John M. Duncan, A Virginia barbecue

Now for something different from the Library of America – a little 3-page excerpt, titled “A Virginia Barbecue”, from Scotsman John M. Duncan’s Travels through part of the United States and Canada in 1818 and 1819, which was published in 1823. In it, Duncan describes a barbecue to which he was invited by Bushrod (what a name, eh?) Washington, who was apparently a favourite nephew of (the) George.

Ground oven cooking, Kakadu

The original barbecue: Ground oven cooking in Kakadu National Park (Photographer: Me)

I wanted to read this for a number of reasons: I like to read about food; I like travel writing; I lived in Virgnia for two years; and I wanted to see what he meant by “barbecue”. The thing about “barbecue” is that in my experience Americans mean something different by it than we downunder do. In the brief introductory notes to Duncan’s piece, Library of America informs us that by the middle of the 19th century regional differences were appearing and that “debates about the best meat (pork for the South, beef for Texans), the proper smoke (cool or hot), the best sauce (thick and tomatoey in the Mexican manner or vinegar-steeped with hot peppers in the manner of the Atlantic seaboard), and the appropriate accompaniments were already beginning to rage”. Duncan, however, was a bit early for this debate so he simply describes what he sees:

The meat to be barbecued is split open and pierced with two long slender rods, upon which it is suspended across the mouth of the pits, and turned from side to side till it is thoroughly broiled. The hickory tree gives, it is said, a much stronger heat than coals, and when it is kindled is almost without smoke.

And, anyhow, he is not specifically interested in describing the cooking itself but in conveying the whole experience. From our 21st century point of view, he seems completely unconscious of the disparity between the black workers slaving over the barbecues and the guests (presumably all white) dancing, eating and drinking. This is not totally surprising, given the period, although William Wilberforce, back in England, would have been full throttle on his abolitionist campaign. Here are some of the ways Duncan describes the black workers:

…a whole colony of black servants …

Servants? Or, slaves?

… black men, women and children, were busied with various processes of sylvan cookery…

“Sylvan” is, to me anyhow, a rather poetic word for forest connoting a sense of romantic idyll that is somewhat belied by the reality of the situation.

Leaving the busy negroes at their tasks – a scene by the way which suggested a tolerable idea of an encampment of Indians preparing for a feast after the spoils of the chase.

A more socially or politically aware writer would probably, even at that time, have seen the irony in this comparison, but I don’t think Duncan did. I’m not trying to play politically correct revisionist games here, but rather reflect on how writing like this can convey meaning that was not necessarily intended at the time. Such writing – in the way it documents practices and attitudes – can be a real mine for researchers!

Duncan then describes the dancing – mainly cotillion – and the dining arrangements. I found it a little confusing when he wrote that “few except those who wish to dance choose the first course; watchfulness to anticipate the wants of the ladies, prevent those who sit down with them from accomplishing much themselves”. That is, they don’t get to eat much. Being “too little acquainted with the tactics of a barbecue, and somewhat too well inclined to eat”, he joins this first course. I had to read this a couple of times before I realised (at least I think I’m right) that “first course” actually means “first sitting”. It appears that when the ladies arise, all are expected to “vacate their seats”. The “new levy succeeds” (that is, as I read it, the next sitting) and many of these diners contrive to sit through the next “signal” to rise, thereby managing to get a good feed!

He also describes the drinking but makes it clear that while there was “jollity”, he saw no “intemperance”. He specifically states that this is so for the members of the judiciary, such as Judge Washington, who were present. Duncan makes such a point of this that I wondered whether he “protesteth too much”. I’m guessing though that it’s more a case of having his eye on his market: there was a strong temperance movement in early 19th century Virginia.

This piece is included in an anthology titled American food writing: An anthology with classic recipes. It would be fascinating to read more…

12 thoughts on “John M. Duncan, A Virginia barbecue

  1. The level of organisation is what militiate against the idea of “barbecue” – surely a rather disorganised and spontaneous thing where anything goes. Its an interesting piece but also rather depressing to read of unacceptable social attitudes which we “just normal stuff”.

