You have reached your limit of free articles this month.

Enjoy unlimited access to myDaytonDailyNews.com

Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks.

GREAT REASONS TO SUBSCRIBE TODAY!

  • IN-DEPTH REPORTING
  • INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING
  • NEW TOPICS & COVERAGE
  • ePAPER
X

You have read of premium articles.

Get unlimited access to all of our breaking news, in-depth coverage and bonus content- exclusively for subscribers. Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks

X

Welcome to myDaytonDailyNews.com

This subscriber-only site gives you exclusive access to breaking news, in-depth coverage, exclusive interactives and bonus content.

You can read free articles of your choice a month that are only available on myDaytonDailyNews.com.

breaking news

Dayton man accused of trying to join ISIS in Syria

Barbecue's history merits befitting exhibit


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, North Carolina, 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.


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Food & Dining

This Century bartender shares her ideal last meal
This Century bartender shares her ideal last meal

They say “you are what you eat,” and I tend to agree that what you choose to eat says a lot about who you are.  At a dinner party, when everyone’s sated and could not eat another bite, I like to bring up my favorite topic: food. Always more food. When I’m trying to get to know someone new, I always like to find out what...
The single most important ingredient
The single most important ingredient

This article is excerpted from “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking” by Samin Nosrat (Simon & Schuster, 2017).; (ART ADV: With photos XNYT43-46.) Growing up, I thought salt belonged in a shaker at the table, and nowhere else. I never added it to food, or saw Maman add it. When my aunt Ziba sprinkled it onto her...
Everything’s up to date (for 1958, that is)
Everything’s up to date (for 1958, that is)

Forget the famous power lunch. For the time being, forget about any lunch at all in the rooms that used to house the Four Seasons. When the Grill, the first of two new restaurants in the Seagram Building space, opens to the public next week, it will serve only dinner. Jeff Zalaznick, a partner in Major Food Group, which now runs the restaurant complex...
Ask the Test Kitchen: Do you peel bananas before freezing?
Ask the Test Kitchen: Do you peel bananas before freezing?

A: If there is one cool thing about bananas, it’s that they freeze wonderfully. And they keep just fine in the freezer for about three months. Freezing is a way to preserve bananas that have reached their ripeness peak or are close to overripe. Rather than tossing them because you can’t eat them out of hand, freeze them to use in making...
How to make a sushi bowl
How to make a sushi bowl

Deconstruction once ruled academia. The literary theory insisted that the text (pre-texting) be taken apart, like some Lego castle, and left in pieces on the classroom floor. The game kept professor and student busy for years. Now new fads roam campus, and deconstruction has moved on to the menu. The enchilada, for instance, no longer dresses for dinner...
More Stories