An Interview with Robert Moss, author of Barbecue: The History of an American Institution
RM: It actually happened the other way around. I was studying for a Ph.D. in English at the University of South Carolina, and as I was finishing up my dissertation I got more and more interested in food history, including barbecue history, and started it researching it on the side. I ended up making a career in the software industry (long story there), but I kept up the historical research on the side and eventually published the first edition of Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, in 2010. I’ve been writing about barbecue ever since.
SR: This is one of my favorite history books—not just about barbecue, but about America. What’s new and different in the second edition?
RM: There are two big differences. First, since the original edition was published in 2010, many other writers have dug into the history of barbecue, and between their discoveries and my own continued research I was able to really expand the story and fill in some of the missing gaps in the original book. In particular, I delve much more deeply into the Caribbean roots of American barbecue, added the stories of more of the influential barbecue figures from the 19th and early 20th centuries, and discuss more American regional barbecue styles, including Kentucky’s mutton tradition and the ribs and ribs tips cooked in aquarium smokers on the south side of Chicago.
Second, I added an entirely new chapter that covers everything that has happened in the barbecue world since 2010, which has been a lot. Amazingly, the first edition of the book had already been sent to the press when Aaron Franklin opened his first barbecue trailer on the side of Interstate 35 in Austin, Texas. The explosion of what many now call “craft barbecue” all happened after that, so I added a full chapter to just bring the story up to today.
SR: You show us how barbecue has been woven into the fabric of American culture since the arrival of the first Europeans in the New World and long before. How does barbecue make us American and how have Americans influenced live fire cooking?
RM: It’s amazing how many aspects of American life have intersected with barbecue over the years—the Fourth of July, elections and politics, building the railroads, the Temperance movement and civic reforms, the settling of the West, fighting wars, and so much more. From the beginning barbecues have been where Americans came together to celebrate, enjoy each other’s company, advance important causes, and build community. It’s truly the one food tradition that is most firmly intertwined with the notion of what being an American is.
SR: At this point, it’s common knowledge that our term barbecue comes from the Taino Indian word barbacoa—a sort of grill made of sticks and logs and positioned over a fire—and that the word first appeared in print in 1526 in a book called Natural History of the West Indies, written by one Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes. By the 18th century, barbecues were a popular pastime in Colonial America. I’ve always been puzzled by the “missing link.” What’s the first mention of the term “barbecue” in what would become the United States and how did barbecue get from the Caribbean to here?
RM: Like a lot of things in culinary history, the answer to this one is that we just don’t know for certain. In 1585, Thomas Hariot, a member of Sir Walter Raleigh’s failed Roanoke Island colony, recorded the Native Americans there broiling their fish in a manner similar to what de Oviedo y Valdes observed in Central America, but he didn’t use the term “barbecue” to describe it.
More than a century later, in 1705, Robert Beverley wrote in The History of Virginia that local tribes broiled meat by “laying it upon sticks raised upon forks at some distance above the live coals . . . this they, and we also from them, call barbecuing.” Somewhere in between, British colonists began cooking pigs and other animals in a similar fashion and using the word barbecue to describe it. By the 1730s there are numerous references in colonial diaries and newspapers to events called “barbecues,” and it quickly became an entrenched part of the social life of the American colonies.
It’s an open question whether British colonists and/or their enslaved African workers developed the practice in the Caribbean and then brought it to the mainland or whether it evolved separately in the American colonies. How much of the technique was borrowed from Native American cooking practices (versus just taking the word) is also a subject of much debate among historians. The closest answer I can give is that sometime in the 17th century, there was an intersection of Native American, European, and African American food cultures in the Caribbean and on the North American mainland, and out of that intersection a new form of American cooking called barbecue emerged by the early 1700s.
SR: Following up on that previous question: Barbacoa originated in the Caribbean—a region that served as the jumping off point for the colonization of every country in North and South America. Why did barbecue experience its fullest flowering here and not elsewhere?
RM: Again, that one’s a little hard to answer with certainty. My theory is that barbecue took root especially firmly in the colony of Virginia because, first, the colonists who settled the Tidewater came from southwest and western England, where there was a deep-rooted culture of roasting and broiling and feasting was vital part of the cultural life. Also, Virginia had lots of pigs, which were a natural fit for the barbecue pit. Early on, a “barbecue day”—that is, a day of feasting and recreation with a barbecue at its center—became a key part of Virginians’ social calendar, and the practice remained very rooted in the culture after that.
SR: Most of us learn that the American Revolution began with the Boston Tea Party, but you cite an earlier event involving barbecue. Tell us about it.
RM: My friend William McKinney has been lobbying the North Carolina legislature (unsuccessfully, so far) to declare the “New Hanover Barbecue” to be an official state holiday.
It would commemorate an event in 1766 in New Hanover, North Carolina, that occurred at a time of high tensions over the recently passed Stamp Act. It started when several militia companies from nearby counties marched to the town of Brunswick and refused to allow a cargo of stamped paper be brought ashore. At the next militia muster a few weeks later in New Hanover, an alarmed Governor William Tryon tried to placate the troops by treating them to a whole barbecued ox and several barrels of beer. When called to the feast, the soldiers mocked Tryon’s gesture, poured the beer onto the ground, and pitched the ox into the Cape Fear River.
