This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Where There’s Smoke, There’s … Whiskey, Fish, and Barbecue!, first released on March 30, 2021. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
CYNTHIA GRABER: We are at the Boston Smoked Fish headquarters, and a huge rack of maybe a dozen trays of gorgeous, golden brown smoked salmon just rolled by.
MATT BAUMANN: It came out of the smoker just about an hour ago. So we’re about 2500 square feet of fish processing space here. And we’re smoking five to six times a week. So you’re always going to smell these wonderful aromas of the cherry and pecan woods that we use. The pecan would really gives kind of a nice, unctuous bacon-y flavor to the fish. And then at the end we finish it off with cherry, which has a really nice sweet, floral bouquet.
NICOLA TWILLEY: Oh god, I love smoked fish. Please tell me this is an episode all about smoked fish where all we do is eat smoked fish?
GRABER: I wish, I did at least get to smell the smoking fish and let me tell you, that cherry and pecan wood smoke, with the unctuousness of the fish? I was salivating throughout the whole visit. I wish I’d spent the whole time eating.
TWILLEY: Smoke makes everything taste great. Smoked fish, smoky mezcal, my personal favorite flavor of crisp—smoky bacon. But why is smoke so delicious?
GRABER: This is actually a question that one of our listeners and supporters asked us, too.
KEITH SUTHERLAND: Hi Nicky and Cynthia, this is Keith Sutherland, from Dublin. I was enjoying a glass of my favorite whiskey, Lagavulin, which is famously peaty, and it got me thinking about how many of the things we eat and drink have a smoky flavor. I managed to think of quite a long list of smoked products: Whiskey, beer, fancy cocktails, meat, especially bacon, cheese, paprika, lapsang souchong tea! And then all sorts of questions sprang to mind. Why do we smoke some things and not others? What happens to the food when we do? Why do I love smoky whiskey but hate burnt toast? I’m hoping Gastropod can find out some answers.
GRABER: And this is Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, and we are here to answer your questions. I’m Cynthia Graber—
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley, and this episode is dedicated to all things smoky. Including something we get a ton of emails from you all about—barbecue. Listener Nicole is just the most recent barbecue truth seeker.
NICOLE: Hi Cynthia, hi Nicky! I was hoping you could help me. If somebody asked, I would say that barbecue is my favorite type of food. On the way to our local barbecue joint, my husband, who immigrated here from New Zealand, asked what really is barbecue. Turns out, my American barbecue knowledge is pretty poor. I couldn’t offer any helpful information at all.
NICOLE’S HUSBAND: So I’ve heard of Texas, Carolina, and Kansas City barbecue. Are they really different? Could you please offer us a history and understanding of American barbecue?
NICOLE: Thank you so much!
GRABER: Those are our marching orders, and that’s just what we’re off to do this episode: investigate!
TWILLEY: The other night, I had friends round for a socially distanced COVID-safe outdoor gathering, and because it gets chilly at night in L.A., we lit a fire. SOUND OF MATCHES AND FLAMES And then because we’re not actually very good at outdoor things, it smoked for a while and we all cried.
GRABER: Many of us have had that experience. I’ve cried plenty at campfires. But it did make us wonder: what is smoke?
HAROLD MCGEE: Smoke is the… LAUGHS Sorry. I wasn’t quite ready for the cosmic nature of that question.
GRABER: Harold McGee has been on Gastropod many times before—he’s an expert on the science of cooking—and he just wrote a fascinating new book called Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells. He did, of course, have a slightly more detailed explanation of what smoke is.
MCGEE: Smoke is the product of our essentially taking living materials and disassembling them into little bits.
TWILLEY: Harold says, it is in fact a “farewell whiff of life’s organized structures as they disintegrate into thin air before our eyes.” Truly, he is a poet of smoke.
GRABER: Smoke seems eternal, but it actually hasn’t been around since the very beginnings of our planet, a few things had to happen before smoke appeared.
MCGEE: So first of all, we had to get life up onto land. And then the oxygen levels in the atmosphere had to rise high enough to sustain fire.
TWILLEY: On the very early earth, fires might have been started by lightning strikes and volcanic eruptions, but until plants got onto land and started sequestering carbon in their bodies and breathing out oxygen into the atmosphere, those early sparks would have only created a quick little puff of smoke, not fire and smoke as we know it.
GRABER: The first increase in oxygen in our atmosphere came from microbes in the oceans, but the oxygen content of air had to get to about 15% for smoke to exist. And for that, we needed plants. They provided both the fuel and the oxygen itself. Fire and smoke need two things: They need carbon to burn—and that’s the body of the plants. And then fire needs oxygen, which sustains all the reactions that happen after a lightning strike to keep that tree trunk burning.
TWILLEY: But this is all distant history—Harold says the earliest evidence of persistent fire—and thus the earliest evidence of smoke—it goes back at least 400 million years. Human beings are much, much younger than smoke—our earliest ancestors only appeared about 5 to 7 million years ago.
GRABER: And at the time, they might not have been quite as attracted to the delicious smell of smoke wafting from a burning fire as we are today.
MCGEE: For humans just on the cusp of human-hood, it would have been a fearsome signal because it would mean that there was vegetation burning nearby and there was no way to control that. And so it would be an imminent sign of danger.
TWILLEY: But at some point—and scientists debate exactly when—our feelings toward smoke did a 180.
