Michael Pollan: Barbecue Transcends Race
Food writer Michael Pollan explains how the history of barbecue in America is one that includes all kinds of people working together in an integrated effort to produce the best possible meal.
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.
Swiss researchers identify new dangers of modern cocaine.
- Cocaine cut with anti-worming adulterant levamisole may cause brain damage.
- Levamisole can thin out the prefrontal cortex and affect cognitive skills.
- Government health programs should encourage testing of cocaine for purity.
A study on flies may hold the key to future addiction treatments.
- A new study suggests that drinking alcohol can affect how memories are stored away as good or bad.
- This may have drastic implications for how addiction is caused and how people recall intoxication.
- The findings may one day lead to a new form of treatment for those suffering from addiction.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In their findings the authors state:
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
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