    • Thanks Tom…and I never know quite how to react to attitudes that are of their time … after all it is usually because people have attitudes out of their time that causes us to move forward isn’t it? LOL re the barbecue and organisation – not quite the basic throw a few sausages (or prawns) on the barbie that Aussies like to do. And it seems to me that when American say “barbecue” they often specifically mean meat (ribs or somesuch) with some thick sticky sauce (as I refer to in the post).

  2. An interesting cultural piece. It is difficult to read stuff like this and not be upset by the flagrant racism.

    Here is something to add to your U.S. barbeque information, in Minnesota they call it “grilling.” And of course it generally involves meet. This weekend is Independence Day so there will be lots of grilling of hamburgers, steaks, hot dogs and bratwurst. There may be some vegetables grilled as well but it will be mostly meat. The thick sticky sauce is a southern specialty I believe and while you can definitely get it “up north” we tend to be a bit more minimal on what is done to the meat. Since I am vegan, however, I only observe and do not partake 🙂

    • And the thing about the racism is it’s so unconscious/unthinking – he appears to have no idea even that he’s doing it.

      Thanks for that explanation Stefanie. I rather wondered about the grill vs barbecue thing. It’s fascinating how differently we use words. Over here grilling is used for the cooking you do on the griller that’s part of the stove, and restaurants often use the term chargrill for cooking on those indoor barbecue grills. But, barbecue is universally used for the regular cooking of meat, fish, vegies outside.

      • On the old-time unconscious racism thing, I came across some striking examples in Ernestine Hill’s The Great Australian Loneliness a few weeks ago — the most breathtaking (because her eugenic assumptions were being contradicted by evidence that was standing right in front of her and yet she persisted) went like this — well, long story short — she speaks to a young man, half-Anglo, half-Aboriginal, and discovers that his well-off farmer father sent him to be educated at a private boarding school in Perth, where he won prizes for academic excellence and sport, led the cricket team, etc, but when he returned to the Northern Territory (Hill is speaking to him in the NT during the 1930s) it was brought home to him that he was not legally permitted to marry a white woman, he couldn’t inherit his father’s property — in short, he was being barred from the world he had been trained and educated to enter. Feeling unwanted, he turned his back on it all and went to live with his mother’s people in a creek bed. Hill records this fairly reasonable psychological reaction and her conclusion is: that mixed-race children will always revert to “the primitive” because it is in their genes. And the modern reader is left sitting there, spluttering, “But woman, he just told you why he did it. You quoted him. Isn’t it obvious it has nothing to do with genes?”

        So: a good lesson in the way belief can blind us. Because she’s not actually hostile to him — she’s quite sympathetic. But her sympathy goes like this: it’s not right to inflict this suffering on people, therefore no one should have mixed-race children.

  3. Thanks for sharing that DKS. It’s amazing how blind we can be isn’t it? Somewhat different, but related, is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She was an abolitionist as I’m sure you know and writes with such humanity and yet – and yet – she doesn’t see “them” as equal. She just sees that they are human beings and should be treated as such.

  4. I have that anthology, and it is a fascinating compendium.

    As for barbecue, while the definition is becoming blurred, it has traditionally referred to meat that was cooked by smoking. Some today use the term for anything involving a grill, but enthusiasts will violently disagree. For a little historic background on barbecue, here’s a snippet of history I wrote on the topic. (The title is an obscure reference to a children’s movie titled “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything.”)

    As for attitudes of the time, they are always far more complicated and individual than people generally assume when discussing them. As a historian, it frustrates me no end to have everyone from a given period described as if culture and thought were monolithic. From the first moment of settlement, there had been a strong abolitionist movement in the US (in fact, England ruling that no colony could outlaw slavery, as it would hurt England’s trade, was one of the causes of the American Revolution).

