What does the National Museum of African American History and Culture have to say about barbecue, and why does it matter?
Since the museum opened in September, I, like so many other visitors, have found the experience moving and important. But when I made my way to the Cultural Expressions exhibition, which includes a section on food, I couldn’t help wondering, why no barbecue? Along with a little information about Africa, the tiny food exhibit features oysters, red beans and rice, greens and black chefs. There are no photos of pitmasters. No bricks from an important pit. No acknowledgment of the role African Americans have played in creating and defining what might be called America’s Cuisine.
If there is a story that courses through America’s veins, from before the establishment of the nation through slavery and into modern times, touching on politics, entrepreneurialism, social life and the transition from agricultural to urban living, it is the one told by barbecue. When I asked curator Joanne Hyppolite about the omission, she said, “There’s only a finite amount of space, so you could only tell so many stories.”
She pointed me to the museum’s Sweet Home Cafe, saying it functions as an extension of the museum, with food telling stories about the African American experience. Indeed, I have eaten the oxtail, the oyster pan roast, the gumbo and the fried chicken and enjoyed them all. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the barbecue. But it’s not the quality itself that concerns me. It’s the stories, which strike me as more confusing than enlightening.
Take the Lexington Style BBQ Pork sandwich with coleslaw and pickled okra. The pork is suffused with a sweet sauce unlike anything for which Lexington, N.C., is known. The coleslaw is mayonnaise-based, which is characteristic of the eastern side of the state. Lexington is in the central-west part of the state, and its style is defined, in part, by “red slaw,” chopped cabbage in a thin ketchup-inflected vinegar and pepper dressing. There is nothing particularly Lexington about this sandwich or slaw. Why identify it as such?
The sandwich is offered in the Agricultural South region of the 400-seat, cafeteria-style restaurant. It is one of four regions represented, the others being the Creole Coast, the North States and the Western Range.
Cold-smoked chicken with Alabama white sauce represents the barbecue offering in the Creole Coast region. The sauce was developed in 1925 by a white entrepreneur named Big Bob Gibson. If the idea is to showcase African American contributions, why such prominence to a condiment created by a white guy?
In the Western Range, the barbecue consists of a buffalo brisket sandwich on a brioche bun with charred-peach-and-jalapeño chutney. Never mind that, in traditional barbecue circles, rarely is heard the word chutney. Why buffalo and not beef, as is common throughout Texas, which would seem to fit within the Western geography? (As it happens, the buffalo, though still on the menu, has been replaced, for now, by beef because the cafe couldn’t procure sufficient amounts of buffalo with the proper marbling.)
In the North States, there’s no barbecue at all, a lost opportunity. Chicago’s rib tips could be included as a representation of a specific style that tells the story of the Great Migration of African Americans from the South, especially from Mississippi and Arkansas, where many found work in the city’s slaughterhouses.
And why no ribs, which may be the most emblematic barbecue meat of them all?
The answer to that last question is easy. “We just don’t have enough space in the Cookshack,” says Albert Lukas, a supervising chef, referring to the electric oven enhanced with a box for adding wood chips and chunks. Lukas is with Restaurant Associates, which operates the cafe with Thompson Hospitality, the country’s largest minority-owned food service company. Ribs, he said, might be served this summer.
Lukas oversees the operation with executive chef Jerome Grant, who came to Sweet Home from the acclaimed Mitsitam Cafe at the National Museum of the American Indian. Together, they say, they view their mission not necessarily as serving food in traditional ways, but extending the traditions to show the adaptability of African American culinary techniques and flavors.
“I want to take the traditional methods and innovate and modernize them,” Grant says. “I look at African American food as American food. Whether slaves or indentured servants, we were the ones doing the cooking. To say there is one specific genre, I don’t look at it that way because the diaspora was so long. We’re adding to the story.”
There is no question that Grant and Lukas face a daunting challenge. What is traditional in, say, collards? Ham hock? Turkey neck? No meat?
“The biggest complaint we get,” says Grant, “is, ‘My mama didn’t make it like that.’ ”
But an accepted version of a dish is different than a makeover. At Sweet Home, the fried chicken is served with two sides, such as mac ’n’ cheese and collards (with chicken broth, but no meat, incidentally). Traditional. The gumbo is served over rice — not, say, polenta. Traditional. Even with a little Heinz chili sauce, the Thomas Downing oyster pan roast, named for a popular black chef in New York whose basement served as part of the Underground Railroad, adheres to what Lukas told Smithsonian magazine is “an iconic New York dish.” Traditional, or something close to it.
The barbecue, conversely, is loosened from its moorings. The mash-up of ingredients subverts regional or historical context. In so doing, it doesn’t extend tradition. It dismisses tradition. And, perhaps more importantly, context. That is why the treatment of barbecue is important. Its story is the American story.
“I think barbecue plays a very central role” in defining American cookery, says Adrian Miller, author of “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.” “I firmly believe that African Americans were the first ambassadors of barbecue across the country,” he says. “Go back to the historical record and a lot of the barbecues were cooked by an African American pitmaster.”
When I interviewed her last year, Jessica B. Harris told me, “Barbecue has become totemic.” Harris is the author most recently of “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America” and an expert on the foods of the African diaspora. “The trick with barbecue, it’s a noun, verb and adjective. That in and of itself gives it extraordinary power. It’s imprinted indelibly on our collective consciousness.”
Harris served as a consultant to the museum and supplied a white paper that helped provide the concept of the cafe’s regional approach, but didn’t develop the recipes.
“It [barbecue] needs to be in the museum,” she said. “It was definitely a part of the cafe.”
Grant understands that barbecue is a valuable African American culinary contribution, but he approaches it with considerably more creativity than the other dishes on the menu. He says that, to him, barbecue is more about picnics or backyard gatherings.
That’s fine, but unlike with the fried chicken and the oysters, I’d say, the cafe’s treatment of barbecue does not articulate a clear story. It doesn’t make sense of the evolving nature of barbecue, or help put it in historical or contemporary perspective. If the cafe is going to provide regions, then one expects from this most regional of cuisines that it communicate the same thing as the other dishes: a deeper appreciation for that food’s relationship to culture.
Miller told me he thinks the cafe does “a fantastic job of displaying the regions,” and he likes the “good mix of old and new.” But when it comes to barbecue, he said, “I think they have to stay true to the tradition. That’s the last taste of black history people are going to get at the museum.”
Miller suggested that the cafe could perhaps provide a brochure or a place mat that provides some educational commentary.
Not a bad idea. I hope that, in two years from its opening, when the food exhibit will change, the museum also adds something about barbecue, given its unrivaled place in the story of African Americans. And that, in the meantime, the cafe works on telling that story more clearly.
Shahin is an associate professor of journalism at Syracuse University. He will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jimshahin.