The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

September 5, 2013

Alabama professor scores barbecue research grant


Associated Press

— TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) — For Southerners, barbecue — like college football — inspires pride, intense rivalries and seemingly endless debates.

Over the course of the fall and winter, University of Alabama history professor Joshua Rothman and two graduate students will explore Alabama's food culture of barbecue as well as a broader focus on foodways — how the state's regional cuisine developed — after receiving an $18,000 grant from the Southern Foodways Alliance, a nonprofit organization based at the University of Mississippi that documents and celebrates the food cultures of the South.

"I think the goal ultimately is to figure out how barbecue came to be in that place where it stands as emblematic of Southern culture," Rothman said.

The grant will fund research for two essays on the topics, according to Rothman, who said work had just begun. The essay on barbecue, to be written by doctoral candidate Mark Johnson, is expected to be completed by December and the paper of foodways, to be completed by graduate student Dana Alsen, is expected by May or June. Rothman said he is unsure where they will be published.

Rothman, director of the Frances S. Summersell Center for the Study of the South at UA, said there is also talk of having an event such as a food tasting or a film showing in conjunction with the essays but no definite plans have been made.

The goal for the essays is to be as wide ranging as possible in research, according to Rothman. The research will focus on the history of barbecue and local cuisine in Alabama, but it will also consider the topics in the context of the broader culture of the Southeast.

Likely research topics would include, but not be limited to, the emergence of modern barbecue restaurants and competitions, as well as the historical significance of pork as a food staple in the South and its methods for preservation, according to Rothman.

"I think there are a lot of different ways you can get at the history of the evolution of foods," he said.

Rothman, whose research is on slavery in the South, said foodways are part of a broader interest for him in Southern culture and community.

"One reason that barbecue stands out as worth doing, is that it is something that is very communal," Rothman said.

Many barbecue recipes make enough servings for multiple people, and traditional methods of preserving pork before refrigeration in the South often saw community gatherings to process pigs.

Rothman said the idea for the essays arose from a conversation started last spring during a visit to the University of Mississippi. Rothman met with Southern Foodways Alliance director John T. Edge and mentioned he would like to do more work on foodways. Edge subsequently suggested Alabama barbecue once the group was offered funding for the research project from the state of Alabama, according to Rothman.

In addition to funding scholarship, the nonprofit also stages symposia, produces documentary films, collects oral histories, mentors students and publishes, according to its website.

Rothman said the grant will cover research for this year but hopes the barbecue project will lead to more partnerships between the nonprofit and the university.