The English Roots of ‘Southern Barbecue’ and ‘Southern Hospitality’

Aside from fried chicken, it is hard to think of a more iconic representation of Southern cuisine than barbecue. However, barbecue in North America did not start out that way. English settlers observed and learnt Native American barbecuing techniques and barbecues quickly became popular:

During the 18th century, barbecues became social events that were common throughout the British North American colonies. Although they are associated with the South, barbecues were held regularly in many areas. For example, a barbecue was held to launch the brigantine Barnard in Braintree, Massachusetts, in 1767. Celebrations with barbecues occurred even further north. When Quebec City fell to the British during the French and Indian War in 1759, citizens of Falmouth, Maine, celebrated with a barbecue on an island that later became known as “Hog Island.” Barbecuing must also have been known as a cooking technique not used solely for large celebrations. In a 1769 newspaper advertisement, Thomas Carnes announced that he was opening a coffeehouse outside of Boston. He also noted that he would barbecue pigs or turtles. Barbecues as social gatherings or celebrations became less common in New England after the Revolutionary period.

It is not surprising that wealthy English colonists took to this form of smoked meat so enthusiastically, for their native cuisine had long featured similar flavours. As early as the 14th century, the English were eating smoked fish:

By 1349 smoked fish was an established part of the British diet. Documents of that era outlining how to build a herring smokehouse reveal plans for high, narrow brick buildings crossed with beams holding up sticks from which the herring were hung. Fires from oak or ash were lit below and the smoke escaped through loosely laid tiles on the roof.

Smoked meats were also a part of the medieval English cuisine of the wealthy elite, particularly smoked pork, which was ‘cut into relatively thin, lean strips, immersed briefly in a salt solution and hung over a fire to absorb the smoke flavoring as it dried — slowly’. Bacon was also present in medieval English cuisine and goes back many centuries. It was heavily salted or cured, with sugar also added to cut through some of the saltiness. By the end of the sixteenth century, bacon was also being smoked.

Barbecue, then, both as a social event and as a form of cooking meat, was initially embraced throughout the British colonies and was not in any sense a specifically ‘Southern’ phenomenon. However, while barbecues eventually went out of fashion in the North, in Virginia they remained central to the social rituals of the gentry:

In Virginia, however, barbecues were widespread and popular social events. Feasting was a vital part of Virginia cultural traditions – much more so than in New England – and pigs were plentiful, as well. Pigs had been brought to Jamestown with the first British colonists, and since pigs are omnivores, they flourished in the woodland areas, even without much attention from settlers busy with planting and growing tobacco. As the wealth of the Virginia planters grew in the 18th century, so did their desire to build great houses, engage in consumer culture to display their wealth, and entertain guests in their homes. By the 1750s, barbecues were one of the most accepted and well-liked forms of entertainment in the colony. George Washington, among other Virginia gentry, frequently attended and hosted barbecues. The gatherings evolved from small get-togethers of family and friends to large all-day events. These large barbecues were expensive to host. Some planters objected to the cost and the drunken antics that often went along with barbecues, but they often went along with hosting and attending the events because it was an expected part of their roles as Virginia gentry.

The wealthy colonists of Virginia, in particular, sought to emulate the lifestyles of the gentry of England and ‘England remained the principal source of cultural authority and prestige’. The Reverend Hugh Jones, writing in 1724, noted:

Williamsburgh is now incorporated and made a Market Town, and governed by a Mayor and Aldermen; and is well stock’d with rich Stores, of all Sorts of Goods, and well furnished with the best Provisions and Liquors.

Here dwell several very good Families, and more reside here in their own Houses at publick Times.

They live in the same neat Manner, dress after the same Modes, and behave themselves exactly as the Gentry in London; most Families of any Note having a Coach, Chariot, Berlin, or Chaise.

In an article titled ‘Of Virginia Hospitality’, published in The London Magazine in July 1746, we read:

All over the Colony, an universal Hospitality reigns; full Tables and open Doors, the kind Salute, the generous Detention… their Manner of living is quite generous and open: Strangers are sought after with Greediness, as they pass the Country, to be invited.

