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Inside Our 400-Year Obsession With Barbecue

Barbecue is a billion dollar business — Why its Black innovators need a seat at the table.

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Take a hunk of meat, brush on some seasoning (spicy, sweet, or sour), cook it low and slow from sunup to sundown, and never, ever let it touch the flame. That’s the short story of how you end up with barbecue — the cuisine that’s as universally beloved as it is endlessly reflective of its regions and roots.

These days, barbecue has become a billion-dollar business, encompassing local smokehouses and massive chain restaurants, a cottage industry of local cooking competitions and televised reality shows, and of course, supermarket shelves of sauces just waiting to be slathered on a piece of pork shoulder.

The barbecue obsession is easy to understand. Sit down in front of a plate piled high with fork-tender meat and it’s love at first bite. But while barbecue may be universally loved, it’s a cuisine that tells a very specific story — one that traces the history of the African diaspora in America, and proclaims Black ingenuity in the face of oppression. It’s a history worth celebrating, which is why Kingsford’s Preserve the Pit is shining a light on a new generation of Black pitmasters, and supporting barbecue entrepreneurs through funding and mentorship.

First, the history of barbecue goes back further than you may have realized — in fact, this very American cuisine predates the founding of America. While its origins are somewhat contested, many food historians trace the roots of barbecues to a combination of African, Caribbean, and Native American cooking techniques. By the 1600s in plantation kitchens, enslaved Black cooks were using long, low-heat roasting and basting in flavorful liquids to improve the tough cuts of meat and other less-than-ideal ingredients available to them. The results were so delectable, a national obsession was born.

Sadly, the stories of the Black Americans who developed the techniques of barbecuing and cooked these feasts are less well preserved, but some contemporary accounts exist. In his 1896 memoir “Thirty Years A Slave,” Louis Hughes writes about the cooking of a Fourth of July feast, down to details of the basting liquid made of butter, pepper, salt and vinegar. The feast was an intergenerational celebration — one that’s echoed in modern traditions of barbecues in Black communities. “It mattered not what trouble or hardship the year had brought,” Hughes writes, “this feast and its attendant pleasure would dissipate all gloom.” Despite the tone of celebration, it’s worth remembering the context of historical injustice — this was the enslaved people’s one day of recreation per year, when they cooked for themselves and not the plantation owners.

The erasure of Black cooks and entrepreneurs from the cuisine they developed continues in many ways today. There’s no shortage of Black pitmasters and business owners, but white chefs and entrepreneurs have often been made the face of American barbecue by media who prize less traditional, “hipster” approaches to the cuisine. Black pitmasters also face systemic barriers to entry from the barbecue competitions that could bring them more awareness. Missing competitions due to lack of capital means missing out on the resultant food blog, magazine, and TV coverage that opens up the most lucrative opportunities, like television and book deals and venture capital investments. Add to that the gentrification and rising rents in the neighborhoods where many Black businesses set up shop, and it’s no wonder many pitmasters struggle to stay afloat.

But while the challenges are many, Kingsford’s Preserve the Pit represents a critical step in the right direction. The fellowship offers one-on-one mentorship, immersive training, and access to capital that Black entrepreneurs are often cut off from. Through continued investment, the pitmasters behind one of America’s most-loved cuisines will finally get their much-deserved seat at the table.

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