MCGEE: It changed when human beings discovered that they could, in fact, control it and manage it and make use of it. And it’s still unclear exactly when that was but, you know, on the order of a million years ago. And there are people who believe that that was really the beginning of civilization: The chance for people to gather around in one place, stay warm in cold climates and commune with each other. And perhaps most important of all, begin to transform the material world in ways that were not possible before.
GRABER: We had been afraid of fire, but we came to love the scent that meant that dinner was on its way, and we could tell stories across a glow that lasted on and on as night’s darkness descended.
MCGEE: Instead of it being a sign of danger and, you know, unseen danger coming from from afar. Now it’s the focus. It’s the hearth. It’s gathering together. It’s preparing food. It’s keeping warm. It’s having a light after the sun goes down. All positive things.
TWILLEY: And from that point on, for most of human history, smoke was our constant beloved companion—it was there when we cooked, when we huddled together in the winter, when we started clearing fields to sow crops. Smoke was the signature smell of humanity. But although we loved it, it wasn’t necessarily good for us.
MCGEE: To be surrounded by smoke all the time was not a good thing for human health because smoke is full of toxins and constant exposure to those toxins can take a toll.
GRABER: So it was a bit of a mixed bag. But the delightful smell—what makes it smell like that? Why does fire smell smoky?
TWILLEY: Well, it doesn’t, necessarily. When you light the gas on your stovetop, there’s no smoke. Harold says that’s because there’s no smoke when something fully combusts. And full combustion happens when what you’re burning is sounded by oxygen—like the gas on your stovetop where the gas molecules are completely surrounded by air.
MCGEE: When you’re cooking over a gas grill, you’re combusting propane, which is a very simple molecule. There’s plenty of oxygen around the flame. And so the propane burns to carbon dioxide and water and that’s it. There are no volatile molecules with particular smells coming off. But when you burn charcoal or wood you are essentially doing the same process of heating, but material that’s much more complex and where the supply of oxygen is only partial.
GRABER: So there are parts of the wood that aren’t getting a lot of oxygen and are getting transformed by heat into new molecules—new molecules that have smells—and then because some parts of the wood aren’t super hot, the molecules escape, they don’t totally combust, and so we can smell them.
MCGEE: And depending on the temperature and depending on the moisture content and depending on the nature of the materials to begin with, you get different sets of volatile molecules coming off, usually a kind of shared set, but then the proportions can vary. And so different smokes from different things will have different smells.
TWILLEY: Most of what you burn when you burn wood is plant sugars—cellulose and hemicellulose. Harold says they break apart pretty easily when heated.
MCGEE: So there are sweet smells and buttery smells and just bready, very pleasant smells that come off of the breakdown of cellulose and hemicellulose at relatively low temperatures.
GRABER: Then there’s lignin, that’s the strong part of a plant that helps it stand up straight, it’s particularly abundant in wood and bark. And it only starts to burn at very high temperatures.
MCGEE: Then you start to get very different sets of molecules that are the more recognizably and characteristically smoky, tarry, but also sometimes very pleasantly spicy molecules.
TWILLEY: And what this all means is that the smell of smoke varies depending on the temperature of your fire.
MCGEE: You can actually notice a lot about the evolution of a fire by paying attention to its smells. When you first light it, you’re mostly getting those lower temperature sugar breakdown products. And so it has a kind of sweet, sometimes even a buttery sort of smell. But then as it gets going, then it does become more spicy and more medicinal and eventually more tarry and even more reminiscent of solvents. So as the fire develops over its lifetime, its character changes. But at any moment in that lifetime, you’re basically getting a combination of all these different things just in different proportions.
GRABER: Sometimes people notice that smoke smells a little like vanilla, or like cloves. The clove tree and the vanilla orchid manufacture those particular smells as chemical defenses. But they weren’t the inventors of these scents.
MCGEE: When we smell the smells of vanilla and clove in smoke, we’re actually smelling them in their original form. That’s where they would have appeared on the earth in the first place, in the smoke. And only later did plants come to synthesize the same molecules for their own purposes. So I like to think that rather than thinking of smoke as sometimes having clove and vanilla notes, we should think of clove and vanilla as having smoky notes.
GRABER: The chemicals that we smell as vanilla and clove scents are exactly the same whether they’re in smoke or in a clove flower or vanilla orchid, but these are two totally different pathways to making those chemicals—and smoke did it first.
TWILLEY: This is delightful but it also has a culinary application. It means that the art of creating the most delicious smelling smoke has a lot to do with temperature, which is to do with how much oxygen is getting to your wood or charcoal. That’s something people who grill learn instinctively—you need to keep the fire at that sweet spot before it gets too hot and the smoke gets too tarry and solvent-y.
GRABER: But people who grill over charcoal often add wood chips to get just the right kind of smoky flavor, and they say the kind of wood you use really matters. You can find mesquite, hickory, oak, cherry, apple, alder.
TWILLEY: I even have some supposedly super special manuka wood chips from New Zealand, although I’ve never found quite the right moment to use them.
GRABER: So do these special woods have some magical ingredient in them that makes them smell so great?
MCGEE: You know, that’s the first thing I thought when I started delving into this question. I thought it’s going to be the case that, you know, hickory wood and cherry wood and apple wood are going to have some special component that makes them as lovely as they are for smoking and as prized by people who do barbecue and smoked things of all kinds compared to other kinds of smoke. And it turns out that that is probably not the case.
TWILLEY: Apple and cherry are made of pretty much the same stuff as every other wood, but their smoke is not the same. Why?
