When Pigs Fly

Guides, reviews, histories, and travel tales from the barbecue trail.

Book Review: 'Barbecue: The History of an American Institution'

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Barbecue -- The History of an American Institution, by Robert F. Moss. [Images courtesy of the University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.]

If you've ever wanted to know why American barbecue matters, Robert Moss' new book on the subject is nothing short of essential. Documenting its subject from pre-Republic times to the present day, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution is an accessible foray into culinary evolution.

It's no coincidence that Moss is referred to as a "food historian" and wrote this book with the help of the University of Alabama. The power of Barbecue comes from its use of primary sources to piece together a complete accounting of a food known for its ability to attract controversy.

In the process, Moss shatters several myths of barbecue—myths so dominant that they've come to define the food in American culture.

For example...

Myth: Barbecue is an Invention of the American South

While the proliferation of barbecue is intertwined with the history of southern states, Moss points out that this cooking style originally drew heavily from native American practices and took root as an American food in New England and the Mid-Atlantic colonies before storming the South and indelibly moving westward.

In tracing the evolution of community barbecues from the pre-Revolutionary period, he clarifies the act of assimilation that lies at its heart. In tracking the evidence of barbecue's spread, he reminds readers of its omnipresence, noting the importance of the West, the railroad era, the romanticizing of "the old South" and the rise of the fast food industry on equal terms. Not content to brand this food as an unalienable birthright, Moss recognizes that it is fundamentally tied to the art of reinvention.

Myth: Barbecue Has Always Been a Regional Food

It's highly arguable that barbecue's apex lies in its regional specialization. Every trumpeting of barbecue these days seems to respect the food's diversity -- just take a look at New York's Big Apple Block Party.

Still, narratives of the food too often lapse into rigid statements like, "There are four capitals of American barbecue," and "In Texas, barbecue is beef, not pork" (even I'm guilty of having fallen back on one of these tropes as a barbecue ambassador).

In fact, regional specialties in barbecue did not rise to prominence until the early 20th century. In pre-Republic, antebellum, and industrial America, barbecues were community events that served whatever meats the community could muster. Goats, oxen and squirrels were smoked alongside hogs and cattle at barbecues throughout the nation long before Memphis dry rub, Kansas City burnt ends and central Texan brisket came to embody the craft.

Like any regional food, barbecue's development was shaped by economic incentives and local conditions. By focusing on these factors, Moss demonstrates how the financial need for consistency and the spread of barbecue through an apprentice system gave birth to regional styles.

Myth: Backyard Barbecue Is Not "Real" Barbecue

I've hinted before in this column that backyard grilling is an offshoot of more traditional American barbecue. While die-hards deny that the definition of barbecue can go both ways, popular ownership of the word is of another mind.

Moss devotes an entire chapter to the connections between whole hog smoking and backyard burgers. His investigation uncovers when magazines sparked the spread of "barbecue" as an all-purpose term for cooking outdoors, illustrates the reasons why families were so eager to embrace the barbecue lifestyle, and explains how California played a pivotal part in redefining the word for the American populace. Even if his work is not enough to convince strict-constructionist stalwarts, it honestly engages a question that most barbecue books are content to shrug off as a distraction from their preferred narrative.

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The menu at McDonald's Famous Bar-B-Q, circa 1943.

Barbecue Is a Story, Not a Recipe

For all the emphasis this review places on the academic glory of barbecue, Moss' book is not a thesis. Peppered with eye-opening clippings (did you know that the McDonald's menu once offered barbecue sandwiches?) and amusing anecdotes (including the tale of a Prohibition-boosting priest tricking hordes of liquor-loving Texans into attending an alcohol-free barbecue), it unravels a yarn that is as entertaining as it is informative.

Most importantly, this book once and for all replaces the repetitive talking points of television, magazines and lesser books with an engrossing set of well-researched stories. Drawing from ten years of research and a journalist's sense of style, Moss uses the smoking pit to highlight intersecting narratives in the history of the United States. His work examines barbecue as a reflection of its times and elevates this topic to a level that is truly and tastefully educational.

About the author: James Boo has been a Serious Eats contributor since 2010. Working as a freelance journalist, he is also the founder of Real Cheap Eats and a documentarian. Check out his food-and-travel blog, The Eaten Path, for more journeys to the real meal.

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