    From the first time they began appearing in the colonies that would become the US, there were wealth blacks who were college educated, even at this period. (Not so true of the West Indies, but that is a dramatically different story, with far more countries involved and a whole different mindset.) So not everyone had the attitude that blacks were a lower order. It was often simply slavery that was accepted, not just slavery of one race by another. In the South, before the Civil War, there were many free blacks who owned black slaves. And even in the antebellum South, less than 1/3 of the white population owned slaves. Also, many whites who came to the Americas had been enslaved prior to escaping to the Americas, and many came as indentured servants, which could be worse than slavery (because generally, slaves were seen as a long-term investment, to be cared for, while indentured servants were often worked to death). In fact, the very famous American historic figure, John Smith, had been a slave in Turkey as a young man, before escaping, returning to England, and beginning his American adventures. (Remarkably, Smith was the first to envision the possibility of the land he explored as being the site of a new middling order where people could work for themselves and prosper, leaving behind the idle rich and lifting people out of poverty. Pretty astonishing for the early 1600s.)

    The astonishing thing was that there were people who even came up with the original idea that “all were created equal” — and enough of them to make a difference. It took a few generations to work that “everyone’s equal” idea through the population — but face it, even today and among almost all ranks of society, there is still that tendency to identify someone who is “other” and less valuable. Just think of school days, with athletes dismissing Latin majors as losers, science majors dismissing “jocks” as brainless, hipsters dismissing everyone — there is always an in-crowd vs. outsiders, whatever form that takes. What is remarkable is not that they had these feelings then, but that we have, in some places at least, overcome that natural “them and us” tendency. (Just think of the Balkans, where 500-year-old slights are still a valid reason for slaughter. These concepts are still far from universal.)

    I just rejoice that there were a few who had the vision and made the effort to spread the ideas. Like William Wilberforce, mentioned in the original post, who fought slavery his entire life, it takes a lot of effort and time, because human nature is not such that change is looked for. And I rejoice, too, that I was born in one of the handful of countries where I benefit from those ideas.

    • Thanks WA for all that – you have particularly helped clarify the confusion about “barbecue” that I sensed when I lived in the USA. And, you make a lot of sense in your discussion about slavery, race and other. That whole issue about how and when ideas arise and take hold – such the created equal one which was accepted theoretically but not universally applied to all resulting, later, in such things as Civil Rights and Feminist movements. The gap between theory/philosophy and practice.

  5. Thought of you and this discussion this morning, as I was attending a meeting of the Culinary Historians of Chicago, and the topic was barbecue, aka BBQ or just Q. The discussion touched on the history, starting in the Caribbean, but mostly dealt with the wide range of types of barbecue across the US. (Everyone, however, was assuming that barbecue means smoked meat, and a comment was made to that effect.)

    In Texas, BBQ means smoked beef brisket. You can include spicy, smoked, Texas sausage, too, but we’re still talking beef. In most of the rest of the South, BBQ means pork, though the parts vary, from ribs to shoulder butt, and in South Carolina, it’s whole hog. Sauces vary dramatically, from tomato based to vinegar based to mustard based, sweet to savory, mild to fiery. So lots of disagreement on what to smoke and what to put on it once it’s smoked, but real barbecue is smoked meat.

    • Wow, thanks Waltzing, that’s great and helps wonderfully to explain my confusion and the differences within the US as well as between the US and Australian. For us, real barbecue is anything grilled on an outdoor grill. Traditionally probably beef but smoking and sauces are not what it’s about (though they can be done/added of course).

  6. To be perfectly honest, there’s a bit of confusion here, as well. Loads of people refer to anything with a grill as a barbecue. So as is the case with so many traditions, the lines are blurring. But people in areas where barbecue is a serious part of the culture, the lines are still fairly strictly drawn. People in California may call grilling barbecue, but no one in Kansas City does, for example.

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