John Ferdinand Smyth Stuart, in his A Tour in the United States of America (1784), reported: ‘The Virginians are generous, extremely hospitable, and possess very liberal sentiments’. He also noted that, as in England, social stratification and hierarchy was pronounced:

There is a greater distinction supported between the different classes of life here than perhaps in any of the rest of the colonies, nor does that spirit of equality and levelling principle which pervades the greater part of America prevail to such an extent in Virginia.

The famed ‘Southern hospitality’, then, originated among the Virginia gentry. This hospitality, of course, did not extend to the blacks they kept as slaves, not to poor whites. When the Reverend Charles Woodmason toured the Carolina backcountry in 1766, he wrote:

How lamentable to think, that the legislature of this province will make no provision — so rich, so luxurious, polite a people! Yet they are deaf to all solicitations, and look on poor white people in a meaner light than their black slaves, and care less for them.

North Carolina was settled by Virginians, who had brought this Virginian class system with them.

This social hierarchy, complete with obligatory hospitality to fellow members of the gentry, rules of etiquette and politeness, and a callous disregard for those outside the wealthy elite, was really only a continuation of the social order of England, where a wealthy few lorded it over the peasantry. The Virginia planters were a new gentry, living a charmed life far removed from the that of the lower orders:

[T]he gentry preferred to see themselves as removed from and superior to physical labor and the commercial exchange economy. Instead they sought to portray themselves as men of leisure and generosity. This was visible in what strangers to Virginia saw as the inordinate amount of time they devoted to visiting one another and to participation in gambling, dancing, and other fashionable pursuits as well as in the attention they gave to the acquisition of prestigious homes, furnishings, clothing, and other consumer goods.

This lifestyle was directly rooted in the lifestyles of the wealthy elite of Britain, dating well back into the medieval period. The Virginia barbecue was a new form of an old tradition:

The medieval feast of the time seems to have followed a common pattern; there could, therefore, be said to be an ideal feast as aspired to by the nobility and gentry and even their servants. It was ideal in both its material nature, that is the food, and also in its conduct, that is, the rules of courtesy and hierarchy under which this social ritual was performed.


The medieval esteem for “magnificence” as a hallmark of noble virtue continued to underwrite courtly culture during the seventeenth century, entailing the display of aristocratic wealth through extravagant hospitality.

In medieval England, the feast was a central feature of the lives of the wealthy. The slow roasting of whole hogs on a spit was popular for medieval feasts. During cooking, the meat was basted with a sauce made of red wine and spices such as garlic and ground coriander, to keep it moist and to add extra flavour. Spices were used extensively in the cooking of the time and the nobility enjoyed a ‘highly spiced cuisine’:

The higher the rank of a household, the greater its use of spices. Spices were not only extensively used in the preparation of food but they were also passed around on a ‘spice platter’. Guests at banquets took additional spices from the spice platter and added them to their already spiced food.

Spices used in recipes of the time included black pepper, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, mace, allspice, cardamom, cubeb, spikenard, and saffron. In England, the wealthy elite’s love of highly spiced food extended well into the eighteenth century.

The Virginia colonists likewise ‘demonstrated their social standing by providing a wide variety of meats and sweets at each meal prepared in a more traditional English fashion’. As an article in The Colonial Williamsburg Journal notes:

By today’s standards, colonial fare offered too much grease, too much meat, too much seasoning, and too much sweetener. Diners liked meat and lots of it. They considered animal organs, like hearts and brains, tasty delicacies. Cooks used sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg liberally.

The Virginia barbecue, with its whole hogs prepared as part of a communal ritual of ‘hospitality’ among the gentry, arguably echoes the English tradition of the hog roast. Likewise, the spiciness of Southern food, while in part the result of the influence of African slaves on the tastes of the colonists, was strongly rooted in the preferences of the English elite of the period.

