by Rob DeHart
Pork barbecue illustrates how three different food traditions— Southeastern Indian, West African, and West European— came together in America to create one of the South’s most celebrated dishes. But how did barbecue taste 80, 150, and 300 years ago? This was the question the Museum sought to answer when it hosted, in partnership with the Nashville Farmers' Market, a barbecue tasting workshop earlier this fall. Part historic re-creation and part experiment, participants made three sauces that reflected three different periods of barbecue history. This exercise produced some interesting revelations about a very familiar food.
First, how did pork barbecue become a southern staple? During the European exploration of the Americas in the 1500s, explorers observed Southeastern Indians cooking meat on slotted wooden platforms that sat high above a heat source. This so fascinated Europeans that sketches of the devices made it back across the Atlantic and were reproduced as engravings in widely distributed pamphlets. The word “barbecue” likely derived from the Southeastern Indian word for this cooking device.
Southeastern Indians cooked all types of wild game using this method, but it was Europeans that provided the protein, pork, which is most often associated with modern barbecue. In 1539, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto embarked on an expedition of what would become the Southeastern United States and introduced pigs to the continent. The animals thrived, and by the time of De Soto’s death near the Mississippi River in 1542, he owned around 700. Europeans had a long tradition of roasting pigs on a spit over a fire, which added to their ease in adopting the Southeastern Indians’ device for cooking pork.
The final ingredient necessary for southern pork barbecue was contributed by Africans. The Atlantic slave trade tore millions of Africans from their homelands and forced them to labor in the Americas. They were accustomed to a savory cosmopolitan cuisine in Africa that favored spicy, hot, and tart. With limited resources they strove to reproduce these flavors, thus inspiring many of the tastes that we associate with southern cooking today. This included barbecue. Africans also possessed their own traditions of cooking meat with indirect heat on top of pits filled with hot coals.
So with this context established, the workshop began by giving each participant a plate of barbecued pork and three cups for making dipping sauces based on historic sources. The first sauce they made was very simple. In 1698, a Dominican missionary named Père Labat visited the French West Indies and witnessed cooks using lime juice and hot peppers to season barbecued meat. This sauce probably had its roots in Africa where cooks traditionally used both lemon and lime juice. In the workshop we experimented by providing random participants cups of each type. They could use as much cayenne pepper as they wished.
Those who had the lime juice loved the tastes that this sauce brought out in the meat. Most seemed surprised by how something so simple could produce so many complex flavors. Participants with lemon juice were less enthusiastic. For them, the tartness of the lemon overwhelmed the flavor of the pork.
Vinegar was more readily available in the South than limes or lemons, so vinegar-based sauces predominated during the 1800s. Our second workshop sauce was based on a recipe originally published in 1867 in Mrs. Hill’s New Receipt Book for the Kitchen by Georgia cook Annabella P. Hill. The recipe instructed the cook to:
“Melt half a pound of butter; stir into it a large tablespoon of mustard, half a teaspoon of red pepper, one of black, salt to taste; add vinegar until the sauce has a strong acid taste. The quantity of vinegar will depend upon the strength of it.”
We omitted the butter in the workshop and let participants experiment with the ingredient measurements. This sauce was a clear winner. The addition of mustard to this sauce reminded some of classic Carolina barbecue sauce. They found it to be similar to many sauces found commercially except it tasted so much fresher. Clearly vinegar-based sauces have a long history in the South.
Finally, we concocted a tomato-based sauce, which is probably what most people today associate with barbecue. Participants were surprised to learn that in the history of barbecue, it appears that tomato-based sauces are relative newcomers that likely emerged at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The recipe we used was from the Marigold Cook Book written by Mary Baldwin and Evelyn G. Hinds and published in the Jackson Sun in 1938:
1½ cups Catchup
2 tbsp. Horseradish
1 tbsp. Lemon juice
4 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. Salt
This ranked as the least favorite. The addition of horseradish in this recipe made it taste more like cocktail sauce than barbecue sauce to our participants. It seemed a strange pairing with pork and had them asking for shrimp. This exercise suggested that the savory and sweet tomato-based sauces that we are so familiar with today had to evolve over time.
The workshop proved to be a fun and instructive way to engage Museum visitors with the flavors of the past, although we cannot take the results too seriously. After all, tastes have changed a lot over 300 years, so someone living long ago may not have agreed with our workshop participants. But understanding how food has evolved over time sheds light on culinary conversations that have occurred between people of different ethnicities and backgrounds in Tennessee over hundreds of years. The workshop connected the past with the present and helped to keep the conversation going.
This article also appears in the Fall 2019/Winter 2020 of the Tennessee State Museum Quarterly Newsletter & Calendar of Events.
Rob DeHart is a Tennessee State Museum History Curator, and curator of the exhibition, Let's Eat! Origins and Evolutions of Tennessee Food, currently on exhibit through February 2, 2020.
Photo Captions from Top:
This engraving depicts the Timucua Indians of northern Florida using a device to dry meat and fish, 1590. Engraving by Theodor de Bry. Based on a Jacques le Moyne de Morgues painting. The Florida Center for Instructional Technology, University of South Florida
Workshop participants making barbecue sauces based on historic sources.
The final tally. Favorites are marked on the top row; least favorites at the bottom.