This was seven years before those Yankees dressed up like Mohawk warriors and dumped a few chests of tea into Boston harbor, and wouldn’t a giant barbecue be much better than a boring tea party for commemorating colonists’ protests against taxation without representation?
SR: In the book, you bring to life many of the forgotten heroes of American barbecue. Tell us about some of the more colorful characters you encountered in your research.
RM: One of the most colorful characters is certainly John W. Callaway, the famous 300-pound “barbecuing sheriff” of Wilkes County, Georgia, who became famous across the country for cooking massive outdoor barbecues. Though Callaway was a showman who knew how to wow the crowds (and, especially, Northern reporters visiting Georgia), the one actually leading the cooking at the pits was an African American man named Henry Pettus, who worked for Callaway. In the new edition of the book I was able to dig up some more of Pettus’s story and add it to the narrative.
I also tell for the first time the story of two famous barbecue cooks in Augusta, Georgia, Gus Ferguson and Pickens Wells, who became famous for the barbecues they staged between the 1880s and the early 20th century. Wells prepared the barbecue for President-elect William Howard Taft when he visited Augusta in 1909, and Taft so enjoyed the meal that he took a tour of the pits after dinner and complimented Wells on his cooking.
Other notable characters include Henry Perry, the first barbecue king of Kansas City who trained an entire generation of pitmasters who followed, and John Mills, the Memphis rib king, who in the 1930s started shipping his ribs via air mail to loyal customers, many of them Hollywood celebrities.
SR: How important was the African American contribution to American barbecue?
RM: Immense. As the book details, African American were doing the cooking at almost all of the early barbecues in the 19th century, and they passed down their techniques and recipes from one generation to the next. During the early 20th century, many of the first restaurateurs were African American, and they helped define and disseminate what later became America’s great regional barbecue styles. Whether you are talking Houston, Chicago, Memphis, or Kansas City, African American restaurateurs were instrumental in defining each city’s signature barbecue style.
SR: One fact I found mind-boggling was the sheer size of 19th century American barbecues. Tell us about the largest barbecue you’ve discovered. How did so much food get cooked and served in an age without refrigeration, golf carts, or walkie talkies?
RM: There are at least two contenders for the largest barbecue in American history, since those events were free to all comers and newspaper reporters had to estimate the attendance. In 1895, the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization for veterans of the Union army, staged its annual National Encampment and invited veterans from the Confederate Army for a gathering with reconciliation as the theme. Well over 100,000 veterans and their guests attended, and the famed Kentucky barbecuer Gus Jaubert led a team of 350 cooks as they roasted 45 beeves, 383 sheep, and 241 pigs and made 12,000 gallons of burgoo, Kentucky’s iconic barbecue stew.
A quarter century later, in 1922, the populist politician Jack Walton was elected governor of Oklahoma and decided to stage an old-fashioned barbecue for his inauguration and invite the entire state. It was held at the state fairgrounds, and Oklahoma farmers contributed thousands of cows, hogs, sheep, and chickens as well as 103 turkeys, 1,363 rabbits, 26 squirrels, 134 opossums, 113 geese, 15 deer, 2 buffalo, and 2 reindeer shipped in from up north. These were cooked on six parallel trenches in the ground that stretched almost a mile in total. The Dallas Morning News considered 100,000 attendees to be “a conservative estimate,” so it might have been larger than the Grand Army of the Republic event.
How they pulled it out without golf carts and walkie talkies, I have no idea!
SR: How has American barbecue evolved in the last three centuries.
RM: That’s a book length topic! But, to sum it up by century, barbecue in the 18th century was a popular social event in the American colonies—a small, outdoor form of feasting and celebration. In the 19th century it evolved into a large-scale civic institution, drawing thousands of people together for massive, free outdoor celebrations that knit entire communities together. It also spread southward from Virginia and then westward across the United States as the country expanded, with settlers taking it all the way to the Pacific Coast and making it truly a national tradition.
In the 20th century barbecue became commercialized, and the rise of barbecue stands and then barbecue restaurants transformed the techniques from large-scale, outdoor feasts to more regular, small-scale daily operations. In the process, the now-beloved American regional styles—the type of meats, the sauces, the side dishes—were codified, as restaurateurs standardized their operations and taught their methods to the next generation.
Finally, here in the 21st century, we are enjoying a remarkable resurgence of barbecue after it declined and almost faded out in the 1970s and 1980s. The rise of neo-traditionalist or “craft” barbecue, a return to all-wood cooking, and a fusion of traditional techniques with flavors from around the world are all part of this flowering. American barbecue is also taking the world by storm, as people around the globe are organizing barbecue competitions and opening American-style barbecue restaurants.
I can’t wait to see where it goes next.
Robert F. Moss is a food writer and culinary historian living in Charleston, South Carolina. He is the contributing barbecue editor for Southern Living, the restaurant critic for the Charleston City Paper, and frequent contributor to publications like Serious Eats, Saveur, The Local Palate, Early American Life, and Garden & Gun.