The Fourth of July Barbecue: An Old Southern Tradition

Across the South, barbecue will play a starring role in the upcoming July 4th weekend, and newspapers and magazines are chock full of recipes, tips, and tricks to help you prepare. (Here at Southern Living, we even have a few ideas about what to wear.) Celebrating the 4th with barbecue is actually a very old Southern tradition, one that dates back to the beginning of the country.

Just after the Revolution, Americans marked Independence Day with public dinners, and in the South those dinners quickly grew into large outdoor barbecues. In 1808, for instance, the citizens of Oconee County, South Carolina, gathered in "an agreeable and natural arbor" where, as the local newspaper reported, they "partook of an elegant barbecue". . . to celebrate the anniversary of our national existence.

By the 1820s, those celebrations had become highly regimented and standardized, and descriptions of July 4th barbecues from Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky read almost identically. Citizens from across a region would gather in a central location, form a procession, and, led by the local militia, march to a church or the county courthouse. The ceremonies opened with a prayer followed by a reading of the Declaration of Independence, then the crowd would sing patriotic songs and a prominent member of the community would deliver a rousing oration on patriotic themes. Finally, the citizens would retire to a shady grove where a barbecue feast awaited.

A 19th century outdoor barbecue in Georgia.

These massive outdoor barbecues were free to all comers, and since the meat was donated by members of the community, it would be whatever local farmers had on hand. Anything from pigs and chickens to goats and whole steers might end up roasting over wood coals in long pits dug into the ground. Simple, non-perishable items—sliced cucumbers, watermelon, and loaves of bread—were served alongside.

After the feasting was over the toasting began, starting with a series of "regular toasts." Always 13 in number to represent the original colonies, each was delivered by a prominent person chosen in advance for the honor. These would be followed by as many "volunteer toasts" as members of the crowd were inclined to offer, which might be several dozen. The themes covered everything from celebrating democracy and American ideals to honoring war heroes and advancing political causes.

As settlers moved westward, those from the Southern states took their barbecue tradition with them. Texans were celebrating Independence Day with barbecue by the late 1840s, and in 1858—just five years after the city's founding—the residents of Kansas City staged their first Fourth of July barbecue, which drew 3,000 attendees and featured a barbecued buffalo.

So if you're dining on barbecue this holiday weekend, you're continuing a long, proud Southern tradition. A whole buffalo might be a bit impractical for most pits, but you could wrap things up with a few rounds of toasts to liberty and democratic ideas. That would be downright authentic.

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