Barbecue: The History of an American Institution by Robert F. Moss. University of Alabama Press, 2010. Cloth, ISBN: 9780817317188. $26.00.
“It seems remarkable to me,” writes sensory historian Mark Smith, “that we live in the world where we have all the senses to navigate it, yet somehow we assume that the past was scrubbed of smells.” Barbecue: The History of an American Institution serves up a healthy helping to support Smith’s argument.
My father and grandfather first introduced me to the sweet ambrosia that is barbecue when I was still a toddler in eastern North Carolina and over the years I have sampled virtually all kinds of the heavenly tasting meat. (Although I have not had the pleasure of sampling barbecue possum served at a few discerning road-side establishments throughout the South such as in Rayle, Georgia.) My own favorite type aside, arguments have always abounded among barbecue connoisseurs whether pit or spit-cooked is best, whether sauce is added before, during, or after the smoking process, which region produces the best. Moss attempts to settle at least some of the arguments in a scholarly and journalistic fashion, although the arguments will undoubtedly continue. “Of all the signature foods of the South,” writes food historian John T. Edge, “none unites and divides the region like barbecue. When it comes to barbecues, southerners cannot agree on meat, sauce, technique, side dishes, or even how to spell the word.” But no Southern homecoming is complete without a good dose of barbecue and a Fourth of July celebration is incomplete without barbecue on the menu.
Barbecue encompasses more than the food, more than an event, more than a process. It is a spirit, an atmosphere, a cultural environment. Southerners regard barbecue with reverence and are devotedly loyal to the style of their particular region. Barbecue: The History of an American Institution elevates the topic in an informative and educational level that reaches across color and generational lines by uncovering new perspectives that will appeal to not only the casual reader, but also the ivory-towered academician. In chapter after chapter, Moss takes his readers along on a journey through time by documenting the role barbecue has played in three centuries of American cultural history. In the process, he rekindles memories of homecomings, church socials, rollicking tail-gating parties, and Fourth of July celebrations. What truly sets this book apart is that it includes much primary evidence that you seldom find in other books on barbecue. In this way Barbecue: The History of an American Institution begins to draw you in. The history of barbecue is a history of the South.
Moss peppers his account with sources documenting the evolution of barbecue through the centuries beginning with a group of British colonists celebrating at a “barbacue feast” in 1707. Moss recounts that barbecue starts out in the Caribbean where the cooking technique of smoking meat over raised coals originated with the Taino and Arawak Indians. The Spaniards applied the term, “barbacoa,” to the smoking process. On their expeditions across the South, Hernando de Soto mentions the natives roasting game on barbocoas as he made his way across the Southeast.
Although there are numerous references to barbecue in historical accounts, Moss is the first to adequately document these references, and at the same time, contribute a deeper level of understanding to our cultural pallets. Over the centuries, he argues, barbecue helped shape the regional cultures of America beginning with the early British colonists’ adopting barbecuing techniques from the natives in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. From his early accounts of barbecues as social gatherings in Virginia and the Carolinas (evidenced by the recent discovery of a possible barbecue pit at James Madison’s Montpelier by a team of staff archaeologists) to celebrations of the opening of new railroad lines. Moss entertains his readers with more specific examples such as the 1856 homecoming celebration given in Ninety Six, South Carolina, to Preston Brooks upon his return from Washington to Eugene Talmadge’s direct appeals to the people of Georgia in his successful quests for Governor in the 1930s and 1940s. From there, Moss demonstrates barbecue’s establishment as the preeminent expression of public celebration in the nineteenth century and barbecue’s symbolic status today as truly American.
As barbecue spread westward, according to Moss, its history became the threads of American social history. Our politics, our economy, our religion, our dense, even our racial dynamics became wrapped up with barbecue. In the latter chapters, Moss looks at barbecue in our more modern, recognizable time with chapters dealing with the rise of regional restaurants and their sauces, backyard barbecuing and the Weber grills, and finally the adaptability of barbecue to modern times. In fact, the underlining thread throughout the book is that barbecue has become the ultimate iconic American food due to its ability to be reinvented. This book, like its subject, waters in your mouth.
Barbecue: The History of an American Institution is a well researched and entertaining account of the world’s greatest food. Whether slow cooked in the pit or on the spit, pork basted, smothered, soaked, barbecue can now take its place at the head of America’s culinary history. Now if someone can just do the same with Brunswick Stew.
Sam Thomas Curator, T.R.R. Cobb House
Sam is an avid barbecue connoisseur, dedicated to historic preservation, and interested in many aspects of Southern Culture, including culinary taste, the Civil War, and Irish immigration.