MCGEE: So the nicer woods tend to give off more of the sweet and spicy, the not so nice woods tend to give off more of the medicinal and tarry. Why exactly? Actually, no smoke chemist, no volatile chemist, that I’ve been able to find has looked into that. So that’s still kind of a mystery.
TWILLEY: Whatever the reason, Matt at Boston Smoked Fish swears by pecan and cherry wood smoke, and honestly, it’s working for him. Or really, his fish.
BAUMANN: Now we’re over to our packaging area. We’re packing up some hot smoked salmon filets here. As you can see, this is what we call golden brown and delicious, the color on this is perfect.
TWILLEY: Yes, this episode was the perfect excuse to visit the Boston Smoked Fish headquarters and inhale one of our favorite food groups.
GRABER: Matt Baumann founded Boston Smoked Fish in 2013, and at first it was just a small operation that sold at farmers markets. Now they smoke bluefish and haddock and salmon and trout and they sell nationally. The bluefish pate is a particular crowd-pleaser.
BAUMANN: Well, we primarily hot smoke. There’s a difference between hot smoke and cold smoke. Hot smoke means that you’re actually cooking the product—you’re using heat.
GRABER: In hot smoking, you want to get the fish up to a particular internal temperature—usually like 145 degrees—and keep it there for a particular amount of time, often about a half an hour. This helps with getting the smoky taste just right, and getting the right texture, and getting just the right golden finish to it.
BAUMANN: Cold smoke, you’re not using heat, you’re curing the fish, and then applying smoke to it at an ambient temperature, usually around 60, 70 degrees. But it can vary. As long as it doesn’t hit 90 degrees. Because once your fish is exposed to temperatures of 90 degrees or above—and fish is very delicate—it’s going to start cooking. And that’s what you don’t want.
TWILLEY: The result is very different. Those bricks of hot smoked salmon you get—they have a drier, flakier, cooked texture, whereas sliced cold smoked salmon is silky—it’s more like a sushi texture. Because it’s not cooked, it’s just smoke-flavored.
GRABER: And just to clarify things, or maybe confuse things, a little more—lox, the cold salmon I put on cream cheese and bagels, it’s not actually smoked. Lox is mostly just cured in salt and sugar. It’s cured salmon, not smoked salmon, although I grew up calling it smoked salmon. Go figure. But that salt and sugar are also the first step in Matt’s smoking process. LIQUID STIRRING SOUND
BAUMANN: The first step to smoking fish is brine. And a brine or a cure, however you, it’s the same, interchangeable words. And the building blocks to any brine are salt and sugar. And then you can add whatever you’d like to enhance the flavors.
TWILLEY: Yes, it’s true. Continuing our confusing clarification here, smoked fish is also cured or brined. It’s just that you dry it out after, and then smoke it. The brining serves two purposes. The salt helps keep down microbes. Drink!
GRABER: But also, once the brine dries, it forms a sticky layer on the outside of the fish—they call it a pellicle in the trade—and that gives the smoke something to stick to.
TWILLEY: This whole process—the salt, the smoke, and the drying out just enough—it also helps smoked fish keep longer. Nowadays we like smoked fish for how it tastes, but those delicious smoky flavors started out as just a side benefit of preservation technology.
MCGEE: It’s certainly true that the flavorings that are deposited on the surface of the meat are inimical to microbial life. That’s also, by the way, why it’s not so good for us to be breathing them in. But when they’re on the surface of the meat, they do provide protection against the growth of microbes.
GRABER: Harold doesn’t know exactly how effective smoke would have been on its own to preserve food.
TWILLEY: But smoke was only ever one of food preservation techniques our ancestors relied on.
MCGEE: If you combine that with dehydration so that the whole piece of meat or fish is dried out to some extent as well as coated with this antimicrobial flavoring, then that can mean that the food can be stored at room temperature for a long period of time.
GRABER: Today, we don’t usually use this preservation combo to make food last forever at room temperature, but it does help out even now that we have fridges.
TWILLEY: Cold smoked salmon lasts way longer in the fridge than raw salmon; hot smoked bluefish will keep for a couple of weeks in the fridge, but cooked bluefish should be eaten within a couple days. The whole combination really buys you a lot of extra time to eat your fish.
GRABER: In the case of the red herring, up to a year.
TWILLEY: We are not trying to distract you with a false clue here. The famous red herrings of East Anglia were indeed salted, then dried, and then smoked over a hot fire of oak and turf for up to 48 hours, before being left to age in a room temperature smoky barn for another few weeks.
GRABER: This process turned what were originally silvery white, soft and delicate little fish into rock solid, super salty, super smoky, super aromatic dark brownish-red eight-inch rehydratable meals.
TWILLEY: This super smoked style herring was called “baconed herring,” and it certainly smelled savory enough to turn the head of a dog, and distract them from the scent of the fox they were supposed to be hunting. Which is the story behind the expression “red herring!”
GRABER: Red herring mystery solved. One quick note—we’ve been talking about how the compounds in smoke are harmful if you breathe them, and harmful to microbes on the surface of your meat or fish. But they don’t seem to be harmful to eat in moderation. Researchers so far haven’t been able to tease out the link between these foods and the compounds in them and the health impacts. And while there are some compounds that seem to be potentially carcinogenic, even researchers who study smoked foods say eating them shouldn’t be a problem if it’s not your main source of calories.
TWILLEY: Which is great news because I will not give up my smoked salmon and smoked trout willingly.
