How do you define barbecue? The meaning keeps changing

Todd A. Price
Southern Kitchen
Payne's Bar-B-Que, a Midtown Memphis favorite and family operation that has been in business since 1972 serving truly old-school barbecue, on Tuesday, April 5, 2022.

Cooking meat with fire and smoke is part of what makes us human. When that elemental technique became barbecue, cooking meat for longer and over lower heat, is impossible to date.

"I'm a cheerleader for the American exceptionalism of barbecue," said Adrian Miller, a barbecue historian and author of "Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue."

Miller sees barbecue as a coming together of Indigenous, European and African cultures in the United States.

New Orleans-based barbecue expert Howard Conyers is a mentor for Kingsford charcoal's Preserve the Pit program.

For Howard Conyers, a scholar of barbecue with a day job as a NASA rocket scientist, barbecue only begins when you start cooking for a crowd.

"Most of the other meat cooking techniques only are able to cook a small amount," Conyers said.

Starting in the colonial era, settlers dug shallow pits for the coals with wood across the top as a grate. If the crowd grew, it was easy to make the pit a little longer and add more meat. The men tending these pits were almost always enslaved Africans, and their skill and ingenuity transformed barbecue from an expediency into an art.

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In the 20th century, the meaning of barbecue has shifted. Whole animals have given way to smaller cuts of meat. Restaurants turned barbecue from a special occasion feast into a daily meal. The rise of Texas barbecue has led some to believe only indirect cooking counts as real barbecue.

Adrian Miller, the author of "Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue" traveled the country to gather stories and sample barbecue. He made stops in Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha in December 2019.

"I tell people trying to define barbecue now is like trying to catch a greased pig," Miller said, "because now we've expanded the definition of barbecue."

News tips? Story ideas? Questions? Call reporter Todd Price at 504-421-1542 or email him at taprice@gannett.com. Sign up for The American South newsletter. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.