How BBQ Transcends Race, with Michael Pollan

Food writer Michael Pollan takes us through the history of barbecue in the south and how its ritualized process stands outside the typical racial paradigm.

Michael Pollan: Well, you know, one of the things that struck me about barbecue -- and I was talking to several pitmasters, and the one that I focused on in some depth was Ed Mitchell. He's a very well-known pitmaster who's in Raleigh and actually now has a new restaurant in Durham called Que. Ed is African American and goes way back with barbecue. And he said something really interesting to me. 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. And I thought that was really interesting. 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. Barbecue is something that blacks and whites in the South share. This probably, at least in Ed Mitchell's view, goes back to the culture of tobacco which we Northerners don't really appreciate. I mean we know cigarettes are bad for you and we demonize tobacco and it was a, you know, 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. So you'd dig a hole in the ground and you'd take those coals and put them in the bottom and you'd get a grate and you'd slowly cook the pig. And everybody would eat the pig together -- black and white together. Again, something that didn't happen any other time. And Ed Mitchell had a very nostalgic view of this whole period. In fact, at his 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. It's generally recognized as a black contribution to American culture that it was slaves who passed through the Caribbean. And in the Caribbean they saw people cooking animals over pits on these, you know, these sticks. And they also picked up in the Caribbean seeds for hot pepper, red pepper. And that became an important flavoring for the pork. And barbacoa is what they thought they were hearing in the Caribbean and that became barbecue. So it was a black contribution to southern American culture.

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler and Dillon Fitton

Michael Pollan explains the lost cultural and spiritual importance of cooking and eating meat. Pollan is the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma. His latest is Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (

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