Rothman to Study BBQ

History Professor Earns Food Culture Grant

Dr. Josh Rothman
Dr. Josh Rothman

From the September 2013 Desktop News An $18,000 grant from the Southern Foodways Alliance(SFA) is allowing Dr. Joshua Rothman, professor in the Department of History and director of the Summersell Center for Study of the South, to take a scholarly look at one of the South’s finest cuisines: barbecue. His study will explore how barbecue in Alabama became a cultural phenomenon and how the regional cuisines therein developed over time.

Rothman says that as a professor who specializes in Southern history, the topic is a natural fit. It is also historically significant because barbecue is a relatively new development in food culture.

“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 collaborate with two graduate associates, doctoral candidate Mark Johnson of Chicago, and graduate student Dana Alsen of Palantine, Ill., on 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.”