Kaitland Byrd’s new book Real Southern Barbecue: Constructing Authenticity in Southern Food Culture (Lexington Press, 2019) examines an archive of oral histories collected by the Southern Foodways Alliance featuring the voices of barbecue pit masters and restaurant owners from the South. Byrd argues that barbecue as a cultural product has a unique relationship to the idea of authenticity. There are some clearly defined elements that seem to make it easy for diners to decide if their barbecue is authentic from the particular cuts of meat and sauces to the sights and smells of the restaurant. However, like all cuisines, barbecue has to respond to the world around it in ways that might challenge traditional definitions of authenticity. Byrd considers “authenticity” to be an unspoken agreement between producers and consumers, something that can be “constructed” and “fabricated” and “consumed.” Byrd applies the idea of “impression management” from sociology to describe how barbecue producers communicate authenticity to consumers even as they have to innovate and deviate from some of their traditional methods in response to changing circumstances.
As Byrd explains, some barbecue purveyors have adapted to changes in consumer tastes and interests in health by offering leaner cuts of meat and emphasizing their traditional vegetable side dishes. They have also adapted to changes in agriculture and meat industries and responses to concerns about the environment, promoting barbecue as an original farm to table, tail to snout cuisine, embracing this vegetable-centric, lean-meat, farm-to-table movement as part of their impression management. One of the most significant challenges to authenticity that restauranteurs must manage are fire and building codes related to smoke, sometimes banning open pit smokers or requiring smokers to be separate buildings. As barbecue restaurants adopt electric smokers or impart flavor from liquid smoke, they must continue to communicate authenticity to consumers through other means. Byrd’s investigation highlights the creative and innovative methods of Southern pit masters and entrepreneurs.
Kaitland Byrd is Lecturer in sociology and visiting scholar at the National Center for Institutional Diversity at the University of Michigan.
Carrie Helms Tippen is Assistant Professor of English at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA, where she teaches courses in American Literature. Her 2018 book, Inventing Authenticity: How Cookbook Writers Redefine Southern Identity (University of Arkansas Press), examines the rhetorical strategies that writers use to prove the authenticity of their recipes in the narrative headnotes of contemporary cookbooks. Her academic work has been published in Gastronomica, Food and Foodways, American Studies, Southern Quarterly, and Food, Culture, and Society.
Eliza Weeks is a recent graduate of the Master of Food Studies program at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA. She hopes to do work related to amplifying diverse and often marginalized voices within the food system so that the opportunity to represent and share food and food culture is not limited to the privileged few. When Eliza is not on the job hunt she enjoys adventuring through new recipes, sharing food and stories with others, and cohosting her podcast Dear Human.
Carrie Helms Tippen is Assistant Professor of English at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA, where she teaches courses in American Literature.