Pomp and Pride: The History of American Barbecue and Independence Day

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to party, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the cause which impels them to get lit. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all pork is created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain edible bites, that among them are chops, ribs, and thinly-sliced slivers of bacon. 

The History of Independence Day

But seriously, festivities and merrymaking are built into the cobbled and mythologized foundations of the history of the Fourth of July. The truth concerning the drafting and ratification of the Declaration of Independence is deeply complicated and has only been made more complex through the history of its yearly celebration. For example, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife on the 3rd of July, expressing his excitement about the most recent session of the Second Continental Congress:

“The second day of July 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.”

Adams suggested the 2nd of July because he and the rest of the Committee of Five had just voted to approve a resolution of independence and began a draft of its declaration. Ironically, a strongly worded passage written by Thomas Jefferson condemning the Transatlantic Slave Trade caused arguments over its removal and a new slate of revisions. The debate, which resulted in the colonies’ continued support of the slave trade, forestalled the declaration’s final approval until the 4th. In another confusing twist of fate, the Declaration wasn’t signed by all of the signatories until the 2nd of August. It just so happens that the only date printed on the first copies of the Declaration, which went out to thousands of colonists, was July the 4th. So it goes.

In late 18th century New England, Independence Day was associated with 13 gun salutes, fireworks, and food; more specifically, “Turtle soup, poached Atlantic salmon in egg sauce, green peas, and new potatoes in jackets.” But that apocryphal recipe, often attributed to Abigail Adams, would sound as strange to many citizens of the American Colonies as it does to us. When Adams suggested that the Anniversary of American independence be celebrated as a “great festival” with “games, sports, [and] bonfires,” it was only natural that the tradition of barbecue, embraced by the colonists and improved by slaves, would become an aspect of that tradition. The fact is that the history and tradition of barbecue in America is older, and some would argue (not me, of course) more valuable than the Boston Tea Party.

The History of Barbecue

While the concept of barbecue existed in other cultures around the world, its closest proximity to American English was from the Tainos in the Caribbean. They would use “barbecues” for everything from sleeping to roasting meat and drying corn. Barbecue is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary primarily as “a rude wooden framework.” The word is inspired by the Taino word barbacoa, which seemed to the colonizers to mean a flat platform because the Taino would lay bedding across that wooden framework and sleep on it. But they came to learn that the term was used with a wide versatility which included a simple but effective cooking practice.

Crude representation of indigenous Taino people cooking fish on barbecue.

Spanish and English colonists, who were familiar with broiling and roasting meat, adopted the practice readily. It is likely that enslaved people from Africa on their way to the American mainland, temporarily held on Caribbean islands, would have learned the practice from enslaved Tainos and taught it to their descendants. 

By the 19th century, Americans had fully adopted barbecue and made it a process of trench cooking. For many historians, the move from a raised wooden framework to short racks set over shallow trenches is highly indicative of the kind of cooking enslaved African Americans tended to favor. If true, this would mean that African Americans were largely responsible for the popularization of modern barbecue in America despite by and large being excluded from the social elements of barbecue as both a cooking practice and a social event.  

Historians and culinary experts agree that barbecues became famous in America as social events mainly because of the availability and ease of domestication of pigs. Pigs are perfect for barbeque because they can be easily roasted whole and served to large crowds. After the revolution, barbeques in the American north were often family affairs, distinguishing them from southern barbeques. For one reason or another, there was often a lot of drinking at Carolinian and Georgian barbecues, which often led to foul language, feisty behavior, and physical altercations, which, in turn, kept families away. The social, yet white male-dominated nature of the events made it so that politics eventually became intertwined.

Patriotic Hypocrisy

Unfortunately, barbecues and Independence Day are also linked by similar hypocrisy. As the first American colonists celebrated their independence from England, enslaved black and African people were being held in abject captivity. It wouldn’t be until nearly 100 years later that black men could vote, and another 50 years until black and white women could legally cast a ballot; all the while indigenous Native people were forcefully moved and submitted to a genocide. 

An abolitionist, journalist, polemicist, and former slave by the name of Frederick Douglass, spoke at length about this central hypocrisy and its various effects on the body politique. Douglass delivered a speech in 1852 to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society on July 5th wherein he asked the question “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” He began the speech hesitantly but drew the audience into his predicament by mirroring their beliefs:

“This, for the purpose of this celebration, is the 4th of July. It is the birthday of your National Independence, and of your political freedom. This, to you, is what the Passover was to the emancipated people of God. It carries your minds back to the day, and to the act of your great deliverance; and to the signs, and to the wonders, associated with that act, and that day.”

