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The University of Alabama

UA Professor Examines Cultural Impact of Barbecue on Alabama

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — There are places that love barbecue and do it well. Then there’s the South, where barbecue could be considered a second religion (behind only college football). A University of Alabama professor is set to explore how barbecue became a cultural phenomenon within the borders of the state.

Dr. Joshua Rothman, UA professor of history and African American Studies, received an $18,000 grant from the Southern Foodways Alliance to study barbecue in the state of Alabama as well as the state’s foodways — meaning how the regional cuisine of Alabama developed over time.

“As a professor of Southern history and director of the Summersell Center for Study of the South, I try to take in as many aspects of the South and Southern culture as possible,” Rothman said. Then comes a wry smile. “Plus, I like to eat.”

And eating is a key part of Southern culture. However, barbecue is one of those things that brings people together from all walks of life. And, from a historical perspective, it’s a relatively new point along the foodways path.

“Smoking meat has been around for a long time,” Rothman said. “It was a key way to preserve meat before refrigeration became widespread. But barbecue as we know it in the modern day is something that didn’t really become so hugely popular outside the South until much later.”

Now that barbecue has exploded onto the national scene, you can watch almost any TV cooking show and, chances are, you’ll see someone slow-cooking meat and coating it in barbecue sauce.

“Before it became such a national phenomenon, barbecue was very much a regional experience,” Rothman said. “People take it very seriously. They’ll just about fight to the death over the sauce alone.”

Even though food is obviously important in the state, researching and writing about Alabama foodways is an under-developed venture. That’s why the SFA and the state of Alabama funded the project.

“We’re hoping to publish two papers—one on barbecue in Alabama, and one on Alabama foodways,” Rothman said. Rothman will rely on two associates, doctoral candidate Mark Johnson, of Chicago, and graduate student Dana Alsen, of Palantine, Ill., for the research and writing.

“I’m very interested to see what they find,” Rothman said.  “The evolution of barbecue as we know it is very much a New World phenomenon. It will be interesting to explain how pork became a staple of the Southern diet and to explain how and why barbecue is popular across different subcultures within the South.”

An interest in food isn’t new for Rothman, who was a co-sponsor of the Druid City Garden Party in 2012. He even makes an appearance in the documentary film “Eating Alabama.” The sharing of food, family and friends continues to be an intriguing prospect for the New York native.

“There is a social element to barbecue that fits into Southern culture,” Rothman said. “You can’t make barbecue for just one person. You’re smoking a giant piece of meat that’s going to feed a lot of people.”

Once the papers are written and published, Rothman hopes to use part of that grant money to illustrate his point about barbecue.

“Once we’re done, we’re hoping to be able to bring some folks together and talk about what we’ve learned,” he said.

Over a plate of barbecue, of course.

UA’s history department is part of the College of Arts and Sciences, the University’s largest division and the largest liberal arts college in the state. Students from the College have won numerous national awards including Rhodes Scholarships, Goldwater Scholarships, Truman Scholarships and memberships on the USA Today Academic All American Team.

The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is experiencing significant growth in both enrollment and academic quality. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state's economy, is in keeping with UA's vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state's flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.