As you would expect, I get lots of email about religion- news stuff. That tends to happen when you've been in the religion-columnist business -- in one form or another -- since 1982. All that old snail mail on dead-tree pulp turned into email. Turn, turn, turn.
I still receive quite a bit of material from denominational wire services and independent religious publications, both large and small. That's one of the places that I find all those "Got news?" items about valid and interesting news stories that are out there, but not in the mainstream press.
During the decades since the great Southern Baptist civil war, I kept reading both the SBC operated Baptist Press and the Associated Baptist Press wire linked to the "moderate," or doctrinally progressive (some would say liberal) Baptist congregations that remain in the larger convention, and a few that have fled. ABP has evolved into a broad, basically mainline-Protestant wire called Baptist News Global. Both Baptist wires are must reading for journalists following the religion beat.
One of the most interesting things Baptist Global News does is offer, in its regular "push" digest online, a selection of links to interesting religion items from other newsrooms. The other day -- right there with retiring Presbyterian leaders, a key Southern Baptist voice calling for more countercultural Christianity and other items -- was a link to a long, interesting BBC report about the fact that America's pop-culture boom linked to barbecue culture seems to have skipped over African-American pitmasters.
So, as the East Tennessee mountains guy that I am, I dug right into this story -- assuming that it would eventually have an interesting religion hook. After all, why would Baptist News Global have this piece in its news elsewhere list?
I read on, and on. This is about as close as I came to hitting a religion theme:
The US is undisputedly in the midst of a barbecue boom -- there are currently more than 14,000 barbecue restaurants in the country -- but African American restaurateurs and pitmasters may be getting left in the dust. Thanks to television and professional barbecue competitions, barbecue chefs have become celebrities with cult followings, but those celebrity faces are largely white.
"National press is infatuated with white, male hipster BBQ," writes Robb Walsh on the blog First We Feast. "Believe it or not, blacks, Latinos, and women are involved in the barbecue biz too."
The trend continues when it comes to new restaurants opening around the country.
"New barbecue joints generally are run by white men. That just seems to be the trend," says Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor for Texas Monthly. "The movement that gets troubling is the, 'I'm a chef, I'm bored, I want to find my soul, so I'm going to go into barbecue now. That's going to be my culinary fling.' "
So is that "soul" as in "soul food" cuisine, or is that finding one's "soul" as in, well, you know, heaven and hell, sin and forgiveness, the whole works.
There is another possibility here. Is it possible that the Baptist News Global team put this in their list because this piece SHOULD have included the long, long, long history of links between barbecue culture and the black church? In effect, was this BBC link a kind of "Got news?" item?
Like I said, I live in the heart of barbecue country Tennessee and I recently did a Universal syndicate column on precisely this topic. That's why I kept expecting a reference to pop up to the research into this topic by one Adrian Miller of Denver. Here's a taste of what he has to say:
The bottom line: there's more to barbecue, and all that goes with it, than the stuff on plates and fingers. It's all about the culture and history of the communities surrounding those pits and smokers, said veteran barbecue judge Adrian Miller, author of "Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time." He is also the first African-American and first layman to lead the Colorado Council of Churches.
All this religious barbecue talk isn't sacrilege.
"Not really. Barbecue fans and commentators are onto something. They recognize that religious words have power to describe things near-inexpressible, things that are important and that matter," argued Miller, in a recent online essay.
"Church matters, and so does food -- especially, to many people, barbecue. In short … 'barbecue' has a theological dimension that is deeply enmeshed in church culture, especially in the African-American church."
While digging into this topic, Miller was especially intrigued by the role barbecue played in the waves of fiery "camp meetings," "revivals" and Gospel festivals that reshaped American Protestantism in the tumultuous eras before and after the Civil War. What pulled people together was the worship, the music and, yes, the food. Some of these gatherings evolved into churches.
Now, frankly, that sounds like the kind of material -- a mix of black church history, social commentary and community -- that would fit in at Baptist News Global.
Was that the blessed food they wanted to see in the BBC piece?