July 4, 2011


What does barbecue tell us about race?: Andrew Warnes, Savage Barbecue: Race, Culture, and the Invention of America's First Food (Ken Albala, Common-Place)

Americans just happen to have raised this form of cooking to High Art.

Andrew Warnes takes these macho associations one step further, though, arguing that the barbecue, from the initial encounter between Europeans and Native Americans, right down to the present, is really about race, violence, and exploitation. The idea of barbecue, he argues, even when alluring, is tainted by associations with the primitive, exotic other, the cannibal, and the assertion of white superiority.

But isn't barbecue one of the few foods prepared and enjoyed by all Americans regardless of color? A truly hybrid cuisine which all claim as their own and share equally? Blacks, whites, even Mongolians, stake a rightful claim to it. Warnes could not possibly be further from the mark with his impression of "American culture's low estimation of pit barbecue" (10). But perhaps this enthusiasm really does conceal, like a cloying thick sauce, an underlying truth that is vicious and racist.

The evidence presented is unfortunately tough and hard to swallow. The first chapter tries to convince us that putting together the words barbecue and barbarian is not coincidental. Early conquistadors and their chroniclers who first described the crude cooking methods of the Native Americans unwittingly forged an association that would be used to justify the exploitation of natives who slow-cooked not only horrid beasts like iguanas, but even human flesh. Theodor de Bry's popular images of freakish bald-headed cannibals chomping on arms and legs certainly would seem to suggest a "long tradition of conflating barbecue and cannibalism" (46).

But does the evidence really hold up? Do a handful of references denote a long-standing tradition of associating barbecue with racial discrimination? We are offered a Puritan divine, Edmund Hickeringill's Jamaica Viewed, which appeared in 1661, who mentions that Caribs, or Cannibals, barbecue the flesh of captives and feed it to their wives and children. But does this really reflect a "new and emergent doctrine of white supremacy" (35) or merely a statement of what Hickeringill took to be fact? Every other early historic reference to barbecue is completely neutral: a wooden platform for cooking food. Or even any wooden grid raised off the ground. And would this technique really have been so fundamentally strange to Europeans? They had been using iron grills since ancient times—just think of St. Lawrence, barbecued for the faith. The famed Bartholomew Pig is an English BBQ.

Then there is the little story upon which Warnes' whole argument hinges, Edward Ward's The Barbacue Feast: or, the Three Pigs of Peckham, which was published in 1707, supposedly heralding "barbecue's popularization in 1700s and '10s London" and "the ascent of new notions of racial exoticism and mastery. Even among those who ate it, as we will see, barbecue in these years seems to have retained its full complement of savage and cannibal meanings ..." (53).

Really? It turns out this is a story about sailors meeting for a common meal not far from the docks south of London for something, it seems, that reminded them of the food they ate back in Jamaica. And the sailors do what sailors do: eat raucously, make bad music and dance, tell stories, drink way too much rum, smoke, and then stumble home. It is anything but a cannibal feast.

The Wife sometimes makes me watch that Food Network show on dives and diners and it never fails to crack me up when he goes to some cinderblock-walled BBQ pit down south where crackers who look like they would have happily held the hoses and dogs in the early 60s start singing the praises of an old black guy's restaurant.

Posted by at July 4, 2011 10:37 AM

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