The colonists applied English basting techniques and sauces to the Native American smoking method, thereby keeping the meat juicy and flavourful and stopping it from drying out. The basting sauces were derived from English cooking:

Virginia colonists brought European cooking techniques and recipes with them when they arrived in Virginia during the early years of the seventeenth century. In colonial times, Virginians endeavored to emulate European customs, especially when it came to entertaining guests at meals. Because most colonists were not trained cooks, they made good use of cookbooks… These cookbooks contain numerous recipes for carbonadoing and roasting foods that would become colonial Virginia staples such as venison, beef, mutton and pork, all with sauces made of spices, vinegar, pepper, and butter. Some call for mustard and/or sugar added to the mix.

The Virginia colonists took these English sauces and applied them to barbecuing:

Colonial Virginians also used the carbonado sauce recipes made of salt, vinegar, butter, peppers, herbs and spices to baste barbecuing meats while they cooked. By combining the Powhatan Indian cooking technique using a hurdle with English carbonado recipes, Virginians gave the world what we now call southern barbecue.

The ‘Virginia hospitality’ that forms the basis for the early construction of the notion of a uniquely ‘Southern hospitality’ was in reality the result of the transplanting of the social mores of the English gentry to the colony. The famous Southern ‘politeness’ and deferential mode of speaking (the ubiquity of ‘yes, sir’ and ‘yes, ma’am’) is also rooted in the notions of gentility and hierarchy brought from England. Likewise, the barbecue tradition of the South is actually rooted in the social events of the wealthy elite, who reenacted the medieval hog roast of England using cooking techniques developed by Native Americans, and seasoning techniques popular in England. Even barbecue sauce is derived from the tastes and basting methods of the wealthy elite of England.

As Virginians spread out across the Southern states, they took their aristocratic Anglophile culture with them, and even their mode of speech, which came to be seen as specifically ‘Southern’, echoed that of their ancestral homeland. Virginia barbecue spread throughout the South and became known as a ‘Southern’ food and form of social event, and the famed ‘hospitality’ and ‘politeness’ of elite planter society (‘hospitality’ and ‘politeness’ directed towards fellow members of the gentry, not the population as a whole) likewise came to be seen as a hallmark of ‘Southern’ culture.

Barbecue and Southern hospitality (as well as a social model in which a tiny elite held most of the wealth), then, are ultimately phenomena directly derived from England, specifically its upper echelons.

The English Roots of Southern Culture

The Southern states of the USA have been deeply connected to England since their founding, with the British colony of Virginia being the epicentre and progenitor of much of what has gone on to become Southern culture. Virginia hospitality became Southern hospitality, Virginia barbecue became Southern barbecue, Virginia fried chicken became Southern fried chicken, Virginia ham became Southern country ham, and Virginia speech ways formed the roots of the Southern dialect. In each case, England and English culture are the origins of these iconically Southern phenomena. Many of the South’s major cities were founded by the British, of whom the ruling class was predominantly of English extraction:

Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee were established primarily by English and Scotch-Irish settlers, and not only the South’s oldest cities (Richmond, Norfolk, Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah) but its deepest interior settlements (Louisville and Nashville) were founded by people of British descent.

Across the South, the English influence is evident in place names: Norfolk (VA), Portsmouth (VA), Winchester (VA), York (VA), London (KY), Manchester (TN), Birmingham (AL), York (SC), and so on. The significance of the English foundations of the South can also be found in the numerous places named for the Randolph family: the Randolph Counties of Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and North Carolina; Randolph, Mississippi; and Randolph, Tennessee.

The Randolph family traces its roots in the South to the union of William and Mary Randolph, whose ancestries lie in Warwickshire and Northamptonshire, respectively. This couple are sometimes referred to as the ‘Adam and Eve of Virginia’, although they perhaps might more accurately be seen as the Adam and Eve of the South.

William Randolph’s children included Isham Randolph of Dungeness – whose daughter Jane would go on to be the mother of Thomas Jefferson – and Elizabeth Randolph – whose daughter Mary was the great grandmother of the legendary Confederate General, Robert E. Lee. The young Thomas Jefferson was educated alongside members of the Randolph family at Tuckahoe Plantation and Jefferson’s younger brother was named Randolph. Thomas Mann Randolph Sr., one of the Randolphs who was raised and educated alongside Thomas Jefferson, was the father of Mary Randolph, author of the seminal Southern cook book The Virginia House-Wife (1824). Mary’s brother Thomas Mann Randolph Jr. married Martha Jefferson, the daughter of Thomas Jefferson, and became a Congressman and Governor of Virginia.

