The pig has always been an important staple food in the South. Fatback, bacon, and lard season most traditionally prepared vegetables, and pork in some form or another appears on most Southern tables. The cultural importance of barbecue in Southern foodways, however, lies preeminently in its roots in festival and social ritual. The rites and customs which surround the preparation and consumption of barbecue today have roots in the cultural history of the South, with implications for traditional views of race relations, sex roles, and the formation of social relationships in the South. Decisions about food support political and social opportunities (Douglas 30), and the persistence of regional foodways in the South is a good way to examine the nature of the region.
The food preferences of the South have persisted from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries into the twentieth century to a remarkable degree (Hilliard 95). One historian speculates that the slow-cooking method of barbecue stems from a long tradition of general slowness in the South, (Bass 311), and maybe that is the reason that the South has been slow to abandon its traditional foodways. Other theories include the relative poverty of the South compared to the rest of the region, and a resulting reliance on familiar (and easily and cheaply procured) foods. Slow-cooking methods can transform tough and stringy meats and vegetables into delicious meals, and canning and preserving bountiful summer foodstuffs is an economical Southern custom. Cooking with pork adds flavor without expensive seasoning. The Depression which enveloped the United States in the mid-twentieth century was nothing new for most Southerners-- poverty was a way of life for many Southerners long before it affected the rest of the country.
Another reason for the strong tradition inherent in Southern cooking is the emphasis on tradition in most aspects of Southern culture. Most Southerners are proud of their traditions-- for hospitality, for strong family ties, and for a lavishly laid table. John Egerton expresses this beautifully in the preface to his book on Southern food:
For as long as there has been a South, and people who think of themselves as Southerners, food has been central to the region's image, its personality and its character . . . . Accents and attitudes and life-styles may change, but fondness for Southern food persists; for many people it lingers in the mind and on the tongue as vividly as the tantalizing aroma of barbecue on the pit hangs in the air and penetrates to the core of thought and remembrance(2).The specific foodways imposed on the South by a combination of geographical isolation and economic privation have continued into the twentieth century not only because of the persistence of these two factors, but because to many Southerners, these foods bespeak home, family and regional identity. Simmering vegetables for hours on the back of the stove made sense in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries-- the stove was already lit, and the cook could tend to her many other chores without worrying about the greens and fatback (or butter beans or stewed corn or other vegetables). They would peacefully simmer at low heat, and would provide a meal (along with some biscuits or cornbread) when her other chores were finished. Today, this method is not convenient, but it persists. When Georgia Brown's, a restaurant specializing in Southern food in Washington D.C., started serving collard greens that were cooked quickly to retain crispness and nutrients, patrons complained. Now, the restaurant serves collards both ways. Obviously, convenience is not the main factor in food preparation in the South anymore-- memory and tradition dictate some food choices.
When considering barbecue, tradition is particularly important. Barbecue is not easy to prepare-- it requires hours of tending a hot smoky fire, and vigilant monitoring of the roasting meat. Few people would choose to spend their time in a covered shack, inundated with smoke (especially during the blazing summers of the South). But barbecue endures. Despite encroaching health regulations, despite inconvenience, and despite the prevalence of fast food restaurants all over the country, people still eat barbecue, and "pit men" still hone their craft.
The "pit men" who painstakingly tend the fire and smoke the meat that becomes barbecue are usually older black men, sometimes moonlighting from day jobs as farmers or agricultural workers (Zobel 61). Unlike most food preparation in the South, which is dominated by women, barbecue is a male preserve (Douglas 123). According to John Egerton's masterful treatment of Southern Food, "the South's great barbecue tradition is in large measure a cultural gift from black men" (253). Perfecting a method first delegated to slaves, the South's great barbecue cooks are passing on a tradition with roots deep in the antebellum South. In the twentieth century, many pits are operated by black men, but the tradition has definitely been integrated. In my (white) South Carolina family, a Christmas tradition has all of the men staying up all night, tending the fire and basting the pig with a mustard-based sauce. Strictly off-limits to women, the men swap stories and drink Southern Comfort until the barbecue is done. Then, we all feast.
Barbecue is one way to cling to Southern foodways for younger Southerners. At many Southern universities, social functions often take the form of "pig pickin's." Fraternities and other social organizations provide beer and barbecue to hordes of college students. A barbecue is a trendy way to entertain members and peers.
This phenomenon is one manfestation of the tendency of Southerners to cherish those aspects of the South that defy the traditions of the rest of the United States. When choosing a mascot for an entire region, few people would choose the hog no offense to the Arkansas Razorbacks). Barbecue, like the recent "chic" of the redneck, embraces the humble origins of Southern foodways. In the South, there is often a tendency to glorify defeat and privation, and this is amply demonstrated in the popularity of barbecue. Pigs are smelly, slothful, and unattractive, but pigs are Southern.