This week, Fox News caused a justifiable uproar within the barbecue community with a piece titled “The Most Influential BBQ Pitmasters and Personalities.” While no one would deny that inductees Aaron Franklin and Daniel Vaughn played crucial roles in the upswing of barbecue over the past five years, the glaring omissions were obvious: not a single African American was nominated.
Our friends at Grub Street tipped us off to the immediate online maelstrom, which saw Texas Monthly BBQ editor Daniel Vaughn and author John T. Edge taking to Twitter to voice their disgust.
While the lack of black pitmasters is unnerving, it is symptomatic of a broader disconnect between mainstream media and real BBQ culture.
Every time I read that list, I get pissed again. Racist by omission, indefensible lack of cultural knowledge https://t.co/VzOM90f1dV
— John T Edge (@johntedge) August 6, 2015
“If anything, both in etymology and culinary technique, barbecue is as African as it is Native American and European, though enslaved Africans have largely been erased from the modern story of American barbecue,” wrote Michael Twitty in an essay that appeared in The Guardian.
Who deserved to be on the list, and what does this controvery say about the ‘cue scene at large? To try and make sense of it all, we reached out to a handful of experts to share their opinions.
Michael Twitty, author and founder of Afroculinaria: “Barbecue has gone the way of the banjo. It’s been the victim of a revisionist history that posits BBQs origins with cavemen, somehow leading to the Bubba’s of the upper middle class. It’s critical to this sort of culinary gentrification that Black narratives, experts, and artisans are bled out of the brand. It’s also a myopic narrative that avoids having to answer tough questions about the history and future of food vis-à-vis the problem of the color line. It was also on Fox News’ website. That says a lot.”
Jim Shahin, “Smoke Signals” columnist at The Washington Post: “African American pitmasters throughout history have not received their due. In the early days of the country they did the cooking for civic events and parties hosted by plantation owners. In the commercial restaurant businesses of the 20th century, many barbecue joints were owned by whites but had blacks doing the cooking. It is still not uncommon.
Some black pitmasters who are turning out phenomenal barbecue and having an impact on their communities include Rodney Scott of Scott’s Barbecue in Hemingway, South Carolina; Stephen Grady of Grady’s BBQ in Dudley, North Carolina; Helen Turner of Helen’s BBQ in Brownsville, Tennessee; Ed Mitchell (currently between restaurants) of North Carolina; Desiree Robinson of Cozy Corner/Encore Cafe in Memphis; Bobby Ellis of the Rendezvous in Memphis; the Paynes of Payne BBQ in Memphis; and Ollie Gates, who, while not a pitmaster, owns the chain of Gates B-B-Q restaurants in Kansas City.
The thing about lists is that they provide a starting point for audience engagement. But a good list needs to go beyond media-generated hype and personal knowledge. It should have some research behind it. There is not a person on the Fox list who isn’t deserving of acknowledgement, but others should be included, most notably, persons of color. To not be more diverse is not only to deny the reality of the contributions of black pitmasters but to continue a long and bad tradition.“
Adrian Miller, James Beard Award-winning author of Soul Food: “The main problem that I have aside from the lack of diversity is that it skews heavily towards competitive-barbecue personalities. For a number of reasons (primarily a lack of financial resources and the ability to take extended periods of time of work), you don’t see a lot of African Americans competing.
- Ed Mitchell—a legend in whole-hog cooking. He’s consulted barbecue restaurants and is a founding pitmaster of the Big Apple Block Party.
- Rodney Scott—operating a small whole-hog cooking joint in Hemingway, SC. Along with Mitchell, he’s one of the few practicing this type of cooking and he’s doing it at a restaurant.
- Dave Anderson—a Native American who opened his first barbecue restaurant in Wisconsin in the mid-1990s. Since then, Famous Dave’s has grown to more than 180 restaurants in 33 states, Puerto Rico, and Canada.
- Mo Cason—if you’re going to heavily factor competitive-barbecue experience, Mo Cason has made it into the club. He’s had some success on the competitive circuit, and has appeared on popular TV shows like BBQ Pitmasters.
How does this happen? My sense is that the people who create this list don’t take the time or have the resources to fully investigate who’s doing what in barbecue. So they rely on previously generated buzz (mainly from publicists) to determine their list. If you don’t have a diverse circle of people to consult, and you don’t want to make the effort, lists like the one from Fox News are inevitable.
This problem exists with mainstream and liberal media outlets as well. Look at the barbecue-themed shows that have been on the Food Network and there have been very few or no African Americans. Same with newspapers and magazines that do grilling/BBQ specials in May (National Barbecue Month) and June. Also, the first two inductee classes of the Barbecue Hall of Fame were all white, and they even included posthumous inductees. Still couldn’t find an African American! Again, I wouldn’t say the folks who do this stuff are racist. It’s more that they live in a bubble or they are lazy.
Wright Thompson, senior writer at ESPN.com: “Rodney Scott is the best there is. Competition barbecue is to barbecue as Kenny Chesney is to Laird Hamilton.”
“America’s most influential [white] BBQ pitmasters…” I’m on the list, but not Henry Perry? Child please. http://t.co/m0WKepIgRc
— Daniel Vaughn (@BBQsnob) July 29, 2015