You’ll notice here that Douglass was speaking in the second person, directing all of the sentiments toward his audience and steadily alienating himself from them.  Douglass spent plenty of time elucidating on the necessity for revolution by the audience’s forefathers, priming their sense of righteousness and pride, before coming to this point:

“Fellow citizens, pardon me, allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? “

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Frederick Douglass at the age of 62

In a non-trivial way, enslaved African American’s disenfranchisement in society was linked to their exclusion from social spaces like barbecues. Sure, it’s ironic that enslaved people helped create both the foundations of American liberty and the practices of American barbecue, yet were left out of the fruitful results of those institutions for generations. But more fundamentally, the exclusion of black enslaved people from social events, such as Independence Day barbecues, justified and promulgated the despicable racist beliefs which upheld American slavery and created the policies of Jim Crow. Douglass eventually returns to the structure of his opening remarks where he contrasts the audience’s associations with his own: 

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy…”

Patriotic Healing

As a society, we have certainly come a long way. Douglass’ final words on the subject prophesied our assent from moral madness. He said that “notwithstanding the dark picture” he painted in the second half of his speech, he “does not despair of this country.” He defied the southern states to present “a single pro-slavery clause” in the Constitution and held that “it will be found to contain principles and purposes entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.” He remembered a time when “long-established customs of hurtful character” could easily oppress those they despised but said that “a change” was coming over society.

Indeed, a change did come, and its effects rippled out to the institution of barbecue, as well. Adrian Miller, author of Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States Barbecue, explains in an interview with Flatland that “African Americans emerged from slavery with a competitive advantage,” having been the bearers and pioneers of the cooking practice before their emancipation. Starting barbecue restaurants in urban centers (where many African Americans fled after the backlash following attempts at Reconstruction) required immense capital, but American banks were unwilling to loan to black people. As a recourse, many African Americans turned to community credit and loaning systems to find the necessary capital investments to start their businesses. Over time, barbecue spread over the south and began to take on each region’s preferred ingredients and seasoning. While barbecue in America seems to have started in Virginia, there are four distinctive styles stemming from extremely popular southern recipes, all of which were created, perfected, and often recorded by African Americans: the Carolinas, Memphis, Kansas City, and Texas.

Chicken and Pork being cooked over a traditional trench barbecue. Credit for picture and project goes to Michael Twitty and his Afroculinaria blog.

Carolina barbecue is one of the oldest and most traditional styles, consisting almost exclusively of pork (whether pulled, shredded, or chopped), covered with a vinegar and spice mop or pepper spice rub, and cooked over a hardwood such as oak. The Memphis style is defined by its “wet” or “dry” ribs, which are either mopped or covered in a rub, respectively and its inclusion of barbecue sandwiches usually just pulled pork on a simple bun served with a sauce and coleslaw. Barbecue was brought from Memphis to Kansas City by African American businessman Henry Perry. The meat, which can be anything from pork to beef and lamb, is typically covered in a rub before being smoked and served with a tableside tomato-based sauce and, the region’s signature, French fries. Texas barbecue varies widely due to the inclusion of Mexican and other Latin American foodways and the use of goat and mutton aside from beef. Cowboy-style barbecue involves cooking the meat directly over mesquite wood. 

As a historian, author, and James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Twitty would say, “Barbecue is not just people roasting meat on a fire.” As the first Revolutionary in Residence at Colonial Williamsburg in 2017, Twitty recreated the traditional trench barbecue-style pictured above. During Twitty’s work as a Resident Revolutionary and educator, he spoke about what it meant to interpret this history for those who visit Colonial Williamsburg. For Michael, “it’s not just black history, it’s American history.” He says that on a certain level, it’s about “our unique past” as individuals, but, perhaps more importantly, “it’s a part of our national story.”

However you want to cook it, barbecue is an American tradition. Its relationship to Independence Day is an enduring practice that is multifaceted and deeply imbued with political and cultural meaning. And much like barbecue, Independence Day has taken on regional and subcultural meanings across the country. Each new Fourth of July has a personal meaning for all of us as modern people. For me, this year means collaboration, communion, struggle, and, eventually, reification. Find out what it means for you and your community, and have a wonderful Independence day weekend!