GRABER: Me either. I love the smoked fish that Matt makes in downtown Boston. He showed us about a half dozen smokers he has in his production area.
BAUMANN: They almost look like yeah, big freezers, yeah, stainless steel freezers, with doors that swing open on them and a little control panel that you can set your temperatures and your times. They make no noise.They just emit smoke.
GRABER: Those huge steel freezer-like contraptions have it all—they have a compartment for the wood and charcoal at the bottom, they have racks for the fish, they have sensors to monitor the temperature and humidity even from outside the smoker, they have air ducts at the top so the smoke can escape.
TWILLEY: These machines make smoking fish look easy, but both Harold and Matt told us there’s actually quite an art to it. After all, not all smoke tastes good.
BAUMANN: Really, you want to think of it when if you’re the piece of fish that’s in there, you just want to be kissed by the smoke and have that smoke pass right by. You don’t want that smoke recirculating because smoke can get stale.
TWILLEY: Those of us who made the acquaintance of Mr. Bong back in college will be familiar with this phenomenon. As the molecules in smoke bang into each other in an enclosed space and begin cooling down again, they start joining forces and turning into new molecules that have a different smell—one that we perceive as stale.
GRABER: So that’s one thing that can go wrong—Matt’s colleagues keep an eye on the smokers to make sure there’s a constant flow of wispy smoke out the top that says that nothing is getting stale inside. And then, like Harold told us, high temperatures can lead to bad tasting smoke.
MCGEE: It can make a tremendous difference because if you, if you let the the fire kind of go out of control—and I can speak from personal experience on this score—you end up with those harsher, tarry volatile molecules being produced and they’re just as good at sticking to the surface of the of the meat as the spicy and sweet molecules are. And that’s why it’s really important to keep the temperature in a kind of medium range where you’re creating those sweet and spicy molecules, but not creating the tarry, phenolic, medicinal ones.
TWILLEY: Once the fire gets too hot, the nice chemicals in smoke are overwhelmed by ones that smell harsh and ashy—hence why we hate the smell of burnt toast, but love love love gently smoked fish.
GRABER: Matt says this need to smoke it gently, that’s actually where people often go wrong.
BAUMANN: A lot of people take it out of the brine, put it on their smoker and come back a few hours later and it will taste like a trash fire. Likely, you weren’t controlling the temperature in your chamber very well and whatever wood or fuel you’re using ignited and once that wood ignites, it creates a black smoke and you’re really going to ruin the product.
TWILLEY: But the smoke itself is not the only thing Matt has to worry about. There’s what you’re actually smoking.
GRABER: Matt says oily fish are great for smoking because they stay moist even after all that time in the heat. When Matt first tried to smoke haddock—which is definitely not an oily fish at all—it didn’t work out so well. The fish totally dried out.
BAUMANN: The first time I smoked it, I opened up the smokers and said, Where’d the haddock go, because you lost half of it. We’ve been smoking haddock for probably about seven years and we’re much better at it now than than we were. But it’s still the toughest fish that we smoke.
TWILLEY: Yep, turns out when you cook fish in a hot smoker, water will evaporate off.
GRABER: That’s something you have to watch out for when you’re smoking food, but it turns out that water can actually also absorb smoke, too, in a good way.
TWILLEY: Which is an observation that led to a product.
MCGEE: Liquid smoke is essentially smoke that has been passed through water. And then the water has been kept and the other stuff that’s in smoke, which, once you pass it into water, becomes obvious as this kind of gunky particulate matter, that’s screened out. And what you’re left with are the soluble materials that are responsible to a large extent for carrying the flavor.
GRABER: A Kansas City pharmacist realized that liquids could in fact absorb those flavors, and he invented Liquid Smoke in 1895. Adding a drop of liquid smoke could give you the flavors of smoked foods without actually needing to spend all that time smoking them. Though of course it doesn’t have the same effect on texture or improvements in storage times.
TWILLEY: People look down on liquid smoke as a shortcut, but it is actually the very same chemicals that settle onto the surface of Matt’s bluefish or your favorite barbecue.
GRABER: So my partner Tim and I did our own science experiment on whether smoke gets into liquid—we bought 20 jumbo oysters. And we popped them on the grill, we had charcoal and some hickory chips, and the plan was that the muscle that holds the oysters closed would relax and open in the heat, and then that smoke could get into all the delicious brine.
TIM: I’m going to just pop them on here. GRILL CLANGING Don’t want them over too much heat. It’s getting a little hot! SHELLS RATTLING They’re so big you can’t tell what’s the bottom and what’s the top.
GRABER: It took longer than expected to get them to open, because they were really huge. But then came the tasting. We put on some melted brown butter, and a few dashes of hot sauce.
TIM: Oh wow. LAUGHS It tastes like an oyster at a clambake on the beach, like with a fire going and the wind. It’s great.
GRABER: Mmmmmm. Wow. With the smoke and the brown butter and the hot sauce. Oh my god, it’s amazing. Smoke for the win.
TWILLEY: We are 100% signed up members of team smoked fish here at Gastropod, in case you hadn’t noticed. But much of the world is on team smoked meat.
GRABER: And in the US, the most famous smoked meat is barbecue. And like our listener Nicole, we have to admit we don’t really know exactly what barbecue is. So we went to an expert.
ADRIAN MILLER: Yeah, finding the definition of barbecue is like trying to chase and hold a greased pig. It’s really slippery.
