Extended through September 29, 2019, Barbecue Nation explores how barbecue has come to claim an enduring place at the American table, and how it connects us to cultures around the world. Organized by the Atlanta History Center, the exhibition includes a wide array of artifacts, images and oral histories from restaurants, festivals, community gatherings, archives and museums and private collections from around the country. Also on display: historic photos and '50s and '60s advertising images, as well as signs, postcards, menus, place settings, a well-broken-in chopping block, a cash register, and other artifacts from iconic barbecue joints.
Barbecue Nation is organized into seven thematic sections that consider these topics:
International grilling traditions
Receiving focus are indigenous Taino “brabacot,” European contributions in meat and method, and West African grilling customs. These predate American barbecue while also contributing to its eventual form. A rare original copy of the 1707 British pamphlet The Barbacue Feast, containing the first use of the word to describe barbecue being served at an event, is among artifacts on view. This pamphlet is one of only three known to remain in the world and the only one in North America.
Contributions to our sense of place and identity
This section looks at particular barbecue traditions in North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas, including variations within their borders. Barbecue rivalries based on geography are also considered. Major barbecue events, and their role in cementing barbecue as a provider of place and regional identity, are chronicled. Objects include a chopping block from Skylight Inn BBQ in Ayden, North Carolina; and an 11-foot-long sign from Southside Market & Barbecue in Elgin, Texas.
The commodification of barbecue as it spread out from the Southeast
Several restaurants are explored in detail, including Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue and Gates Bar-B-Q in Kansas City, Missouri, as well as popular Georgia spots such as Sprayberry’s Bar-B-Q and Fresh Air Barbecue. The rise of the automobile in barbecue’s widening popularity is addressed. So is the story of barbecue restaurants as places of resistance to segregation and Jim Crow. Objects on view include Auburn Avenue Rib Shack’s neon sign, a counter modeled on the one at Arthur Bryant’s, and pieces that illustrate the story of service station barbecue.
Grilling as an element of personal convenience and expression
A timeline of grills lining one wall includes a 1930s Ford charcoal grill, a 1948 Char-Broil Wheelbarrow Picnic Cooker, a 1965 Weber Kettle in a “Westerner” motif, President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s GE Partio Cart, a 1959 Bernzomatic gas grill, and a Caja China. Artwork, images, advertisements, cookbooks, and other ephemera cover the walls, providing an engaging look at personal barbecue as an element of recreation and community. Barbecue’s role in perpetuating gender, racial, and class stereotypes is chronicled, as are ways that women and people of color have celebrated their heritage and communities through grilling despite this. A display of sauce bottles illustrates the growing popularity of barbecue sauce as well as the increasing use of barbecue as a flavor.
A video “Pit Experience”
Visitors enter a re-creation of a traditional barbecue pit and view three screens set within, showing pitmasters Helen Turner (Helen’s Bar-B-Que in Brownsville, Tennessee), Robert Patillo (Patillos BBQ in Beaumont, Texas), and Ricky Scott (Ricky’s BBQ in Kingstree, S.C.) expressing themselves through barbecue.
Barbecue’s role within popular culture and in people’s daily lives
Includes an audio listening station where visitors may select snippets of songs relating to barbecue; and a display of barbecue-inspired art. Clips from film and television past and present that involve barbecue play on a monitor. Big barbecue competitions also are covered.
This section explores the craft barbecue movement, and suggests where barbecue is headed. It also touches on how American and international food traditions are blending to create a new cultural identity for barbecue. On exhibit is a 6-foot-tall burn barrel used by Charleston, S.C., restaurateur Rodney Scott.