• February 26, 2024

It’s Time to Give Black Barbecue Culture the Attention It Deserves

Why do I care about the ups and downs of the black grill? It’s deeper than love. That’s because I was radicalized by something I saw on TV. Actually, it’s more about what I haven’t seen.

In May 2004, I was intrigued by a Food Network commercial for an hour-long special called Paula’s Southern BBQ. At the time, I knew a lot more about grilling than I did about the host, Paula Deen, and I was hoping Deen would provide an overview of Mediterranean grilling culture rather than just a cooking lesson or cooking competition. I adjusted to the show. When the credits rolled in, my mouth was open – not out of an appetite for barbecues, but because I was stunned that not a single African American had been interviewed on camera. I saw footage of black people doing the real work in the background, but they were anonymous and voiceless. Today it may seem naive, but I remember when I turned off the TV I thought, “Did they become the black grillers? Are you just b-roll footage now? “Maybe I misunderstood the ads for the show – maybe it was advertised as Paula’s Scandinavian Barbecue, sponsored by Alabama White Sauce?

Deen is easy to beat up, given the racism and inappropriate appropriation allegations that surfaced against her five years later (and admittedly, I haven’t seen the show since, so I just rely on shocked memories), but I think so The show’s production team shares the blame. They’re the ones who scout out the locations, decide who’s on camera, and write the scripts. If she had it tough, Deen could have used her star power to create a bigger show, but this certainly wasn’t a solo act. Apparently nobody had the vision.

This episode hit me hard. It showed me that there was something missing with all that grill filling. What was missing was the public recognition and appreciation of the African American grillers and what they contributed to this sacred culinary tradition. Imagine grilling meat right over a slow fire. A good balance is when the meat cooks slowly while the fat drips down regularly to fuel the fire and add flavor. Then, after several hours of cooking, someone decides to gradually move the fire to the side of the grill, completely away from the meat, and continue to grill indirectly. Black grills were also pushed from the center to the edges of the grill.

Gradually, quietly, and tenderly, some very influential food media platforms have fallen deeply in love with four types of White Guys Who Barbecue. They are: the urban hipster who wears interesting tattoos, facial hair and stylish glasses; the rural Bubba, who is a guy who wears overalls and ball caps and who can be seen on TV shows Duck Dynasty or The Dukes of Hazzard (1970s version); the upscale chefs who have stepped into the grill game; and some people who are a combination of the above.

The media coverage of these whites is so intense, extensive, and constant that one could easily wonder whether blacks are barbecuing at all. Before Rodney Scott won the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southeast in 2018, arguably the best-known African American barbecue was arguably the fictional Freddy Hayes, who regularly served ribs to the diabolical President Frank Underwood on Netflix’s successful political satire House of Cards. The whole situation is annoying enough to make a nice guy like me develop a “resting grilled face”.

It’s all so strange, too, because before the 1990s, the food media consistently and overwhelmingly recognized black grillers – so much so that to this day many people believe that African Americans invented grilling. Additionally, by the late nineteenth century, there was a general consensus that African American grills made the best, most authentic grills. Even racist whites neglected to refrain from barbecuing an African American. During the black griller reign, grilling was largely represented in the media as hearty, messy, working-class food that was the delicious result of extensive, exhausting, and specialized legwork. And while what these black grills often did fit perfectly with the definition of culinary craft, it was seldom presented that way to the general public.

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