Virginia Barbecue History Deserves Better

"Life of Fire" television show gets the history of Virginia barbecue wrong, says our food editor.

While looking for something to watch on television the other day, I came across “Life of Fire” on the Outdoor Channel. I can’t say that I’m an avid watcher of the channel, but after reading the quick description of the show, I was immediately intrigued. A show about Virginia ham with a guest appearance by famed pitmaster Tuffy Stone? Yes, please.

For someone who has espoused Virginia as the birthplace of American barbecue on podcasts, in lectures, in writing, and on television for years, I was thrilled to see a show that would put the culinary contributions of the commonwealth on a national stage.

However, I was quickly disappointed.

Although the show’s host Pat Martin and Stone correctly comment that barbecue begins in Virginia and traveled through the South and beyond to create many of the barbecue regions that still exist today, a major component was missing. It was never mentioned who perfected the cuisine that is practically synonymous with America: the enslaved pitmasters who were forced to create feasts for political gatherings, weddings, and any number of celebrations went completely ignored.

Enslaved and free Black Virginia pitmasters like Thomas Griffin, Juba Garth and his wife, Mandy, John Gilmore, John Dabney, Jasper Crouch and thousands of other nameless men and women toiled in the trenches for hours, if not overnight, to ensure that every morsel was delicious. After all, their life and safety depended on how well they were able to cook.

Next, when Stone and Martin basted the hams with a traditional sauce, originally consisting of butter, vinegar, red pepper, there was yet another missed opportunity to refer to the basting mop by its original name, the Virginia wand (historically made from torn pieces of cloth tied to a branch that was used to mop meat as it cooked. This process added flavor as well as ensured the meat would not burn). This was an incredible omission that would’ve showed viewers a tangible display of the ingenuity of African American pitmasters to create an apparatus that is still being used today.

To not mention the skill, intelligence and ability of those who withstood the back-breaking labor to make something that has stood the test of time, under some of the most inhumane conditions in history, is at best an oversight and, at worst, an erasure of people who created a profession that the hosts and so many others profit from centuries later.

I would like to believe these critical errors are because of editing. I sincerely hope Stone and Martin had a substantive conversation that, at the bare minimum, acknowledged how the trifecta of Indigenous people, Europeans, and enslaved people created something so powerful, so incredible, so inherently Southern that there aren’t many corners of the world that don’t have some form of American barbecue on their menus.

Our history isn’t something that should be overlooked. In fact, it should be held as a testament to how talent and intelligence can still burn through like the coal embers that have cooked hogs, beef, fish, and all manner of things since Virginia was a colony.

Without any acknowledgement of barbecue originators, the show is doing the audience a mighty disservice. This episode was an opportunity to show America how proud we are of Virginia’s culinary legacy. Instead, whoever watches is given a microwaved package of history, made of half-truths and served with a side of indifference.


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