The importance of the Randolph family extends well beyond the confines of Virginia and into the Deep South. Holly Springs, Mississippi, for example, was founded in 1836 by Whitmel Sephas Randolph and large numbers of settlers from Virginia. The city has a Randolph Street to this day.

Peter Randolph was born in Virginia and moved with his family to Wilkinson County, Mississippi, in 1819, where he became a planter. Peter Randolph’s son, John Hampden Randolph, moved his family to Iberville Parish, Louisiana, in 1841, where he owned and operated the sugar plantations of Forest Home, Nottoway, Blythewood, and Bayou Goula. Nottoway Plantation House – a Greek Revival and Italianate-styled mansion built by John Hampden Randolph in 1859 – is the largest extant antebellum plantation house in the South.

The Greek revival architectural style – so iconic a feature of the Southern landscape, from mansions to court houses and to more humble buildings – was itself brought over from England. The English-born Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820), sometimes referred to as the ‘Father of American architecture‘, emigrated from England in 1795 and introduced the style. Latrobe worked with Thomas Jefferson on the Virginia state capitol, and was the third architect of the US Capitol building. He designed the north portico of the White House and the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Baltimore. Looking at buildings in England such as these in Worcester, Devizes, and Bristol, alongside buildings in Mississippi such as these in Indianola, Marks, and Greenville, the similarities are clear.

The gardens of the South continue to exhibit the influence of England. According to Southern Living magazine, ‘no plant rivals the azalea in Southern popularity’ and ‘Camellias are among the South’s icons’. Asian azaleas came to the United States via England and the first hybrids were planted in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1848. The Reverend John Grimké Drayton was the first to introduce azaleas to outdoor gardens in the US and was also one of the first to utilize Camellia Japonica as a landscaping plant:

Drayton had seen Romantic-style gardens in England while studying for the ministry and brought them stateside. In the 1840s, he was the first to introduce the now-common azalea to America’s outdoor gardens when he planted it at Magnolia Plantation. Drayton was also one of the first to utilize Camellia Japonica as a landscaping plant, naming his particular varietal after his wife, Julia.

The first Japonica was growing in England some time before 1739 in the greenhouse of Lord Petre. Camellias were brought from the Far East in the early 1700s to Europe, and then to America.

Southern cultural phenomena that originate in England include horse racing, popular in the South since the colonial period. The Kentucky Derby has been run every consecutive year since 1875, and is a key fixture in the calendar of Southern sporting and cultural events. Its origins lie in an 1872 trip to England by Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. Clark visited Epsom in Surrey, attending the Epsom Derby, a horse racing event dating to 1870. The Kentucky Derby was initially run at 1 1/2 miles, the same distance as the Epsom Derby. Even the iconic drink of the Kentucky Derby, the mint julep, can be traced back to the English colonists of Virginia, who originally made the drink with rum, rather than the bourbon of today.

When it comes to the famous cuisine of the American South, as noted earlier, here we also find a strong English influence. Southern fried chicken has its roots in England, as does Southern barbecue and country ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potato pie, pound cake, and so on. Variety meats such as chitlins and pig’s feet – now often associated particularly with black ‘soul food’ – also came to the South from England. Terms such as ‘skillet’, a ‘mess of greens’, and ‘moonshine’ are all of English origin.

Many of the folk beliefs of African Americans (and some rural whites) are derived from English beliefs and practices. Hoodoo items such as the lucky horseshoe, the rabbit’s foot, the lucky coin, and the lucky pin are rooted in the folk beliefs of English settlers and indentured servants. Even the infamous ‘voodoo doll’ made its way to the South from England. As late as the nineteenth century, it was reported that:

In Devonshire, witches, and malevolent people still make clay images of those whom they intend to hurt, baptize the image with the name of the person whom it is meant to represent, and then stick it full of pins or burn it.

