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There are two individuals in history I have high acclaim for. One is the caveman (or cavewoman) who convinced the other cave people to start liking wolves rather than hunting and eating them. The other is the cave-person who demonstrated to their cave-colleagues that beef is better served with a good sear to it, rather than ripped raw from the bone using our four canine teeth.
Barbecue, taken from the Indigenous Taino word barbacoa, began out of necessity—for thousands of years, we had little other option other than cooking over an open fire. It only recently started being recognized as an art. Thanks to the commercialization of the craft by folks like Aaron Franklin out of Austin, Texas, Americans have changed how we approach barbecue.
The new narrative has also left out many of barbecue's deeper histories.
My guest this week is among the vast cast of folks who are working to change that. Meet Dr. Howard Conyers, a mechanical engineer at NASA who lives in New Orleans but who originally hails from Manning, South Carolina. Notably, Conyers has also earned high national acclaim for his craft of whole-animal cooking. In particular, hogs. Like most folks who are into the slowly disappearing cooking style, he learned it knee-to-knee, with his father.
Xander Peters: I know you're still working at NASA these days. So, it's not like you actually switched careers. But how does one make a jump from being a rocket engineer to a barbecue wise man?
Howard Conyers: I grew up in barbecue. Well before I was doing anything math or science or engineering-related, I was doing whole-hog barbecue. To make that jump to go back, I can't tell you what that's like. I can only tell you from what I lived and experienced in my culture and going forward. If I had to give advice on how somebody could go from rocket science or engineering to cooking whole animal barbecue, I would say they have to practice. But I can't really tell you the opposite way, because well before I even thought about or understood what rocket science was, I understood fundamentally what barbecue was. And that was as early as like three or four years old, because I was watching my father cook barbecue.
XP: Why do you think we've gotten away from whole-animal cooking, like you prefer?
HC: Our connection to the farm itself, directly, is lost. Now with mass commercial food processing, that's the reason why we see more parts; we don't see whole animal cooking.
XP: Do you see more folks getting back to that particular style of cooking?
HC: Where I see the most animal cooking is when I go, I'm sad to say, to more higher-end restaurants. Where the economic income levels are not as high, you start seeing more of the parts, so that's really where I see that. I don't see it so much in the rural areas as much as I used to. But I definitely see it in places where income levels are higher, because the chefs want to use all the cuts of animal.
XP: What do you think it says about the fact that chefs are mainstreaming historically low-income, necessity foods, like whole-cooked animals or even a dish such as gumbo?
HC: I don't know if I would necessarily say some of the dishes that did that in rural areas are low income. I think it was sustainable. And that's a different way of thinking—I think what they realized was that if an animal gave you his whole life, then you need to use all parts of the animal. I don't think it was necessarily about income levels, because money necessarily wasn't the biggest driver for them. It was more about sustainability and sustainable practices. Now when we see people doing sustainable practices, it costs a lot more. They say, 'Oh, I put a label to it. I put a title to it.' And it was just a way of life for those individuals in the past. But now, today, we put a label that says pasture-raised, or organic, and we could double or triple the price, because we have those labels. It's an economics thing. It's part economics and it's part policy.
XP: Apart from the high-end restaurants and folks like you trying to maintain their family traditions, is cooking the whole animal kind of a dying art?
HC: I think that it's dying because a lot of the family farms are dying. If we had people who can still process their animals, we could still weather the storm [during COVID-19] when a lot of slaughterhouses were disrupted. Hopefully, COVID-19 was a wakeup call that we still need to retain some of those traditional practices and techniques, to better have those capabilities at home and in our communities just in case. That's not a racial thing. It's a community thing, because there were slaughterhouses back in the middle of COVID-19 when the pandemic was high, that couldn't process animals. Honestly, I don't even know if they could have given out the animals to individuals, and they would have known what to do with it in a humane way.
See also: The fight in swine country
XP: Are barbecue mobiles like Aaron Franklin highlighting barbecue's history? Or does it sometimes feel as though there has been a whitewashing of the art of barbecue in the U.S?
HC: I mean, it's definitely a whitewashing of the craft, but I don't think it's all on them. I think it's on the media, the people who owns and control the media networks. Aaron Franklin is doing what he do. But the media who covers and tell the stories? That is who is actively involved in the whitewash.
XP: How should food media improve upon itself to better meet the moment?
HC: They can make sure to have a little more representation and make sure it matches up statistically to the demographics of the country. If a certain population is, say, 13 percent of the country, why don't I have at least 13 percent of the stories feature that community? I think that's important. Just make sure all people are represented.
XP: I remember you saying you're working on a book the last time we spoke. How's it going?
HC: I'm working on a book. I worked on a history of barbecue book. I was working on a coffee-table book, but I'm gonna probably digress that project. But the work on barbecue, I want people to understand the first 350 to 400 years of American barbecue. That story has not been shared and told and analyzed. It needs a deep analyzation. And what I mean by analyzation is you need to examine the facts, look at the facts, and then extrapolate the facts and kind of put some things together. But you can't put those things together if you're not even a cook, or you don't live in that tradition. Because some things may not make sense to just research.
As a practitioner, you have a different perspective. And as a practitioner, and as a researcher who has also traveled, I think those give you a little different perspective than what you see on paper. It gives you a little more insight than when you read what has been portrayed by a public source in America. I think one of the most interesting things is we take public sources as the gospel, but we also have to realize there are a lot of people whose stories never got an opportunity to be told or written or written by them, because they wasn't even allowed to read or write. With that, you're getting a second or third-hand account. Some stuff gets lost in translation or the writer, or whoever the translator is, puts in their own words. You get further erasure. You can do some intentional erasure if you don't want a certain narrative to be told. You can pick and choose.
XP: It goes back to that lived experience, in other words.
HC: It all goes back to that lived experience, and it goes back to the media, or what story has been told over the past several centuries. I think we have to be careful about how we regurgitate wrong information. Everybody thinks everybody contributed something, but we really need to look at the nuances and details of different things. Everybody around the world has been cooking with fire, but the technique of how to cook on fire looks different. Based on weather, based on geography, what trees, what plant species they have, what animals they have available.
XP: Jambalaya's roots in Spanish paella is an example of what you're getting at. Spanish settlers obviously were attempting to make a dish from back home, but they had to use different spices.
HC: I'm glad you brought that one up. When a lot of people really look at Spanish paella, a lot of people fail to look at the Moors and what they did in conquering Spain. When you look at where the Moors come from, I think it was Northern Africa or Eastern Africa, I can't remember what part of Africa but the Moor. You see the paella with the rice, and you look at the jambalaya, and it kind of has a similar origin story. Rice is a very African dish, an African ingredient. The science proves it even further. There's an Asian rice and there's an African rice. But if you breed those two rice species, they become sterile.
XP: Like a mule. [LAUGHS]
HC: [LAUGHS] Exactly, like a mule. That's a great analogy.