The history of American food science, agriculture, and cuisine is rich with the contributions of pioneers who didn’t just overcome obstacles of existing methods and technology, but faced obstacles of racism and social injustice as well. Today we celebrate several of the many black professionals and cultures that have contributed to the food and flavor of America.
Influential Food Scientists
The science of food has a long history in America. Without continued innovative techniques in food preservation and agriculture, the challenges are numerous. America has been privy to notable pioneers in these respective fields who despite extreme systemic challenges, persevered.
Dr. Lloyd Augustus Hall is one of those pioneers we honor during Black History Month. Dr. Hall was born in 1894, in Elgin, Illinois. He attended high school where he was only one in five African American students. It was here that Dr. Hall developed an interest in chemistry. He graduated in the top ten of his class and received several scholarship offers from notable universities. Dr. Hall graduated from Northwestern University with a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degree by 1916. He would later attend Virginia State to acquire his Doctor of Science degree.
Dr. Lloyd Hall’s academic qualifications were stymied by the simple fact he was African American. His uphill battle with racism in the pursuit of employment was a challenge he was determined to overcome. Dr. Hall was eventually hired by the Chicago Department of Health Laboratories. His career quickly took off where he held notable positions as a senior scientist, chief chemist, and eventually director of research at Griffith Laboratories.
Dr. Hall’s career led to 59 U.S. patents in food science and technology. His area of expertise was in food-related chemistry, with a focus on meat preservation. No one wants spoiled meat, and the methods used to cure meat during the 1920s was to use table salt with either potassium nitrate or sodium chemicals. The problem with this method was that it was unreliable, often causing bitter, unpalatable tasting meat or spoilage.
Dr. Hall sought ways to shift the paradigm preservation methods of meats by combining tiny crystals of sodium nitrate and nitrite that suppressed the nitrogen that spoiled food. This complex combination of chemical salt was later patented and is still in use today. Another long-held belief was that spices preserved meat, the more spices added to meat, the longer it could be stored. Dr. Hall found that spices added to meat were actually dangerous, causing mold, yeast, and bacteria. His belief was a complete dichotomy of a method that had been accepted for decades.
Dr. Hall’s solution was to use ethylene oxide gas, a well-known insecticide that was effective in destroying food-borne microbes. He discovered a way to remove mixtures and gases by subjecting the food to a vacuum and then adding ethylene oxide gas into a vacuum chamber. This method, known as “vacuga sterilization” was later used for the sterilization of drugs, hospital supplies, and cosmetic supplies. Dr. Hall is responsible for many of the meat curing products, seasonings, emulsions, bakery products, antioxidants, protein hydrolysates, and other substances that keep our food fresh and flavorful today.
George Washington Carver is another notable scientist who studied agriculture and botany. He was the first African American to graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1894. Carver was commonly known as the “peanut man.” He advanced the use of peanuts by creating hundreds of industrial and commercial products from this underutilized nut.
During his work on soil chemistry, Carver discovered that many years of growing cotton actually depleted nutrients from the soil, which resulted in low crop yields. However, the nutrients could be restored through growing nitrogen-fixing plants, such as peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes. This increased the yields dramatically once the land was reverted to cotton crops after a few years.
Even though farmers were galvanized by this new crop maintenance process which produced high yields, they were also homogenous in their belief that it had an unexpected consequence, an overabundance of peanuts and no other use for them. Carver to the rescue, he found other uses for this beloved legume. In fact, over 300 uses were created by Carver using peanuts. From cooking oils, salad oil, punches, cosmetics, soaps, and even wood stains, Carver found ways to create a market for peanuts. Enjoy Worcestershire sauce? We can all thank Carver for this invention. Worcestershire sauce is a popular marinade for meat, especially beef. Many seasonings contain Worcestershire sauce and its enhancement of flavor on beef is considered unparalleled to any other seasoning.
Carver should also be recognized for helping poor farmers who struggled with the high cost of pig feed by using acorns as a food source, which would have the additional benefit of enriching fertilization of farmlands.
Dr. Lloyd Hall and George Carver contributed to food science technology during times of racial oppression and duplicitous efforts to prevent them from succeeding in their respected fields. They would both emerge, venerated for their contributions in food preservation and agriculture, and should be remembered as American pioneers in a united country.
The Origins of Barbecue
American food can be difficult to truly define; in many respects, one could argue that the majority of American cuisine has been created by the way of cultural exchange. Just as our nation has been built by those from other cultures, so too have many of our signature dishes arose from the flavors and techniques of their homelands. It’s little surprise that one of the most quintessentially American dishes, barbecue, arose the same way.
At its earliest origins, barbecue involved slow-cooking meat over sticks and saplings, a common activity among indigenous Americans and Caribbeans. In the Caribbean, this style of cooking was known as “barbacoa” by the indigenous Taino people, which first appeared in the writings of Spanish explorers as early as the 16th century. The Taino were known to smoke and dry meat in the sun, which could then be taken on long journeys or reconstituted with boiling water – the basis for modern-day jerky.
To keep the meat preserved, they would often add salt and aromatic spices, then wrap the meat in leaves. Once it was time to cook it, they would place the meat among hot rocks and cover it, or cook the meat on a wood lattice over the fire. Many of the spices they used (and the cooking style) evolved into what is now known as “jerk”. In 1698, a Dominican missionary named Pere Labat visited the West Indies and noticed that the native cooks used lime juice and spicy peppers to season their meat. It’s thought that this tradition came from Africa, where it was common to use citrus in a similar way.
The Hausa of West Africa also enjoyed fire-cooked meat, called “babbake,” which they would typically serve during special celebrations such as marriages or funerals. They would often half-smoke the meat during the trek from the bush to their homes, following up with spice rubs meant to help preserve the meat for the remainder of the journey and guard it against insects.
As the Spanish traveled from the Caribbean to the Americas, they brought barbacoa with them, along with vinegar and pigs. As exploration turned to colonialism, this unique way of cooking spread quickly among the Spanish, French, and English colonists, particularly in the south. Lemons and limes weren’t easy to come by in the colonies, so colonial cooks turned to using tangy vinegar as a substitute to flavor the meat and keep it succulent.
Prior to the Civil War, southern barbecue centered primarily on pork. Pigs are easy to raise and grow more quickly than cattle, which made them a more viable source of meat for the region. Additionally, when food supplies ran low, the pigs could be turned out into the forest to free-graze. Although this was convenient, it also made the pigs leaner at slaughter time, so slow-cooking the meat was also used as a way to tenderize it. In the years leading up to the Civil War, southerners ate an average of five pounds of pork for every pound of beef; their reliance on the meat even became a source of pride and patriotism, and it wasn’t uncommon for them to refuse to export the meat to the north.
By the nineteenth century, barbecue became a regular feature at church picnics, political rallies, and private parties in the south. It was noted at the time by journalist Johnathan Daniels that “Barbecue is the dish which binds together the taste of both the people of the big house and the poorest occupants of the back end of the broken-down barn.” Americans’ increasing love of barbecue grew to include simple barbecue pit restaurants that were open on the weekends for take-out – many of which were owned by black southerners. Despite racial segregation, white patrons frequented the restaurants, and they became seen as one of the first interracial meeting places.
Barbecue saw a national rise in patriotic interest during the Cold War. Despite its connections to Caribbean and African culture, barbecue was lifted up as an example of American exceptionalism and a mark of American identity. It quickly became adopted by the middle class and associated with consumerism and homeownership, cementing it as an “All-American” activity. Since the 1950s, barbecue has spread to other countries, including Australia and Germany, but it continues to be the most popular here in America.
Unfortunately, due to the history of slavery and colonialism, a lot of information about the original barbecuers has been lost. By the end of the Civil War, Africans and their American descendants had been cooking barbecue for nearly 200 years, with little written about them and their amazing contributions. However, some cooks made their name well-known after the Civil War and brought a huge influence to their communities and the world of barbecue as a whole.
Henry Perry is known as the Father of Kansas City Barbecue and was affectionately known as the “Barbecue King.” Born near Memphis Tennessee in 1875, Perry often said he had been “endowed with the gift of barbecue” since he was a child. Although not much is known about his childhood, Perry became well-known as a young man when he began selling smoked meats in Kansas City around 1907. As his business grew, he expanded from a cart to several restaurants, where he trained a generation of aspiring cooks, including Charlie and Arthur Bryant and Arthur Pickard, who later established the Gates Bar-B-Q chain of restaurants.
Perry’s barbecue was so popular that people of all races commonly frequented his restaurants, which were known as far north as Chicago. Despite his reputation as a powerful businessman, many accounts of his life mention his continually kind heart. He hosted a barbecue dinner for the Fourth of July in 1920, which was free to everyone under the age of 12 or over 65. Over 1000 people showed up that day, and the whole event cost Perry $500 – but he continued to host a free barbecue dinner yearly after that because he felt it was important to give back to the community who supported him.
Another influential barbecue cook was Adam Scott, a reverend in Goldsboro, North Carolina who began barbecuing as side work around the end of World War I. What started with catering parties eventually grew to one of the first sit-down restaurants in North Carolina. His barbecue was so well-liked that it was common for white people to come to his porch to pick up orders of smoked pork and barbecue sauce, despite segregation at the time. Scott’s son, Martel, learned the tricks of the trade from his father and they both worked together at Scott’s restaurants in Goldsboro until Martel took over ownership. One of the most influential contributions of Adam’s was his sauce recipe, a traditional vinegar-based, pepper-laced North Carolina-style barbecue sauce that Martel eventually bottled and sold in grocery stores throughout the Carolinas.
A more modern example of the continuing contributions to barbecue by African Americans is Lolis Eric Elie, a food historian, documentary filmmaker, and writer best known for a food-writing genre that’s become known as “barbecue journeys.” Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country (1996) describes Elie’s journey through the south in search of “this art, so vital to our national identity,” and was published during a time when many Americans were rediscovering their own barbecue traditions. In Cornbread Nation II: The United States of Barbecue, Elie states, “Like cornbread, barbecue is a food that unifies the vast expanse of the American South, an ever larger portion of the American mainstream.” Not only did his books inspire many home cooks, they also paved the way for a generation of racially and culturally diverse food writers.
Barbeque Sauce: Essential Flavors
Every pitmaster has his or her “secret sauce,” that trademark flavor blend which elevates their ribs and brisket to cult status. Barbeque sauces vary greatly, but most contemporary versions have six characterizing elements in common: a sauce base (usually tomato ketchup with garlic, onion, and sometimes butter), sweetening agent, souring agent, spices, smokey cues (from the meat it’s applied to, or from smoked ingredients like chipotle pepper), and a subtle-to-fiery kick of heat from chiles or mustard.
Although sources differ as to where and when the first barbecue sauce was invented, peppery vinegar-based sauces similar to the sauces used in the West Indies and West Africa have been documented as early as the 18th century. These pepper sauces are most similar to modern-day North Carolina sauce, with a spicy-tangy bite that was commonly attributed to the flavor preferences of African slaves and their American descendants. Since citrus was difficult to come by in the colonies, malt and apple cider vinegars were used in its place to give the sauces the sour tanginess we’re all familiar with today. In traditional African cooking, the peppers varied, as many varieties were thought to have been carried as seeds by birds from Portugal, however, any type of spicy pepper was favored, such as cayenne, piri piri, and other types of chilis.
In the West Indies, pimento (allspice) wood and leaves were used to give a robust smokiness and depth of flavor to the meat; in the colonies, oak, hickory, pecan, and sassafras were often used. As mentioned previously, it’s thought that the tradition of “jerking” meat also made its way into the colonies, bringing exciting flavors from Scotch Bonnet chilis, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, and scallions.
In addition to vinegar and spices, many recipes also included butter, mustard, garlic, and occasionally additions like wine. The first official mention of barbecue sauce appears to be from Mrs. Hill’s New Cookbook, published in 1867, just after the end of the Civil War: “Sauce for Barbecues. – Melt half a pound of butter; stir into it a large tablespoon of mustard, half a teaspoon of red pepper, one of black, salt to taste; add vinegar until the sauce has a strong acid taste. The quantity of vinegar will depend upon the strength of it. As soon as the meat becomes hot, begin to baste, and continue basting frequently until it is done; pour over the meat any sauce that remains.”
Other recipes included ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, horseradish, molasses, and brown sugar. As barbecue grew in the south and expanded outward, barbecue sauces became increasingly popular, causing recipes to spring up all over the country. Although many of us are probably most familiar with tomato-based sauces, these are somewhat newcomers to the world of barbecue, coming about near the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. New variations on the theme are constantly popping up, with every flavor you can imagine: chocolate, soy sauce, fruit, coffee, and even vanilla!
A Rich History, Remembered
We hope this summary has given you a newfound appreciation for both barbecue and the food scientists who have made significant contributions to our society throughout history. Although many of them have been forgotten by history, their contribution continues to thrive and evolve, with new flavors and techniques being developed all the time. Next time you enjoy some sizzling barbecue straight from the grill, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, take a moment to remember the rich history of its beginnings – and the many people who helped make it what it is today.
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