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…