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Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Georgia Barbecue in the 1870s

John Herring's account of a barbecue in Georgia sometime in the 1870s is a fascinating look into the history of southern barbecue. John Lewis Herring was born on December 8, 1866, in Albany, Georgia. He was the son of William Jasper Herring and Rebecca Paul Herring. In 1886, he married Martha Susan Greene. They had 10 children. Herring was the editor of the Tifton Gazette newspaper for 26 years. In 1912, Herring briefly left the Gazette under the management of his sons to work as an associate editor with the Savannah Morning News. While in Savannah, he began writing a series of articles titled "Saturday Night Sketches" which describe life in the Wiregrass area of Georgia during the last half of the 19th century. The articles were published in the Gazette for several years. In 1918, they were published in Herring’s book titled Saturday Night Sketches; Stories of Old Wiregrass Georgia. Herring died in 1923. This account of a Georgia barbecue in the 1870s is from the chapter of Herring’s book titled “Fourth of July in the Olden Time.”

Herring makes it clear that Brunswick stew was not widely served at Georgia barbecues until after the Reconstruction era. In the book Brunswick Stew: A Virginia Tradition, I show in great detail with documented sources that Brunswick stew was most certainly born in Brunswick County, Virginia, not Brunswick, Georgia, as is claimed by some today. Herring also points out that by the early 1900s, southern barbecue had changed. I document and describe the changes to southern barbecue after the end of the Civil War and some of the causes in the book Virginia Barbecue: A History. Stating, "barbecue in those days was seasoned in the cooking," Herring was referring to the emerging use of barbecue sauces served on the side and the use of rubs to season the meat before placing it on the pit. In the 1870s, unseasoned animal carcasses were placed  on a grill set over a pit dug in the ground filled with hot coals. The only seasoning put on the meat came from the vinegar-based basting mixture that was applied as it cooked. By the early 20th century, barbecue with sauce served on the side was becoming a common offering. At any rate, the account of the old time barbecue is well worth the read.

"Oh, Lordy, Ma; Jack Kilcrease has drunk seventeen cups o' coffee, and now it's all gone."  The plaintive wail of the bereaved caused some of the eaters nearby to turn their heads and look, but their attention was brief. Four or five deep, they stood by long lines of tables, the men outside, the women inside, with hands full of barbecued meat and cornbread, jaws working, and pocket-knives cutting from time to time liberal portions to supply the vacancy the expanded swallows created. 
The one feature of the festival of forty years ago in which time has wrought little change is the barbecue. There is a difference in detail now, but the essentials are about the same as half a century gone. 
Then there was not much of a display of Old Glory, for too many men were alive to whom the flag brought unpleasant memories; but the speech was pretty much the same; the barbecue almost the same — only the people were different.  
The beeves, the hogs, the goats and the sheep had been killed the day before, and brought in by the contributors during the afternoon. In the long pits fires of oak wood, hauled from a distant grove, had been burning all day; now a bed of embers glowed their length.  
Nearby there was a burning heap of oak logs, to replace the coals from time to time.
On spits of oak laid across the pits, the meat rested — usually a quarter of beef cut in half; a hog, sheep or goat split lengthwise. Under this, all night the fires were kept going, the meat being turned occasionally as it slowly cooked. It was this deliberate, gradually broiling process, that gave the barbecue its flavor. From time to time the chief cook's first assistant passed up one side and down the other of the pits, and with a mop on a short handle basted the roasting meat from a bucket containing salt, pepper, and various seasoning condiments. For barbecue in those days was seasoned in the cooking.  
All night long the cooks kept their vigil, for constant supervision was the price of well-cooked meats, and on the cook the success of the day depended.  Many were the yarns told — principally personal recollections of the war just passed, for usually it was veterans who were supervising the cooking — during the night around the fire. When morning came, the cooks were gaunt-faced and egg-eyed, but their task was not done, for the meat must be cooked up to the hour the tables were placed, and then the fire withdrawn just in time to allow the meat to cool enough to cut. 
About nine o'clock the crowd began to arrive. They came in buggies, a few in two-horse wagons, but a great many in horse-carts, the man on the horse, the family balanced In the cart over the axle; still others on horseback, but a great many, hundreds in fact, on foot, for little was thought of a ten-mile walk in those days.  
After each newcomer had made a round of inspection of the barbecue pits, each expressing his opinion of how it ought to be done, they gathered under the shade of the pines, to swap gossip and neighborhood news, trade horses, or crack jokes. 
There was a lemonade stand with its hard-worked force, for ice had been hauled many miles, at great expense, and the weak compound was swallowed more for the cooling "kick" than for any ingredients it was supposed to contain. Of watermelons there were none, for they did not ripen so early then.  
Near the stand were many boys, with long breeches and watering mouths, gazing on what they had not the money to buy. They had been the rounds of the pits. Inhaling the savory odor of the cooking meats until hunger drove away even the smart from bare feet that had incautiously stepped on live coals. Only too close by was the grocery, where stronger liquors were sold, and where later in the day a row started which afterwards bereaved two families.  
A small platform had been built, covered with brush and floored with borrowed plank. Here the orator of the day held forth. The Fourth of July speech then was much the speech of to-day. The tail feathers of the eagle were yanked until the bird of freedom screamed, and the adherents of the more or less famous politician applauded according to their devotion or enthusiasm, liquid or mental, while the urchins looking on and understanding not, wished he would quit, so dinner could come. The babies cried, the young folks courted, a group nearby laughed at a joke, sundry matrons swapped confidences and dipped snuff — all within plain hearing of the speaker, who heroically stuck to the job.  
Everything must end, and at last the speaking was over. Up from the pits, tubs and cedar piggins [small wooden pails] of the meat were carried and distributed along the tables, these innocent of even paper covering. There was no Brunswick stew in those days; no pickles, nor trimmings, but the cue was there in abundance for every man to eat his fill, and for many of the provident to carry off a supply against the day to come.  
The housewives had brought great stacks of pone cornbread — there was no baker's bread to be had — and this was cut and distributed with the meats. Then the wives brought forward trunks and baskets and from these what looked like an inexhaustible supply of good things to eat, and added them to the cue on the tables. Many could not miss, even for a meal, the cup of coffee, and to supply them, pots had been set on the coals near the pits until their contents boiled. It was when he diminished the supply in sight that a thirsty citizen provoked the boy to protest.  
Those people did not know much of the delicacies, but they brought to the meal appetites of plow hands and the digestions of rail-splitters. It was no small task to feed them but the men in charge knew what to provide for, and at last they were fed. Then hot-foot for the well, and crowd and push for the water that after all is the only perfect quencher of thirst.  
After dinner, the speaker gone, the platform gave place to the fiddlers, the straw-beaters, the caller and the dancing couples. Despite the July heat, despite the perspiration that made rags of the home-laundered shirts and collars and caused the color to "run" in many a beloved calico dress, until the shades of evening drove them home, the dancing went on, ever-changing individuals, but the same thing in form. There we leave them, the old folks hitching up for the homeward journey, the young folks still stepping lively to the jingling tune of the "Arkansaw [sic] Traveler," or one of his many kindred, or: 
"Johnny, get your hair cut, hair cut, hair cut,
Johnny, get your hair cut, shave and shine,
Johnny, get your hair cut, hair cut, hair cut;
Johnny, get your hair cut, just like mine." 

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