Being On The Grill Is A Sacred Role At The Barbecue

A Southern Barbecue/Horace Bradley/Wikimedia/Public Domain

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Barbecues are one of the most exciting events in the Black community filled with laughs, delicious food, and a 90s R&B playlist - preferably beginning with Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” - to set the mood just right.

But beyond the fun, BBQs have a special historical place as an African-American tradition that started as a way to sustain entire families with limited resources and dozens of hungry mouths to feed. Look, we’ve always been a resourceful people.

When the Spaniards stepped foot in the Caribbean, they observed a cooking technique completely foreign to them. The natives were slow-cooking meat over burning wooden planks and the result was the juiciest, most flavorful food the Spaniards had ever eaten.

Word of this cooking method spread like wildfire and especially caught on in the American South, where pigs were abundant.

Whole hog cooking was a sustainable way to cook for the entire community. Being the person to tend to the hog was a rite of passage for young Black men in the South. Often, they had to watch and observe the process several times - maybe years - before being trusted to perform the duties themselves.

Because roasting a pig is an all-day activity, the “pitmaster” and his crew often sat around sharing stories, drinking whiskey or beer, and taking turns basting the hog with a mixture of spices and juice that kept the pig from drying.

In the South, tobacco reigned as a major cash crop, so Black people would use the same fire they dried the tobacco leaves with to cook meat for a communal meal. Because harvesting and drying tobacco was a lengthy process, everybody worked together to make sure they didn’t lose any of their product.

Whether you prefer vinegar-based sauce from Eastern North Carolina or ketchup-based sauce from Kansas or Texas, we all recognize that a BBQ is much more than throwing a couple of hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill. The BBQ is a safe haven where we preserve a precious piece of Black culture, share a meal, and make memories that last a lifetime.

If you want to learn more about the rich history of barbecuing in the Black community, pick up a copy of The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South here.

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