Food writer Michael Pollan recently visited Big Think to discuss a particularly delicious topic: barbecue. Today, the focus is on barbecue’s unique history in American culture and how its practice transcends the racial strife that has so often pocked the nation’s timeline. You can watch this clip from Pollan’s Big Think interview below:
Pollan, a natural storyteller, begins with an anecdote. He recalls speaking with pitmaster Ed Mitchell, who has a restaurant called Que in Durham, North Carolina. Mitchell, who is African-American, began talking about barbecue and race:
"He said the two most integrated experiences in his life, the place where race divisions broke down was Vietnam where he served and barbecue. Barbecue and Vietnam transcended race in his experience and nothing else had done so."
This wasn't the first nor the last time that Pollan was told something to this effect about how barbecue seems to exist outside the normal American racial paradigm.
"And when I was talking to historians of barbecue (and we now have historians of barbecue), they said that even during the tensest periods of racial strife, during the civil rights movement, if the good barbecue place in town was black, whites wanted to eat there and they would. And if the good barbecue place was white, blacks would line up at the takeout window and they would want to eat there. And that it was -- it just kind of was too important to let the normal racial divisions stand in the way."
Pollan tells how the barbecue historians (what a job title!) explain this atypical social behavior. The reason stems from the form's storied history in the American south and the way its inextricably linked to the tobacco harvest:
'We know cigarettes are bad for you and we demonize tobacco and it was a subsidized crop and that was a crazy thing to do. But the fact is the culture of tobacco is quite beautiful. And when you brought in the tobacco in the fall it was kind of all hands on deck. And blacks and whites would work together doing the harvest, poling the big leaves -- you had to hang them up in the tobacco barns which are these beautiful structures with lots of slats to let air through. And it had to happen really quickly. And you built a big oak fire to basically cure the tobacco, dry it and smoke it a little bit. And in the course of doing that which happened overnight, you were accumulating all these hot coals and you're feeding the fire and you're shoveling out the coals.
And the tradition developed to roast a pig using those hot coals."
A pit was dug. The pig was roasted. Everyone -- black and white together -- shared the meal. From the earliest slaves who introduced "barbacoa" to the Caribbean to the pitmasters of today, the barbecue ritual is seen as sacred to many in the South. It's a religion. Its process is a ritual passed down from generation to generation.
Barbecue is the embodiment of culture.
"In fact, at [Mitchell's] restaurant he had an artist do a mural of barbecue through history. And there are very tender scenes of the tobacco harvest and barbecue. So it's a really deep part of the tradition in the South."
Pollan's latest book is Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation.