Dr. Craig Pascoe’s a barbecue expert and Georgia College history professor - a “big carnivore,” who’s been able to “turn academics into something more enjoyable.”
He’s the kind of guy who can eat 2 pounds of meat at one sitting and has done exactly that as a barbecue judge. He knows good grilling and how something known mostly as Southern is served differently all over the world. He can explain where smoked meat eased racial tensions, how cooking methods originated or changed with migration and why food traditions make us who we are today.
“It’s a sneaky way of teaching history,” said Pascoe, who’s taught 16 years at Georgia College. “Barbecue’s a sense of community. It’s about people, family, customs and traditions. It’s more of an event, something everyone has at least some connection with.”
Every time Pascoe thinks barbecue’s been over-publicized on TV, he’s amazed to learn it still captivates the public. His passion led him on a sabbatical last spring to plan an exhibit called “Smokin’ History” - scheduled to open May 2018 at the Atlanta History Center. Three interns helped research topics, collect oral histories, identify artifacts and locate images for the 3200-sq.ft. exhibit.
“We want to make it clear to people that barbecue is not just food,” Pascoe said. “The word barbecue can be a noun, an adjective, a verb. It can be an event. It can be a meal. So when you say barbecue - it can be a sauce, it can be the contents or the product itself.”
Senior and history major Madlyn Kaufman of Canton, Georgia interned because “it was a chance to work at a prestigious history center with one of my favorite professors.”
“I think the thing I found most interesting would have to be how barbecue is such a staple in American society” and “crosses all social boundaries,” Kaufman said.
About 20 students from Pascoe’s Southern Foodways and Traditions course this fall will record testimonies from local pit masters and sample Georgia barbecues like Old Clinton in Gray, Hot Thomas’ near Athens, Fresh Air in Jackson and one of his favorites: BL Smokers in Macon - a “dilapidated gas station” with a small window and couple seats.
With a recent $100,000 sponsorship from Rich Foundation, Pascoe’s now in the design stage. The yearlong exhibit will cost $800,000 and include eight informational sections. Displays will contain items like an original neon sign from Fincher’s Bar-B-Q in Macon, antique Brunswick stew pots, pit artifacts, competition-style smokers, old menus and recipes. Programming will keep the topic fresh and crowds coming - like a Juneteenth Celebration to commemorate emancipation, a Bluegrass festival, cooking classes, children- and women-only barbecue competitions and academic lectures.
“Dr. Craig Pascoe brings great energy and enthusiasm to the study of history through some deeply engaging courses and research,’ said Dr. Aran MacKinnon, professor and chair of history and geography. “It is thrilling to see him inspire our students to connect their academic skills with a vital piece of our past and then share it with the wider community and the country.”
Pascoe’s fascination grew while debating the nature of barbecue. People would ask: What’s the right way to barbecue? Red sauce or vinegar? Pulled pork or ribs? He’d get different answers in different places from Southerners, depending on their traditions. Some insisted barbecue cooks over wood; others, charcoal. Some said meat cooks slow and low; others, seared at high temperatures.
Barbecue changes according to state, region or period, Pascoe said. It can be chicken, pork, beef brisket and even sausage - an influence brought to Texas in the 1800s by German immigrant butchers. In the early 20th Century, African-Americans migrated north from rural South along the Mississippi River to Chicago where they didn’t have backyards to dig pits. Some improvised, using glass aquariums to smoke meat, a custom still seen today. In Kansas City, they used sawed-off oil drums as smokers.
The word barbecue most likely comes from ‘barbacoa,’ used by Native Americans who gathered grass A-frame over fires to smoke meat. In Asia, people cooked on battlefields in upside-down shields that became today’s modern wok. Mexicans wrapped and buried heads of cows with coals. Africans used vinegar to kill germs and cut grease, as well as enhance the meat’s flavor.
In North Carolina, people put coleslaw on top of barbecued pork sandwiches. Along the Georgia coast, barbecue includes Brunswick stew. And, in Columbus, Georgia, they serve it with mustard sauce - something Pascoe said is usually associated with central and southern South Carolina.
Differences reflect the history, environment and contributions of numerous groups, he said. Passed generation to generation, these traditions give people a sense of who they are and where they belong.
“When you cook something over hot coals, it’s universal,” Pascoe said. “You get a merging of cultures with different methods and styles and ingredients. That’s the base of American barbecue.”
During segregation in the South, popularity of barbecue helped ease racial tensions, Pascoe said. He recalls an establishment in the 1960s outside Milledgeville where people got a plate, walked out back to a pit, took tongs and pulled meat off the pig. Then they’d go inside, pay by the pound and sit to eat – “blacks and whites” together.
That place near Milledgeville stood out as unusually tolerant, Pascoe said, “blurring the color lines” because “barbecue is something everyone enjoys.”
“It just seems like barbecue’s something where all those rigid rules get a little soft. I’m not saying it was a perfect world. I’m just saying it was a start. We couldn’t just change our society in the ‘50s and ‘60s like that,” Pascoe said, snapping his fingers. “There had to be some tears in the wall before the civil-rights movement could actually succeed.”
That ability to unify is still seen today - amid shootings and racial strife in Chicago, Milwaukee and Dallas. Pascoe said police host barbecues with the African-American community, because “it tends to bring people together.”
Or, it can divide – as people stand around grills and argue about what’s good barbecue.
“While his exhibit will undoubtedly have national appeal,” MacKinnon said. “I wonder if it also may provoke as many debates as it resolves?”