Above: Rodney Scott, a celebrated barbecue restaurateur in Charleston, South Carolina, is an example of the new traditionalists who are reinvigorating barbecue by doing it the old-fashioned way. He sources his own meat and fuel, going so far as to choose and cut his own wood. His story will be one of many told in the Atlanta History Center’s exhibition Barbecue Nation, opening on May 5, 2018. Photo courtesy of Atlanta History Center

Barbecue exhibit at Atlanta History Center celebrates “the most truly American food”

Barbecue. It was born and named in the Caribbean and is older than the United States, but it still is considered a significant part of America’s native cuisine.

A taste for smoked meat both unites and divides us: Barbecue brings together fans from coast to coast while the never-resolved questions about barbecue — What kind of meat to use? How best to cook it? Chopped or sliced? Sauce or no sauce? — splinter us by region, state, even county and community.

The Atlanta History Center plans a new exhibition starting May 5 to examine the enduring allure of what the center describes as “the most truly American food.” The exhibition, called Barbecue Nation and scheduled to last through June 3, 2019, will survey barbecue’s role in American history.

“Barbecue touches on almost every part of our national history,” Barbecue Nation consulting curator and Atlanta author Jim Auchmutey, who is working on a book telling the story of barbecue, said in a press release from the history center.

“It involves the age of discovery, the colonial era, the Civil War, the settling of the West, the coming of immigrants, the Great Migration of blacks and whites from the South, the spread of automobiles, the expansion of suburbia and the rejiggering of gender roles. It is entwined with our politics and tangled up with our race relations.”

The history center’s exhibition will touch on styles of barbecue spread from North Carolina to Texas and from Kansas City to Memphis to Chicago; present an array of artifacts ranging from cookbooks to cooking gadgets; display vintage grills; and offer oral histories from restaurants, festivals and community gatherings, the history center said.

Barbecue Nation also will survey barbecue’s contributions to politics, including a presentation on a 1909 banquet in Atlanta for then President-elect William Howard Taft that featured barbecued possum, and another on a barbecue in 1889 that drew thousands of Union and Confederate vets to dine together in Chickamauga.

The Atlanta History Center is located at 130 West Paces Ferry Road in Atlanta. It is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 5:30 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets cost $18 for seniors (aged 65+), $21.50 for adults, $18 for students (aged 13+), $9 for youths aged 4 to 12 and free for children 3 and younger. For more information: 404-814-4000 or AtlantaHistoryCenter.com.

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.