The year was 1902. The faithful at Denver’s Campbell Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church decided to have a fundraiser serving up some of this flock’s famous barbecue.
“This method of serving meat is descended from the sacrificial altars of the time of Moses when the priests of the temple got their fingers greasy and dared not wipe them on their Sunday clothes,” pitmaster Columbus B. Hill told the Denver Times during the feast. “They discovered then the rare, sweet taste of meat flavored with the smoke of its own juices.”
And all the people said? “Amen.” In some pews, people would shout, “Preach it!”
For many Americans — black and white — it’s impossible to discuss their heartfelt convictions about barbecue without using religious language. There’s a reason one famous book about North Carolina barbecue, published by an academic press, is entitled “Holy Smoke.”
It doesn’t matter whether folks are arguing about doctrinal questions at the heart of the faith, such as, “Is barbecue a noun or a verb?” or “Pork, beef or both?” It doesn’t matter if true believers are arguing about what wood to burn or the percentage of vinegar God wants them to use in the sauce. Mustard? Out of the question, except in certain South Carolina zip codes.
The bottom line: There’s more to barbecue, and all that goes with it, than the stuff on plates and fingers. It’s all about the culture and history of the communities surrounding those pits and smokers, said veteran barbecue judge Adrian Miller, author of “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time.” He’s also the first African-American and the first layperson to lead the Colorado Council of Churches.
All this religious barbecue talk isn’t sacrilege, says Miller.
“Not really. Barbecue fans and commentators are on to something. They recognize that religious words have power to describe things near-inexpressible, things that are important and that matter,” he argued in a recent online essay.
“Church matters, and so does food — especially, to many people, barbecue. In short ... ‘barbecue’ has a theological dimension that is deeply enmeshed in church culture, especially in the African-American church.”
While digging into this topic, Miller was especially intrigued by the role barbecue played in the waves of fiery “camp meetings,” revivals and Gospel festivals that reshaped American Protestantism in the tumultuous eras before and after the Civil War. What pulled people together was the worship, the music and, yes, the food. Some of these gatherings evolved into churches.
“You wanted to attract a big crowd and, let’s face it, you’re not going to get a lot of people just with preaching,” said Miller. “These things went on for days and people often came from pretty far away. ... You’re going to need big crews just doing the cooking for those crowds. So you build yourself a pit and we’re talking barbecue. ... Often it was the Baptists versus the Methodists.”
When he discusses barbecue cuisine, Miller stresses he’s talking about all of the other foods that are traditionally served with it, whether on river banks or in church halls. There’s fried catfish and chicken, of course, as well as greens, black-eyed peas, yams, cornbread, cobblers and pound cake.
In the early 20th century, scholars interviewed former slaves and discovered that many of these dishes mixed foods common in European kitchens with the traditions of West Africa and the Caribbean. There’s a reason the greens served with barbecue are bitter. And all that hot sauce? Many Southerners believed folk medicines made with cayenne peppers would help end a cholera epidemic among slaves.
Participants in the camp meetings shared food and fellowship, often cooking entire animals to share with the crowds. People brought whatever they could to grace the common tables. The church could use some of that spirit today, argued Miller.
“How do we hold together a sacred community? What are the best ways to keep someone coming back? Barbecue may not be the perfect answer to all of these questions. But I can vouch for its success in bringing people together to embrace a faith-filled life,” he wrote.
“Barbecue, at its theological and culinary best, reinforces a church’s important social role; it enhances the communal experience of God, sharing in his bounty through a delicious meal.”
Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.