TWILLEY: This is Adrian Miller—he’s been on the show a couple times before talking about mac and cheese and watermelon, and he’s just written a comprehensive history of barbecue in America called Black Smoke. But even he struggled to pin down exactly what barbecue is.
GRABER: At the end of the day, in general, Adrian says what barbecue is—it’s a technique that developed in America to cook meat low and slow. It’s cooked usually in a pit over charcoal and wood for many, many hours at low temperatures. It might be a whole animal or part of an animal, it might have sauce, it might not, but really, this is barbecue.
TWILLEY: And even barbecue novices like us realize that in America, it is a very sacred and special thing and in general A Very Big Deal.
KEVIN BLUDSO: Slow and low, that’s how we roll. LAUGHS These ribs are so tender, you can pull the rib off just like that. EATING. Mm mm mm. Damn!
MIKE CHEN: Like, it should be in a museum encased, like you know, security guards everywhere. This meat, like when you break through this little layer of spiced, perfectly crusty, slightly charred outer shell, and you get to this part here? I’m gonna go ahead and call this the tender zone. When you’re in the tender zone, you no longer need to do anything besides just kiss it. And this thing falls apart, you see all that fat? When you take a bite, this will just start melting on your tongue, creating this magical, silky smooth, rich sauna-like experience for your tastebuds.
GRABER: Those are clips from the Southern Foodways Alliance and Mike Chen of Strictly Dumpling, and that is some serious love there. What is it that makes people so obsess over this particular style of cooking meat?
MILLER: Deliciousness. So the result would be sublimely smoked meat. You don’t want it too heavily smoked. But just sublimely smoked meat that’s tender but still has a little bit of firmness to it.
TWILLEY: So it’s no mystery why barbecue is such a big deal in the US. People like it. The real mystery, Adrian told us, is where barbecue was invented—where it comes from?
MILLER: So I was really interested in this question because, believe me, I wanted to say it came from West Africa. I wanted to say barbecue is West African, cross my arms in an X and say “Wakanda forever.” But when you look at pre-colonization, or at least pre-European contact in West Africa, the way that West Africans cook meat does not really look like what we call barbecue today.
GRABER: Adrian says the people who lived in the regions of West Africa who were enslaved in the U.S., in their food traditions, they cut up meat in small pieces and stewed it, they didn’t cook large pieces over fires for a long period of time. So they didn’t invent barbecue.
TWILLEY: The most common origin story for barbecue is actually that it’s an indigenous native American tradition.
MILLER: So Europeans who are lost show up in the Caribbean. They find some indigenous people cooking a type of meat and the word barbecue tries to approximate what the indigenous people were calling that type of cooking.
GRABER: In fact, this story comes from Columbus’s landing in Cuba in what’s now Guantanamo Bay.
MILLER: His party arrives on this island and they see basically this wooden platform on raised sticks. And then, you know, this is a sign of things to come, without even asking for permission, they just helped themselves to what was cooking.
TWILLEY: It wasn’t ‘til later, when the indigenous people come back to check on how their smoked food was doing, that Columbus learned that what he’d stolen was called barbecue—although Adrian says that to the best of our knowledge, it seems as though the word barbecue originally referred to the wooden platform thing that the meat was sitting on.
GRABER: And the Native islanders weren’t even actually barbecuing the meat as we’d know it today, they were more smoking and drying it out like jerky. But the word itself seems to have stuck. So then where did this low and slow method of cooking whole animals come from?
TWILLEY: Not Europe. Back home, in Spain, Columbus and even my compatriots in Britain—we also didn’t have a barbecuing tradition. We had spit roasts, which is cooking a whole animal over fire, yes, but at a much hotter temperature, while the carcass is being rotated around.
GRABER: That’s kind of the same spirit as grilling, which also uses really high heat, but that’s usually smaller, thinner pieces of meat that will cook more quickly over that really hot fire.
TWILLEY: So the long and short is that barbecue as an American cooking style has no obvious single ancestor.
MILLER: I think it is a mix of Native American smoking traditions in Virginia that were kind of melded with European grilling traditions and then later West African expertise in cooking meat. So I think all of those things come together to create barbecue in Virginia.
TWILLEY: It’s kind of a fuzzy origin story and not so great for most of the people in it.
MILLER: So one thing I wasn’t really aware of previously is the extent that indigenous people were enslaved by whites first before they transitioned to African slavery. So the first barbecue cooks were Native Americans, of course, as free people because they were doing their own thing that was called barbecue. And then when Europeans started redefining what barbecue was, they actually started having enslaved indigenous people making this food. But indigenous slavery didn’t work for a number of reasons. And so they transition to African slavery. And here’s the thing, old school barbecue is hard work. Somebody’s got to chop all the wood. Somebody’s got to start burning it down and tending the fire. Somebody’s got to get those animals, butcher them and process them and prepare them for the cooking. And then somebody has to do that cooking where they’re flipping whole animal carcasses over a live fire and dousing with sauce. And so the racial etiquette of much of our nation’s history is that if there’s hard work to be done, make Black people do it and don’t compensate them.
GRABER: Despite, well, really, because of all the hard work involved, African Americans became experts at barbecue. Adrian says their contribution in particular to this uniquely American cooking style was their skilled use of spices.
TWILLEY: And thus barbecue was transformed—from a Native word for a platform for smoking meat to preserve it to today’s expansive and slippery term—barbecue means a cooking method, the dish itself, and the social event around it. And barbecues certainly became the center of social life in the pre-Civil War south.
