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Notable Sandwiches #8: Barbecue Sandwich
The good and bad of America are commingled in its story.
One of the more notorious instances of political violence in American history was an all-out, one-sided beating on the floor of Congress in 1856. Two days before, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner had given a rousing, five-hour speech condemning “the harlot, Slavery” and all its proponents. In response, and invoking a “libel on South Carolina,” Representative Preston Brooks struck Sumner on the head with a cane, and continued to strike him until the cane broke, and Sumner lay bleeding on the floor, unconscious. The incident, which caused great outcry in the press, is often used to illustrate the feverish political tensions that led up to the Civil War five years later. What is less often recalled is the barbecue that greeted Brooks when he returned to South Carolina, having defiantly resigned his post before he could be expelled from Congress. It was a massive affair, with between eight thousand and ten thousand attendees, the jubilant greeting of a proud hero. According to Barbecue: the History of an American Institution, by Robert F. Moss, the revelry included a band, political speeches, a parade, and five tons of barbecued beef, pork, and mutton. Moreover, this being South Carolina in 1856, it is almost certain that the people barbecuing these tons of flesh were enslaved. In the antebellum South, at the barbecues that greeted every civic celebration, those who laid the fires, set up the spits, basted the carcasses with sharp spiced sauce, and carved the flesh once the long, slow roasting was complete were enslaved; only the eaters were white.
I can already hear some of you groaning softly—this is a barbecue-sandwich column and I have opened it with beatings and slavery—but it’s difficult, really, to separate food out from the hands that make it and the mouths that eat it. Or rather: it is entirely possible to write about food with pure gustatory adulation—to write about the piquant admixture of pork and vinegar and soft bread that makes an excellent barbecue sandwich, to discuss the varietals, as hotly debated as vintages of wine, that divide the barbecue metropolises of the South and West, and to stop there. To do so is to honor the hard work by many hands that goes into smoking and dressing and slicing and preparing the hundreds of thousands of barbecue sandwiches that greet American eaters every year, and to celebrate one of the few areas of true regional diversity left in a republic of chain stores and strip malls. It’s a laudatory thing, a gentle thing, a delicious thing, to linger over the fine alchemy of sweet and sour and proteinaceous oomph in the mouth, enveloped in cloudlike starch; a praiseworthy and necessary task. But under that story is another story, and under that another, and it’s to these stories I’m haplessly drawn. Barbecue predates the establishment of the United States, and has been intertwined with every major event in the country’s history since. As such, like cayenne in a sauce, like intercostal muscle in a rack of ribs, the good and bad of the country are commingled in its story.
The word “barbecue,” most lexicographers agree, is drawn from the Taino language of the Arawak people of the Caribbean, and was used by colonists to describe a standard method of food preservation and preparation among the Native Americans of the Eastern seaboard, from the pit-smoked cockles of Maine to the alligators of Florida, barbecued by the Timicua people. The first Western recording of the word came in 1526, when a Spanish explorer observed the “barbacoa” of natives on the Isthmus of Panama. Barbecue abounded in New England in the early colonial days, but grew to greater fullness in the slave state of Virginia, where George Washington himself gave an early campaign barbecue. Barbecue greeted the first Fourth of July celebrations and centuries of political campaigns, where would-be representatives cajoled potential voters with pit-smoked carcasses and perorations. It accompanied war—volunteers for the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 were coaxed to enlist by state-militia barbecues; similar barbecues praised the heroism of newly conscripted soldiers of the nascent Confederacy—and was used to sell shares in burgeoning railroad lines.
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From the earliest, sandwiches were essential— one 1897 Northern journalist, quoted by Moss, observed that at a Georgia barbecue “the orthodox way to eat barbecue meat is as a sort of sandwich.” Before the mid-nineteenth century, though, barbecue was principally a Southern tradition—and a ubiquitous and central one at that. Huge and boisterous Fourth of July barbecues were encouraged by slave-masters, both as a source of joy in lives blighted by horror, and as a means for Southern slave-owners to bolster the myth of their own benevolence. Outside these yearly gatherings, as the nurse and memoirist Louis Hughes wrote in 1897’s Thirty Years a Slave: From Bondage to Freedom, “it was said that the slaves could barbecue meats best, and when the whites had barbecues slaves always did the cooking.” Enslaved labor, and the institutional knowledge of Black pitmasters, helped make the slow and labor-intensive cuisine the centerpiece of antebellum celebrations. Enslaved people—having been forced into the process of slow-basting and roasting—reclaimed it when they could: illicit barbecues of stolen livestock formed a centerpiece of clandestine gatherings. Nat Turner’s famously ferocious and doomed rebellion, which turned righteous and necessary violence on slave-masters in 1831, began under the guise of the barbecue of a stolen hog, and from there proceeded into blood and legend.
Barbecue greeted the inauguration of the Confederacy, and barbecue greeted its end, with vivacious and delicious annual celebrations of the Emancipation Proclamation in Black communities across the Southern and Southwestern states. By the mid-nineteenth century, though, barbecue had followed the shifting line of territorial expansion north and West, and with the notable exception of the Northeast, had become a pan-American institution of collective fare and celebration. Barbecue helped the temperance movement stage competing events to the drunken, masculine revelries of yore, ushering in Prohibition. Its first Golden Age, according to Moss, came in the decades after the Second World War, when a nation flush with prosperity replaced raucous community celebrations over smoking pits with the glistening and ubiquitous backyard grill. The Great Migration brought centuries of Black barbecue experience north and west, and roadside BBQ stands greeted the new, glistening interstate freeways—with the portable and convenient sandwich as a mainstay.
“The foundation of barbecue, and barbecue being sold, is about sandwiches,” says Daniel Vaughn, the barbecue editor for Texas Monthly and author of The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue and Whole Hog BBQ: The Gospel of Carolina Barbecue. “If you go around the state of Texas—and North and South Carolina, too—the sandwich is what’s ordered much more often than a big tray of BBQ.” I reached Vaughn, the sound of trains whistling through the phone, in line outside Louie Mueller BBQ, an eighty-one-year-old institution in Taylor, Texas, to discuss the place of the sandwich within the broader world of barbecue. “The sandwich of old looks different than the sandwich today—the invention of the bun changed everything. You no longer have sliced bread that gets soggy and breaks apart immediately, and that didn’t change until they got buns. Nowadays I don’t think you’d picture a barbecue sandwich being on anything but a bun.”
In every mouthful of barbecue—whether it’s the pork-and-vinegar, hickory-wood simplicity of the Carolinas; what Vaughn calls the “Texas Trinity” of brisket, ribs and sausage; the caramelized burnt-ends of Kansas City, Missouri, accompanied by molasses-y, spicy sauce—there is that fusion of history and present, freedoms taken by force and won by force, survival by wit and by fire and smoke. Daniel Vaughn’s definition of barbecue is intentionally expansive, more so the more he studies and writes about it: by now, he says, his limitations are pared down to “fire, and meat transformed by that fire significantly.” It’s a Native American foodway, embraced by white colonialists, passed to and perfected by enslaved populations influenced by the roasting traditions of Africa, modernized now in a world of glistening corporate individualism and the bone-wearying work of surviving hypercapitalism. Barbecue, when you strip away the jingoism and the boosterish narratives sweeter than Sweet Baby Ray’s, is not a bad metonym for America as a whole. We live not in a melting pot, but a smoking pit, a place where courage and art and genius flourish despite what burns and burns them. Good hands fill bellies with the strength to fight the great and terrible forces that shape our lives: a little respite, a little smoke and hope and sweetness, in a sauce-drenched bun.