feels a traditional diversity critique would be that we've never acknowledged African American's contributions to barbecue, Miller says that isn't the case.

"We have newspaper articles in the 1800s that are saying, in order to have an authentic barbecue, you have to have a negro man or colored man ... so it's almost like African Americans are part of the recipe. Like you couldn't have good barbecue without African Americans involved. So that's how prominent African Americans were."

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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