Arguably more than any other region of the United States, then, the South has most closely preserved its origins in the England of old. In its speech ways, food, architecture, gardens, culture, and folklore, the South remains deeply English at its core.

The War On Pubs: A Brief History

The rise of the middle class in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the birth of a new type of Englishman. Whereas previously, English society was largely made up of a wealthy aristocratic elite at the top, and the masses below them, there was now a new and growing class of people who fitted into neither of these categories and were working hard to establish a new social position and a new cultural identity. Middle class culture saw hard work as the highest ideal, with aspiration and respectability at its heart. The public sphere was a place of commerce and structured civility. Etiquette manuals did a roaring trade and doing and saying ‘the right thing‘ began to be associated with what it means to be English:

Men who had risen from humble beginnings worried about fitting in. To help negotiate their new lifestyle they could choose from scores of manuals with titles like How to Behave and Hints from a Gentleman. Here you would find everything you needed to know: when to shake hands; how to bring a conversation politely to an end; how to sit and stand gracefully; what was meant by ‘RSVP’; how to deal with dirty nails or bad breath; how to style your beard; or how to conduct yourself at a dinner party, a picture gallery or church. Armed with one of these books, the newly-hatched middle-class gentleman could avoid making any social gaffes in polite society.

We still see this today. An article in Tatler claims we are ‘crippled by embarrassment’ and that embarrassment is ‘our national affliction’. In reality, it is only middle class people who feel this sense of embarrassment, an embarrassment rooted in the fear of making a social faux pas. It’s not a working class affliction – they are seen as ‘rude’; neither is it an upper class affliction – they are likewise seen as ‘rude’, although this tends to be tolerated more readily. The middle class concern with public image and public decency was rooted in their desire for social mobility and their need to differentiate themselves from the lower classes. Snobbery is in fact far more a middle class phenomenon than an upper class one. Snobbery arises where a person doesn’t feel secure in their social position: they need to reassure themselves that they are better than those people, especially when they have made a conscious effort to separate themselves from their more humble origins. Upper class people do not need to constantly concern themselves with the ‘correct’ behaviour because they are secure in their position in society. Likewise, working class people who do not aspire to become middle class also do not need to endlessly worry about social etiquette or how they might appear to others as they too have their ‘place’ in the social order.

In the middle class ideology, restraint and sobriety were virtues. Public behaviour should be ‘civilised’ and gentle. You wore the ‘right’ clothes, said the ‘right’ things, and adopted the ‘right’ public persona. What you most certainly did not want to do was to involve yourself in public spectacles of ‘bad behaviour”. As a result, the working class love of drinking in public settings was looked upon with disgust by the new middle class. In their minds, drinking was something you did in private, and if you ever did drink a few too many, that was something that only happened on special occasions:

The class dimension of drunkenness was produced by a fundamental distinction between public and private. Drunkenness was only visible when it took place in public; and only certain classes of people drank in pubs or went about drunk…

Since the middle class tended to drink privately, it developed the idea that drunkenness was visible only in social celebration – hence the poor seemed to be having too much fun. The temperance campaigns against drunkenness were a symptom of larger middle class ideals, such as a distaste for mobs and their entertainments, the taking of recreation with one’s family, participation in religion, and the ideology of thrift with its stress on individual self-respect, personal moral and physical effort, and prudence.

To a people obsessed with work and the accumulation of wealth, and with social status, ‘proper’ behaviour, and ‘respectability’, the common man enjoying going out and drinking was something to be frowned upon:

In the eighteenth century, the English middle and upper classes religiously served and drank wine at their dinners, and the working class frequently consumed beer and cider. During the nineteenth century, however, the consumption of alcohol among working-class men began to be viewed as a wasteful and illicit form of entertainment which served no purpose, caused many problems, and was scorned and fought against by the temperance movement.

