Barbecue is a beloved exemplar of culinary Americana, but its origin story in the forced labor camps known as Southern plantations has been denatured and whitewashed. It’s a strange truth that while the Black roots of the blues must be known and honored by any serious white music fan, barbecue’s story has been consigned to a vague melting pot rather than the crucible of slavery. I’ve drunk Bud Light with reverential white pilgrims in the last juke joints of Mississippi and Alabama, but I didn’t detect a similar appreciation, in barbecue restaurants there, of the roots of the cooking (nor, I confess, did I have such appreciation myself).
If Black pit masters are now celebrated by the food media, there has not been a full reckoning. The result is, when I last checked, Wikipedia merely says that barbecue is “strongly associated with Southern cooking and culture,” which is like saying the #MeToo movement has its origins in differing perspectives concerning the roles of men and women. This is the sort of editing out of history that Black author and Denver native Adrian Miller aims to correct in his important new book Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue (University of North Carolina Press, 2021), published in April.
Of course, there are barbecue lovers who have long recognized the shame in the white-facing story of that cuisine. Fifty years ago, journalist Calvin Trillin—a tireless promoter of Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue in Kansas City—imagined himself arguing before the City Council for a statue honoring Henry Perry, the Black father of the Kansas City style and mentor to Bryant, who was also Black. “What I can’t understand,” he wrote in his book American Fried, “is why this town is full of statues of the farmers who came out to steal land from the Indians and full of statues of the businessmen who stole the land from the farmers but doesn’t even have a three-dollar plaque somewhere for Henry Perry.” So much American reality is contained in those barbed lines: Indigenous people replaced by settlers; settlers overwhelmed by big business; and insufficient credit to the people from whom precious things were appropriated. Only in 2020 did Kansas City proclaim July 3 as Henry Perry Day.
The first chapter of Black Smoke traces whole-animal fire pit cooking in the Americas to Indigenous peoples, to the barbacoa and carbonado methods of South America, Mexico, the Caribbean, and among native tribes on lands that would ultimately become the United States. Miller argues that it was the commingling of these techniques with the flavor traditions of enslaved Africans that formed the foundation of the whole-hog barbecue that became a hallmark of plantation culture. Enslaved people dug the pits and chopped the wood, but also did the cooking, because the pit mastery lay with them. The meat was swabbed with vinegar and spices and, later, tomatoes and sugar.
To locate barbecue talent among one’s enslaved population was a point of plantation-owner pride, and the best pit masters were bragged about and shared. It’s all very Gone With the Wind, except that Miller notes the depravity of plantation culture included torturing enslaved people who had been whipped by dousing them with barbecue sauce. In the Jim Crow era, lynchings were called “negro barbecues.”
The enslaved held their own barbecues when they could, away from prying eyes and noses, even while on the run or planning rebellion, Miller writes. By the late 19th century, barbecue assumed a great public role, too, and not only in the South. It was central to events called “Emancipation barbecues” and to political rallies where smoked meat was the bribe for votes, a tactic that was once described as “stuffing the ballot.” Pit skills brought economic opportunity to Blacks during Reconstruction and after its shameful collapse, when they set up barbecue shacks in cities across the country to serve both Black customers and white ones who recognized the superior fare.
In many cities, Black barbecue experts were recruited for public events, and sometimes even presented as professionals without caricature, as in a respectful Denver Post article about Columbus B. Hill, who had moved to the Mile High City from Tennessee. In 1890, Hill supervised the barbecuing of over 30,000 pounds of beef, mutton, and veal to mark the laying of the state Capitol’s cornerstone.
Barbecue played a powerful role in Black church life, too. Miller devotes a sidebar to Arkansas émigré “Daddy” Bruce Randolph Sr., who was born in 1900, came to Denver in 1960, started a barbecue operation, and became famous for staging huge feed-the-crowd events in the name of Jesus and barbecue fellowship. The city’s Bruce Randolph Avenue was named after him in 1985.
Racism persisted everywhere as Jim Crow metastasized across the South. White restaurant owners objectified the Black barbecue style, even as they pushed Black cooks and operators to the margins, using Aunt Jemima–like stereotypes to signal Southern authenticity. Meanwhile, regional styles proliferated, among both Black and white cooks. Texans, of course, felt the need for their own origin story, sniffing that their slow-smoked brisket had German DNA rather than African, but Miller argues that the mainstream Texas barbecue story underplays the role of Black cooks and restaurants.
By the time the foodie era arrived in the late 20th century, the barbecue narrative was dominated by several species of “White Boys Who Barbecue,” including Bubbas, hipsters, and high-end chefs. This is not to say that Black-owned restaurants weren’t critical all along. Payne’s Bar-B-Que in Memphis, Stubb’s Bar-B-Q in Austin, Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque in Kansas City, Dreamland Bar-B-Que in Birmingham: All are examples of the countless Black establishments important to local and regional barbecue tradition, and in places where the tradition does not run as deep, such as Denver, restaurants like Boney’s Smokehouse on Champa Street are touchstones. Still, as the meaning of cultural appropriation in this country of melting-pot cookery is hotly debated, the story of America’s barbecue past is far from sorted.
Black Smoke scores big by being timely and revelatory. It contains profiles of historical and contemporary barbecue greats, including overlooked women, and more than 20 recipes. But it can be tough going for a casual foodie reader—not because it’s overly academic (though there are 18 pages of references) but because it lacks the grip and heat of its subject. The most disappointing chapter is one that tries to sum up the Black barbecue aesthetic, in which Miller argues that pronounced char-grill flavors (as opposed to only smoke) are key—which is a good start. But the account quickly devolves into a scattershot menu of dishes without yielding a coherent through line. Miller is far better at making the case that Black cooks were given short shrift by the booming food media, framing the growth of “white craft culture” (think: beer, pickles) as an attempt to make precious the labor of whites by elevating it above Black folk traditions.
In the end, defining a Black style of barbecue may not be as essential as correcting the narrative itself, since so much on the barbecue plate is fundamentally Black cooking. Heritage constitutes ownership. Barbecue is American food with Southern roots, and thus, as with the blues, it is born of Black blood, heartbreak, soul, style, and power.