Hidden Barbecue History Too Delicious To Be Ignored

July 31, 2019

Barbecue has African roots - the word ‘barbecue’ derives from the Hausa people of West Africa’s “babbake” which describes the fire pit roasting of meats. It’s a connection not lifted up when the latest celebrity food critic searches for the best brisket in Texas among restaurants owned and run by white culinary pros.

But there’s another reason for this “historical amnesia”…

Enslaved Africans often had to get creative with spicing, salting, and heating scrap meats - ribs, pork bellies, entrails, etc. - that slaveowners deemed unfit to eat. 

The other reason we don’t hear about Black pitmasters is due to a generational divide.

Making barbecue, like being a landscaper or janitor, is labor-intense work. 

At the turn of the 21st century, Black entrepreneurs embraced these professions to ward off white envy and rage aimed towards their restricted business success. 

Johnny Walker of Mama Jean’s BBQ in Lampasas, Texas, described it perfectly to the Racist Sandwich podcast: “[Black parents] didn’t want [their children] to be cooks. There was a narrow scope of professions that… you were allowed to take part in.”

In short, having MORE choices educationally and professionally for us contributed to a shortage of Black grill masters today. 

Meanwhile, the narrative of good American barbecue is dominated by white men that fail to give Black cooks who have ALWAYS been in the kitchen their due credit. 

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