Barbecue. It’s the cuisine that most directly satisfies our Promethean aspect, our embrace of the flame. It’s a food at the intersection of race, history, cultural distinctions, and regional pride. It’s a Rashomon word, with meanings as personal and distinctive as the regions and the people who make the delicious food it describes.
Despite the rubs, sauces, utensils, and the arsenal of devices available to us today to make it—the gleaming kettles and high-tech flamethrowers that crowd the aisles at a Home Depot or Lowe’s near you—barbecue is deeply antecedent in its place in American history. Spanning 500 years of global popular and literary culture, author Andrew Warnes places “this most American food” in a surprisingly broad historical context—one that largely precedes America as a nation.
“[B]arbecue arose less from native cooking practices than from a European gaze that wanted to associate those practices with preexisting ideas of savagery and innocence,” Warnes writes. Barbecue “not only referred to the smoked foods of American Indians, it also enacted Europeans’ deep desire to see those foods as barbarous—as the result of a primitive kind of cookery, savage and base, akin to that which their own distant ancestors once performed.”
Andrés Bernaldez, a contemporary of Christopher Columbus, wrote an account (perhaps somewhat mythologized) of Columbus’ expedition in 1492, particularly Columbus’ arrival at the harbor at Guantanamo, Cuba: “They went on shore and found more than four quintals of fish cooking over the fire, and rabbits, and two serpents [iguana] … The admiral ordered the fish to be taken, and with it refreshed his men.”
Bernaldez’s full account of the landing at Guantanamo, while maybe a bit literarily overheated, was by accident the first expression of the cultural disparities, the dichotomy of perceptions that barbecue would become heir to. Warnes assumes the role of an observer in Columbus’ party:
Just as the foods are at once disgusting and delicious, so the cooking method that producs them is both familiar and strange. Seen from afar, it looks a little like roasting, a little like the technique used in Basque txarribodas and other Western European feasts. But it cannot be that, for how then could it be left so long and not spoil? … it becomes apparent that the food is not spoiling because it is lifted high above the embers and is slowly warming in their smoke.
From the beginning, barbecue was as much at the service of perception as reality. Warnes has a firm hand on the ways in which the power to name is also the power to define. “Barbecue,” he writes, “… belonged to a larger historical process by which Amerindian cultures and languages were conflated, bowdlerized, and generally exploited in order to make America seem more like America, the New World that Europe wanted to discover.”
Warnes smartly deconstructs the history of the word itself, offering an informed speculation on the word’s genesis at the hands of the Europeans. “Encouraged to discover ‘barbarians’ wherever they looked, predisposed to wonder at the “barbe” sound that seemed to crop up everywhere on these islands, they were likely to have paid particular attention to the Native word for the framework of sticks that raised these fish and iguana above the fire — barbacoa — and to attach … meanings of savagery and abjection to it.”
Barbecue would move through the centuries: assimilated into both the culinary culture of 17th and 18th-century London (coincident with “the rise of racial consciousness in English life”) and a literary culture in which barbecue was invoked literally and by suggestion often more xenophobic than culinary.
It’s when Warnes comes to America — not the Old World idea but the real thing — that the author warms to the topic in a novel way. Using passages from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as a nominal leitmotif, Warnes builds a bridge between eras and nations, exploring barbecue’s place in a nation that still doesn’t recognize barbecue for the unique cultural touchstone and tabula rasa it is.
Barbecue’s pivot into America’s popular consciousness had deep roots in the South. Warnes’ book contains photos from the Farm Security Administration of the New Deal era, pictures that show pit barbecue stands in the southern states, another roadside attraction promoted with a hand-lettered sign.
Barbecue adapted to the times. Warnes notes that “pit barbecue culture between the World Wars in general wrapped itself in plastic, embracing the look and feel of the emergent hamburger chains in order to grow a kind of anticulinary, barbaric, junk-food skin.”
But the adaptation goes on; barbecue is hardly food that’s “fast”, but it’s still very much for the people. Today’s barbecue joints, Warnes writes, “cultivate a wild and democratic image, rejecting ostentation and challenging the rigid demarcation of courses and combos … To take pit barbecue joints at face value, to accept that where they begin culinary standards end, is to see this culture not as it is but as it wants to be seen: subaltern, rebellious, wild, barbaric.”
Maybe that’s why it’s hard to find in some quarters of American life.
“Pit barbecue is conspicuous by its absence from many formulations of the national cuisine of the United States,” Warnes observes. “None of the museums along the Washington Mall seem able to accommodate it.” This observation precedes his own anecdotal experience not being able to find barbecue at one museum café in the nation’s capital.
To find it, he writes, “You will need to walk past security, to face the sting of the late summer sun … across the Washington Mall. You will need to move past stands representing the National Council of Negro Women and other organizations, past banners promoting Family Values and Economic Empowerment, and past a concert stage whose scaffolding shakes and shivers to a hip-hop beat … Some secret mix of bourbon, cayenne, chili, molasses, paprika, and vinegar will mingle in your nose as you close in on the food outlets at the end of the lawn. Joining the line you will look up at the menu above the vendor’s head. And there you will read, next to Fried Chicken and Gumbo, an acronym almost as famous as USA itself: BBQ.”
Warnes thus nimbly equates barbecue with those other indelible, necessary American pariahs: jazz and the blues — each not fully understood or appreciated but thoroughly recognized. This is a full exploration of a food bigger than any plate it’s served on, a serious study of the commonalities of the barbecue experience: “a chance to relax and spend an hour or ten in flight from the pressures of civilized life.”
Barbecue, as a food and as an experience, is deeply marinated in the marrow bone of America. Savage Barbecue gets the story done just right.