MILLER: Yeah, so barbecue started out as rowdy parties, really, with white people shooting guns, drinking liquor and gambling. And then in the late seventeen hundreds, as we coalesce as a nation, barbecue became part of just kind of civic pride. And I argue that barbecue was well suited for these occasions because barbecue was scalable. Really, it just depended on how much land you had, how many animals you had and how much labor you had. You could cook a ton of barbecue. And we get reports that, you know, there were barbecues where 30,000 people show up or 50,000 people. Now, satellite technology was not really developed then, so I don’t know if these crowd sizes are accurate, but what we do know is that there were a lot of people showing up for barbecue.
GRABER: And for a long time, too. Throughout the 1800s and early 1900s, people held barbecues for social gatherings, for political campaign events, for Independence Day parties. Barbecues were it.
TWILLEY: White people loved attending barbecues and eating barbecue. But the production of all things barbecue was an entirely African American area of expertise.
MILLER: Barbecue for a long time was a Black experience, in this sense. African Americans were primarily responsible for the preparation of the barbecue, for the serving of the barbecue. And then after the barbecue was finished, they were the entertainers. And so, you know, you have all of these accounts of whites just watching barbecue being made, which, you know, it’s a spectacle. I could see why people would be interested in watching that. And then Blacks serving them. And then there would be another set of African Americans to entertain. So they would sing spirituals, they would do dances, sometimes games and something called a cake walk. So they would do all of these things and it was white entertainment.
GRABER: Barbecue didn’t just stay in Virginia where it was invented, either. It moved around the country in two ways. Plantation agriculture expanded throughout the south and further westward, and the barbecue experience came along.
MILLER: So the earliest reports that we have of Tennessee barbecue, Kentucky barbecue and Texas barbecue are these Virginians who brought their enslaved people and they’re trying to transplant their culture.
TWILLEY: And then after the Civil War, African Americans were free to move to cities or leave the south entirely, and many did. And of course, they needed to earn a living.
MILLER: So barbecue was one of the three ways that food entrepreneurs made a lot of money. When people left the south—or even in the south, when they started restaurants, usually they featured special occasion food. It was the stuff that you normally couldn’t get or make yourself, and you relied on some expertise. And so typically it was fried chicken, fried fish and barbecue. Those are like the three main sellers for these entrepreneurs. And so what you find is that during the Great Migration, a period that lasted seven decades, you’re finding African Americans going to a new place and maybe they were brought there to do a special event barbecue and they stay. But we find African Americans showing up in places and starting businesses.
GRABER: And as African Americans moved around the U.S. and moved into cities, the meaning of barbecue started to shift.
MILLER: In urban spaces, it’s harder to, you know, clear out a bunch of land and roast a bunch of pigs or animals. And so you get the development of artificial pits of concrete cinder block pits. You also have mobile pits.
TWILLEY: Barbecue also stopped relying on wood. The first patent for charcoal briquettes was issued in 1897, although they didn’t become popular until Henry Ford—yes, the car manufacturer—he teamed up with his cousin, realtor Edward Kingsford, to create their own version in the 1920s. Barbecue could now happen anywhere.
GRABER: Another aspect of this transformation was that space was kind of limited indoors. It’d be hard to barbecue an entire pig.
MILLER: And so they started focusing on individual cuts of meat. And we also have some influences from immigrants from other parts of the world who start to barbecue. So, for instance, North Carolina, the Lexington or Piedmont style, is known for cooking pork shoulders. There’s a lot of evidence that that doesn’t really develop until we get Central European immigrants bringing their kind of pork shoulder traditions to the American south.
TWILLEY: Oh yeah. Barbecue styles. That’s a whole thing. Barbecue people get very obsessed about all the different barbecue styles.
MILLER: Eastern North Carolina would be more whole hog cooking with the red pepper and vinegar sauce. Lexington or Piedmont style is more pork shoulders with a little ketchup added to the vinegar sauce. Then you’ve got South Carolina, that’s also a whole hog cooking area. Then you’ve got a North Florida style, which is pork spare ribs with a kind of a mustard based sauce. And then there’s an amorphous kind of Deep South barbecue, which is, I would say pork, ribs and also pork shoulder, just kind of chopped pork, chicken with a thin, kind of slightly sweet sauce. West Tennessee is more whole hog. So that seems like a direct transplant from Virginia. Kentucky barbecue has become known for lamb, with a worcestershire based sauce. St. Louis is known for ribs and also snoots, which are the tips of pig snouts. And then going back down to Kansas City, you’ve got beef and that’s where burnt ends were invented.
GRABER: Whew. Sorry for speeding that up—but that isn’t even all the different kinds of barbecue Adrian describes!
TWILLEY: We left out the barbecue spaghetti. You can thank us later.
GRABER: And all the while, barbecues remained completely central to African American life.
MILLER: So barbecue is key to the African American community. It’s one of those types of food that just shows up everywhere. And so it’s definitely part of our social life, church life, family reunions, especially during the summer.
TWILLEY: Adrian may not have been able to find an African origin for barbecue, but he’s pretty conclusively made the case for it being a food that belongs to the African American community.
GRABER: So then how did barbecue get so white?
TWILLEY: This is exactly what Adrian asked himself after watching Paula Deen’s “Southern Barbecue,” which was a Food Network special in 2004.
PAULA DEEN: Now whether you like your barbecue basted or browned, sizzled or seared, we’re gonna hit the road for the mother of all barbecue events in Memphis, Tennessee. Home of Elvis, and where everyone agrees: Pork is king!