The middle class assault on our national drink – beer – and our pub culture, began in this period. This alien new breed of Englishman, who strongly disliked the boozing, swearing, irreligiosity, and boorishness of traditional English culture (both upper and lower) sought to make society anew in its image. The 1860 Treaty of Commerce was part of this effort:

William Gladstone, the treaty’s chief architect, spoke openly of what he hoped would be a change in British drinking habits – away from an obsession with beer – so that wine would no longer be a “rich man’s luxury”.

At the same time he was sensitive to the fears of Victorian temperance campaigners that cheaper wine would encourage drunkenness. More wine drinking was meant to civilise British drinkers, claimed Gladstone. His measures were intended for the “promotion of temperance and sobriety as opposed to drunken and demoralised habits”. Other changes – forerunners of the modern ‘off licence’ system – allowed grocers and restaurateurs, rather than just pubs, to sell alcohol. They were intended to weaken the “unnatural divorce between eating and drinking”.

This promotion of wine as a ‘civilising’ force is still evident today, and is part of the middle class disparagement of English culture and the idolisation of Europe. ‘Brits who are care about things like culture, food and quality of life’ like to move to France, writes a Telegraph columnist, gushing about a wonderful land in which wine is ‘everywhere’, ‘the people are more stylish’, and there is ‘a regard for public intellectuals’. In a moment of honest reflection, one Europhile writer at the New Statesman admits: ‘There’s a particular kind of snobbery associated with a love of “old” European culture’. And no-one does snobbery better than the middle class.

Despite the attempt to push wine on a beer-drinking public, and to encourage home consumption through a prototypical off-license system, the love of pubs continued throughout the twentieth century. In recent decades, however, the ideals of Gladstone have been given new life.

Under ‘New Labour’, the middle-class-friendly reorganisation of a left-wing party into a liberal centrist movement, attempts were made once more to bring the centuries-old English drinking culture under control.

The Licensing Act 2003, which came into force in 2005, permitted licenses for ’24-hour drinking’ and was derided by critics as being wholly inappropriate for a nation of heavy drinkers. Labour MP Frank Dobson had it right when he argued:

I think the English – maybe the British – have been binge-drinkers since time immemorial. I don’t think we’re going to turn into Tuscany just because the hours have changed.

Prime Minister Tony Blair’s aim with the relaxed licensing laws was to create a ‘continental cafe culture’. ‘Bologna in Birmingham, Madrid in Manchester, why not?’ said a parliamentary committee report in 2003. Naturally, what actually happened was mass drunkenness on the streets at night. However, that is not the end of the story. Where the attempt to create a wine-drinking ‘continental’ environment on the streets of England failed, taxation has succeeded, this time under the Conservatives.

In 1860, Gladstone reduced the tax on wine and encouraged home consumption. We see a similar situation today. Buy a bottle of wine in the supermarket or off-license and you will see no tax difference based on the ABV of the wine. Buy beer and the tax goes up as the ABV increases. If you want to save money, then, you’re better off drinking wine. You’re also better off drinking at home:

One pound in every three spent at pubs goes to the Exchequer. Up to half of Britain’s brewers’ turnover is excise duty. In 2017, beer tax increased by 42%. The epidemic of pub closures is getting worse.

Ultimately, the middle class assault on English pub culture has been a success. Drinking is increasingly being forced into the private sphere and wine consumption is on the rise. In fact, it’s so much on the rise in middle class circles that ‘the middle class’ is reportedly ‘more likely to drink than manual workers’ and ‘harmful drinking’ is now said to be ‘a middle class phenomenon’. But it’s not beer and it’s not in public. And that’s what matters.

Gladstone would be proud.

British Folkways

A collection of posts by Edmund Standing on British folk culture:

Seventh Century European folk religion

Tenth Century Anglo-Saxon folk magic

Eleventh Century European folk religion

Christianity as folk magic in medieval England

Saints in the folk devotion of medieval England

Alcohol consumption in 16th Century England

Seventeenth Century English folk magic

Eighteenth Century British folk religion

Divination by Bible and Key in 19th Century England

The wakes and feasts of country parishes

British crossroads magic

Sacred Wells in Britain

Love and death in British folk magic