Lived vs Research in Food media, sparked by "Trendy" Turkey
Over the past several years, two mainstream visual medium works on BBQ, Chef Vivian’s Somewhere South and previously Chef/Restauranteur David Chang’s Ugly Delicious reinforced why I do the work I do, along with the article on Fox News about America’s Most Influential BBQ Pitmasters. In each of those works, I saw how lived experiences versus research matters in food culture work, outside of restaurants matter. This matters particularly when one talks about food, history, and culture in the American South, as race and lived experiences can’t be separated. As a former host of a show, I saw the other side of the table and what happens when you don’t own it, and don’t have the authority to get the last decision. I don’t have any bad blood but you learn that not everything is worth battling, so you compromise to get a winning product. For me personally, I don’t care about being on many shows or in articles where I can’t have some ownership or editorial control, unless it can help a writer or photographer. You learn food media is a business that cares about sales and supporting people whom support them. Should I have to pay to be recognize by these groups for the work I do, I am not? It may cost me awards and recognitions by major groups such as the James Beard Foundation or the Southern Foodways Alliance, but the work I do in bbq is about the people whom came before me. Even if I have to put up my own resources, ownership matters in my opinion.
The omission of black people in America’s BBQ story is not wanting to meet up to the reality of whom was actually doing the cooking of pitcooked bbq on plantations across the American South during Slavery. It is pretty extensively documented in research, even if the documented receipts are not a comprehensive account written in first person. However in the research, the research may not uncover the nuances that are common in a lived experience perspective. For example, a writer/researcher may come across a story on simply a trench was dug to cook bbq recorded by an observer, but a practitioner will know that the depth of the pit, width, and length of the pit depends on how large and how many animals need to be cooked. However, during slavery reading and writing was illegal by law to keep black people enslaved in the mind as well as the physical. So to not include African Americans in Ugly Delicious or the Fox News Story, simply reinforces the narrative that mainstream media wants to portray things in a certain manner to sell a story. In many cases they do not want to put the truth on the table and let people make a decision based upon facts as that story will not sell for the audience they are trying to capture. A few questions on race in bbq in Somewhere South, that I would love to know the answer from Sam Jones is whom was actually cooking the bbq when his family was cooking in the ground and particularly when the family’s legacy dates to the 1830s. The other thing I would like to know at Skylight Inn, has black patrons always been allowed to come through the front door or they came through the back in the 1950s. Those questions will probably never be answered but I would love to know the answer and different things are said on the latter particularly in the community. One can’t control the past, but if you don’t know history it can occur again. Just to be honest, the bbq at Skylight Inn is legit and the chopped skin is cooked to perfection, but I do wonder about the past as this is the South and the United States of America. I had it in 2018 and I may not have it again because of the questions I pose here, the owners may not want me at their establishment again but I am okay with that.
In Chef Vivian Howard’s Somewhere South episode on bbq, I appreciate the fact she tries to acknowledge the roll of blacks in BBQ. However, two things that I think food media should consider is race and lived experiences versus researched. I look forward to reading Adrian Miller’s book from research, but when I heard bbq turkey as trendy, it hit me again to why both research versus lived is needed in food media. Research will take you to the archives and restaurants, but it is harder to get access into the communities where people lived this, regardless if you are black or white. The community has to trust you and you have to speak the language. However, pitcooking turkey was normal for my family and community similarly to the whole hog, particularly during Thanksgiving and Christmas Holidays, when whole turkeys are more easily found in grocery stores. I can remember cooking turkeys as long as hogs on the pit. Here is a picture of some turkeys pitcooked from 2018 by a neighbor in my community. I imagine pitcooking turkeys by Boogie’s, the restaurant in the show, is also a function of the commercial turkey processing facilities in that portion of the state that is home to a number of large scale chicken and turkey houses. When you live close to those processing facilities, one has relatives or neighbors whom work in these plants, and at one time the employees could buy the products in bulk cheap in my neck of the woods. Those same chicken houses, I used to ride with father get manure to spread on the farm, another story. Lived and research experiences matter in the ability for media to understand and share a complete story. In BBQ that has not been done in my opinion as so much of the history of food, culture, and contributions made by black people. Furthermore, black people are not allowed to get the big grants from the foundations or contracts from publishing agents to do this work, equally to their white counterparts.
I do the work I do because I feel want to share a point of view from a lived tradition even if it does not always get the mainstream attention. This is why I freely share the blog posts, the social media posts, I worked on PBS Nourish in the past, appeared on Man Fire Food, traveled across the country for little or no money to share my perspective on bbq, and cooked different animals in different pits nationally and internationally so someone may get to see a different viewpoint on American BBQ. Finally, it is why I convinced my father to build a bbq pit that we designed to cook a whole cow. It is so I can share what many before me could not tell. I have a few more pieces of work that I am working to fund, build out, and bring to the world but I know what I have to share is not mainstream enough to get the major grant dollars to do the work that is needed. However, I am working on ways to generate revenue to do the work, so I can put up my own money, so I can own the IP associated with the work and messaging that comes out of it. One day I will have the resources, but until then I will give you what I can because the barbecue culture was given to me where I was born and raised. If it cost me to give it to you, then I can’t give it you but I give you some stuff anyway that costs me time. (Due to the time associated with editing, I am not proofreading this multiple times, so there may be a few typos and grammatical mistakes)