Aug 19, 2022 - Food and Drink

Virginia is the birthplace of barbecue

Illustration of smoke in the form of a number sign and the number 1 coming out of a BBQ smoker.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Sorry, North and South Carolina, Tennessee and probably parts of Georgia, but Southern barbecue was invented in Virginia.

What's happening: That's the argument countless food historians have been making for decades (there's even a book about it) and one that's gotten new life thanks to Deb Freeman, a Richmond-based food writer and podcaster who focuses on African American foodways.

Why it matters: Barbecue and barbecue tourism can drive millions of dollars for local economies — at least in the states that market it well, which Virginia doesn't.

  • But, more importantly, the perfecting of this very American Southern food belongs not just to Virginia, but to the enslaved people who were the original pitmasters.

Details: American barbecue is a blend of traditions from Native Americans, European settlers and African and enslaved Black people, Freeman tells Axios.

  • The cooking method — meat over a fire — came from Native Americans.
  • The spices and vinegar for the baste and sauce were imported by European settlers.
  • And the cooking, the perfecting of the sauce and recipes, the digging of the pit that's uniquely American, the chopping of the trees for the fire, the timing of the dish — those belong squarely in the hands of Black people.

And Black people were doing it first in Virginia.

Zoom in: The clearest evidence of Virginia's barbecue origin can be traced to the Founding Fathers — many of whom were from Virginia.

  • George Washington was famously a barbecue lover and attended at least six barbecues between 1769 and 1774 — all in Virginia.
  • Thomas Jefferson was a fan too, and he had a favorite sauce.
  • In 2011, archaeologists unearthed a historic barbecue pit at James Madison's Montpelier.

Bolstering the case: Freeman, who first learned about Virginia's barbecue roots when researching an article, said she came across historic newspaper ads in North Carolina and Georgia promoting events with Virginia barbecue made by an enslaved person.

What they're saying: "Everyone wants to know where something starts. It's not North Carolina; it's not Kansas City; it's not Chicago," she says. It's Virginia.

The bottom line: It's equally important, Freeman says, to recognize the skill, labor and creativity of these early pitmasters in creating this very American dish — no matter which state claims the origin.

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