MILLER: So I watched this show and it was an hour long show and when the credits were rolling, not one Black person was interviewed. And I just thought, OK, well, maybe I got it twisted. Maybe it was Paula Deen’s Scandinavian barbecue.
DEEN: But where’s the beef, you’re asking? Don’t you worry, we’re off to the Lone Star state, where bigger is better and barbecue means brisket.
MILLER: So then I started looking around and I just noticed in magazines, TV shows, it was the same thing.
GRABER: This is basically when the Food Network was in full swing, and food TV in general was everywhere—we talked about this recently on our TV Dinners episode. And so Adrian watched a lot of food TV. And everything he saw about barbecue—it was all white.
BOBBY FLAY: Hey everybody, I’m Bobby Flay, welcome to “Barbecue Addiction”—today we’re cooking some Southern food on the barbecue, you know ‘em as ribs. Crowd favorite. We’re gonna cook some pork ribs on the grill, we’re gonna smoke them, we’re gonna make a root beer barbecue sauce. Yeah.
HOST: This season on “BBQ Pitmasters”: For the next six weeks, the top 20 BBQ pitmasters in the country face off on the road to a $100,000 prize and the Kingsford Charcoal cup.
TWILLEY: And it wasn’t just TV that was white washing barbecue. Adrian found an article called “Who’s Who in Barbecue” from Bon Appetit, back in 2003.
MILLER: They profiled, I want to say, like 20 people and they made it look like this backyard barbecue scene. And they’re all playing croquet and badminton and all this kind of stuff. And there’s not one African American featured in that whole thing.
GRABER: White people had been increasingly interested in doing some barbecuing themselves over the course of the last century, not just watching Black people barbecue. But then in the past few decades, they eclipsed Black people entirely. How did African Americans disappear from the barbecue universe, the one they’d basically created?
MILLER: Unfortunately, when it comes to media in this country, most of the people who decide what stories get told are white. And if they don’t have diversity as a value, they just talk to their other white friends about who they should spotlight. And so that the very time that barbecue was becoming of interest and people were looking for curators, they were just presented with white people, mainly white dudes, over and over and over again.
TWILLEY: Adrian says those white guys had all learned how to barbecue from African Americans.
MILLER: Not everybody admitted it but if you if you read their bios and pay very close attention to how they’d say they got in the barbecue game, you’ll find out that they learned from an African American. Because African Americans dominated barbecue cooking for a couple centuries. So it’s hard for somebody to say that they were not influenced by a Black barbecuer at some point.
GRABER: There were of course plenty of Black-owned bbq joints around the country, but they didn’t have the same spiffy look to them that a lot of the white reviewers expected from a restaurant.
MILLER: Black run barbecue joints are going to look run down. And that speaks to the chronic lack of access to capital that Black entrepreneurs face. So usually they’re getting a building that’s worn down and they don’t have enough money to fix it up or do all the other things that you might see in other barbecue places.
TWILLEY: Plus those Black-owned restaurants were likely going to be in neighborhoods that had been systematically underinvested in, thanks to redlining and more racist loan-making and government policies.
GRABER: And those weren’t the neighborhoods that local newspaper restaurant reviewers tended to head to, to find a place to review.
MILLER: You know, a lot of people in a community looked, back then at least, look to the local dining reporter or the restaurant reviewer for guidance on where to go. And so even if a place was good, there was often coded language saying, Oh, you might get killed if you go to this place because it’s in a part of town where there are a lot of Black people. And so, you know, there are code words like, oh, it’s a sketchy neighborhood or it’s an up and coming neighborhood or, you know, things like that. But this is even if a Black place got to the point where it was profiled by a restaurant reviewer. A lot of times they just didn’t pay attention to them.
GRABER: The situation is starting to change today. Eaters are searching out a wider variety and diversity of restaurants. Black chefs are getting more attention. Like Mary and Deborah Jones who were featured on “Queer Eye.”
DEBORAH JONES: My name is Deborah Jones and they call me “Little.”
MARY JONES: And my name is Mary Jones, and they call me “Shorty.” Our passion is to barbecue. It’s like a art.
DEBORAH JONES: Ok, we got a combo plate, burnt ends and beef with a baked beans.
MARY JONES: I don’t know who would get out there and cook that barbecue like we do.
MILLER: So we have a few people who are making their way. You know, Rodney Scott got the James Beard Award for Best Chef a couple of years ago.
CLIP RODNEY SCOTT: May of 2018, we won the James Beard Award for best chef Southeast. When I got to the stage and I looked back and I thought about all of the chainsaw cutting and the smoking hogs all night and learning different styles and techniques from different areas and regions, all of this came full circle and that was the night that I said, it’s time for us to go to work and spread the love.
MILLER: I would say that Rodney Scott is definitely charting that path. He’s got multiple restaurants now. And, you know, truth be told, he’s gotten baking from some white entrepreneurs. It helps. I think the same is going to be true for Ed Mitchell. So the question is, will they inspire others, African Americans, to do this? And I think they will.
TWILLEY: Adrian is actually part of this movement—he’s trained as a barbecue judge to increase representation. And he’s joined the board of the Barbecue Hall of Fame, whose inductees were very pale indeed until quite recently.
GRABER: Black owned barbecue is finally on the rise again—Adrian says it’s not getting as much attention as it should, but at least it’s a positive trend—and smoke in general is in the spotlight again.
