I think of my vegetarian friends like I think of my Jewish friends. I love and respect them, but we are of different faiths. I believe in barbecue.
To the casual observer those who gather for a church barbecue have found an excuse to overeat, but to serious students of the Bible and church history, we are doing God’s work.
Deuteronomy 12:15 says, “Yet whenever you desire you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your towns, according to the blessing that the Lord your God has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it.”
You may want to crochet Deuteronomy 12:20 on an apron for a beloved carnivore, “When the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as God has promised you, and you say, ‘I am going to eat some meat,’ because you wish to eat meat, you may eat meat whenever you have the desire.”
Ezekiel 24:10 was written by a prophet who knows his way around a pit, “Heap up the logs, kindle the fire, cook the meat well, mix in the spices, and let the bones be burned.”
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Food is more than a means of sustenance. The Old Testament is filled with dietary laws, cooking instructions, and Martha Stewartlike details on what to eat during holidays. The royal feast is the primary image of the coming kingdom of God. Isaiah describes the messianic banquet: “The Lord of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food filled with marrow.”
The menu for the kingdom banquet varies from church to church. More lime Jell-O is sold in Utah than in any other state, because Latter-day Saints take it to potluck dinners. Greek Orthodox churches are famous for baklava. Catholics still eat fish on Friday. The bread at Episcopalian gatherings is likely to be fresh-baked—from an upscale French bakery.
Barbecue brings a variety of Christians together. The perfect combination of smoke, meat, and fire creates a meal and a moment when we taste and see that God is good.
Church barbecue has a long, rich history. In the first half of the nineteenth century, evangelists enticed crowds to camp meetings with scented smoke and sizzling meats. Before restaurants like Porky’s Last Stand, Adam’s Rib, and Bubba Lou’s Bodacious BBQ you could not order one barbecue sandwich. You ate barbecue only when an entire animal was cooked. In order to avoid waste, everyone was welcome at a barbecue. Revival barbecue was one of the few times there was more than enough food.
Barbecue is a religious experience—especially in African American churches in the South. In Texas, there are church-connected barbecue restaurants, like New Zion Missionary Baptist Church Barbecue in Huntsville. Pit masters are called “preachers” and their barbecue pits “pulpits” from which the holy word is served.
Some barbecue joints try to avoid the sectarian divisions that divide the barbecue belt and claim to serve “nondenominational barbecue.” They do not see that the divisions—Kansas City, Memphis, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas—are denominations making distinctive contributions. (All should, however, agree that liquid smoke is an abomination.)
God creates the low, indirect heat that produces hickory-smoked, baby-back ribs. Watching someone combine science and art in the act of barbecuing—the expectation, the understanding that you do not really want the meat to fall off the bone, and the savoring of each bite—is a means by which a church becomes a better church. Barbecue should be served with a side of faith and a prayer that barbecue will be served in the afterlife. Is it too much to say that barbecue is to Christians what the Passover lamb is to the Jews? (Yes, it is way too much to say.)
Robert Capon said of a fellow he knew who was counting calories, “His body may or may not lose weight. His soul, however, is sure to wither.”
Barbecue keeps our souls from withering.
In a 1902 article about a Methodist church barbecue in Denver, Columbus Hill, a pit master who understood the spiritual aspects of barbecue, said: “This method of serving meat is descended from the sacrificial altars of the time of Moses when the priests of the temple got their fingers greasy and dared not wipe them on their Sunday clothes. They discovered then the rare, sweet taste of meat flavored with the smoke of its own juices.”
Praise God and pass the sauce.