TWILLEY: Like Harold said, ever since humans learned how to tame fire, smoke became our constant companion. Until we began to figure out other ways to preserve our food—first canning, and then the all-important, most interesting subject in the world, refrigeration.
GRABER: Smoke kind of fell out of favor, but it is hot once again. Everyone’s writing articles about smoky flavors, people are smoking all kinds of foods at home.
TWILLEY: The Big Green Egg is the new Weber Grill, the trendy people at the Nordic Food Lab put out a guide to smoking all kinds of trendy foraged ingredients, and the author of a recent book on smoking called Project Smoke says smoke is the new salt.
GRABER: I just got an email advertising smoked rhubarb preserves, smoked salt, smoked maple bourbon, smoked salmon bacon, and smoked lemon cocktail syrup.
TWILLEY: It is officially a trend once Cynthia gets an email. I’ll be honest, alongside smoked fish, smoked booze is in fact where it’s really at, for me. Mezcal is having a moment right now—that’s a traditional smoked agave spirit. But mixologists are taking the smoke trend to an entirely new level.
GRABER: We unfortunately can’t visit trendy bars in person these days, but we know someone who is a cocktail expert—it’s Tom Gilliford, you might remember him either from “The Great British Bake Off,” or perhaps from the Great Gastropod Pudding Off. And he quite generously agreed to help us out from afar.
TOM GILLIFORD: Hello, Gastropod. We’re going to make you a really smoky drink today, we’re going to call it the old Smoky. It’s going to be a twist on a classic old fashioned that incorporates five different types of smokes.
TWILLEY: We asked for some smoke, and we got five different kinds, but that is Tom for you. He’s working on a cocktail book these days, and, as you may remember from Bake Off, he also loves a good kitchen gadget. So he got out his home smoker gun.
GILLIFORD: We’re going to start by infusing some caster sugar with cherry wood smoke. We’re going to use a little home smoker gun to do that and just pump some smoke from cherry wood wood chips into a sealed container full of caster sugar. Just give that a little shake and it’s going to infuse it with that beautiful scented cherrywood flavor. SMOKER GUN WHIRRING, SUGAR SHAKING
GRABER: I’m going to admit that I don’t even know what a smoker gun is, but I think it sounds amazing. I might need one.
TWILLEY: Next up, the whisky. Our listener Keith, the one who asked us to make an episode about smoke, he wrote to us because he was enjoying a glass of Lagavulin, which has a lovely smokey taste from the malt, which is dried over burning peat.
GRABER: The malt—or fermented barley—it’s dried for all whiskeys, but the drying process for most other kinds uses a fuel that isn’t as smoky as peat gets. Peaty whiskeys are smokier-tasting whiskeys, and the smoke from peat has a particular flavor that smoky whiskey people love.
TWILLEY: Keith was drinking Lagavulin, which is especially peaty and briny. Tom used a different whiskey from the same part of Scotland, same basic idea.
GILLIFORD: So we’re going to use a great one, the Port Askaig eight-year-old today. We’re going to use 50 milliliters, or two ounces if you’re an American. CORK SQUEAKING, LIQUID POURING
GRABER: Tom actually made his own bitters for the drink from chipotles and lapsang souchong tea, both of which are super smoky. Chipotles are smoked jalapeños, and lapsang souchong is a tea that is smoke dried over pine wood. BITTERS DROPPER RATTLING
GILLIFORD: Once you’ve got your bitters in there, give it another little stir. STIRRING IN GLASS Just to mix them in and then it’s time to add your ice. ICE CUBES DROPPING INTO GLASS
TWILLEY: So if you’ve been keeping count, that’s four kinds of smoke, but Tom promised us five. The last one is a bit of a dramatic flourish.
GILLIFORD: So to do this, what you need to do is grab yourself a little bit of tin foil or aluminum foil… CRINKLY FOIL Place that over the top of the drink, and then take a piece of cinnamon and poke it through the top of the tin foil so that it’s half in and half out. FOIL TEARING Then take your aluminum foil off and you’re going to set fire to the bit that’s dangling into the drink. MATCH STRIKE Once you’ve got a little layer of cinnamon smoke, the drink is ready to go. So just before you serve it either to yourself or someone else, you’re going to pop off the aluminum foil lid and they’ll just have a waft of beautiful, scented cinnamon smoke to start them off on this smoky drink journey. FOIL PEELING OFF
GRABER: It kills me that we couldn’t watch, smell, and taste this all ourselves, it was all done in London, but Tom did at least let us know how it turned out.
GILLIFORD: INHALES You’ve got the cinnamon smoke. We’ve got that beautiful pine resin smoke from the lapsang souchong tea and then sitting behind that, that really earthy peaty smoke. When we give it a taste. SIP Aaah. That’s why we really get that beautiful cherrywood smoke, that fresher smoke from the sugar. And what we get is layer after layer after layer of different smokes. Bye Gastropod! And as I take a drink… Microbes! SIP
TWILLEY: Tom Gilliford made us recipe cards for his Old Smoky cocktail because he is literally the best. And we’ve got them on our website for you all. Make it, and share the pictures!
GRABER: Thank you Tom, and I hope to try it in person one day. Also, thanks of course to Harold McGee, Matt Baumann, and Adrian Miller, we’ve got links to their books and companies on our website, gastropod.com
TWILLEY: Plus a huge thanks to Gastropod producer Sonja Swanson, whose brilliant idea most of the things in this episode were.
GRABER: We’ll be back in two weeks with even more heat…