“I’ve got the tickets and I’ll pick you up at 4:00,” Stuart said. “Wear your stretchy pants.” And with that, he hung up the phone. For the uninitiated, where I’m from the phrase “Wear your stretchy pants” is universally understood as a sort of culinary warning. Upon hearing it, you not only understand that a large meal is ahead but that it is one in which, regardless of appetite, you are obligated to partake. “Wear your stretchy pants” is a call to prepare—physically and psychologically—for the table.
As with most idioms, the phrase is itself stretchy. Some, rather lazily in my judgment, use it to signify a tasty meal, as in, “I’ve made carnitas tacos with chipotle cream; wear your stretchy pants.” Others, more orthodox, use it to signify meals that are not only tasty but large. “Granny and her seven sisters are all cooking for the family reunion; wear your stretchy pants.” In Stuart’s case, however, he was signalling that the meal was not simply tasty or large, but singular. The kind of meal that you talk about for years. The kind of meal that you eventually write an article about. The kind of meal you can only really find at the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest held every May on the banks of the Mississippi River in Memphis, Tennessee.
And so it was that at 4:00 p.m. sharp, I stood alone on the sidewalk in my stretchy pants. Moments later, Stuart, driving his blue 1984 G-Wagen with the top off, pulled up beside me and gave me a knowing, smiling nod. I climbed in and, without a word, we headed west.
Meltdown in Memphis
I’m not sure what you imagined when you read the words “World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest,” but I am pretty sure that your imagination has failed you. Even I, whose imagination came pre-equipped with stretchy pants, was unprepared for what I saw. There were miles of tents three to four stories tall, each belonging to a different barbecue team. They were organized by style and offering: chicken, pulled pork, brisket, ribs—each section looking roughly the size of an army base. On the outside, the tents were wreathed in smoke and festooned with signs, banners, and flags. Inside, they were filled with grills and smokers, tables and chairs, and a shouting, sweating, singing pirate crew of pitmasters welcoming you in and offering you a taste. It was like the Quidditch World Cup, only twice as magical.
But that was only the beginning. As we ate our way from tent to tent, I saw every form of barbecue enthusiast imaginable. Artisans sold handmade smokers, and sauces lined the paths. Children wearing pig noses ran through the crowd. Girls glided by on roller skates with oxtail wheels. Grown men wrestled in baby pools filled with barbecue sauce. Mothers with infants on their hips competed in rib-eating contests and raised their hands like MMA fighters in victory. A bearded old man poured samples of smoked whiskey from a flask made entirely from the body of an adult bullfrog—legs still on. I even heard that there was a hot tub filled with baked beans, though in spite of considerable effort, I never found it. All this to say, it was a scene. And a distinctively American one at that.
Several hours after our arrival—sticky with sauce, smelling of smoke, and sated with the bliss of an afternoon of barbecue—Stuart and I stood in silence and watched as the river turned gold in the sun’s descent. It was a perfect moment. It was a perfect moment, that is, until Stuart suddenly pulled the tickets out of his pocket and said, “Well, it’s supper time. Let’s head to our tent.”
It was at this point that I realized that Stuart’s exhortation to wear stretchy pants was no rhetorical indulgence. Everything we’d done up to that point—every pull of pork, every rib stripped bare, every swig from the business end of a bullfrog—had been a warm-up, an elaborate amuse-bouche for the actual meal. For this meal, Stuart explained, we would head to the tent of one of this year’s prize-winning teams, where we would be treated to a private multi-course feast. As I visibly quailed in anticipation of the coming metabolic assault, Stuart (who is, by the way, approximately half my size) laughed quietly at my defeat, handed me my ticket, and turned to go. After scanning the horizon for help and checking my waistband for stretch, I fortified myself and followed him into the crowd.
Image: Craig Lincoln Piersma
Image: Craig Lincoln Piersma
The next twenty minutes of walking were largely taken up with the work of self-mastery. Vaguely aware of Stuart in front of me, I kept my eyes down, did breathing exercises, and rotated through muttered phrases of self-assurance and self-reproach as we made our way to the tent. It was time well-spent. By the time Stuart slowed, I was more or less ready to rejoin the pirates; to hear their songs, to taste their miracles, and to raise a glass to their labours. I was excited to meet the team.
Looking up at the tent before us, however, my excitement sagged immediately into confusion. The tent, in contrast to the cramped, three-floor liability claims that I saw everywhere else, was one floor—spacious and clean. The music, in contrast to the sonic assault of country and hip-hop of the past hours, was some combination of ambient and classical. The decoration, in contrast to the carnival aesthetic of the rest of the festival, consisted only of one large flag: red with a white cross. The furnishings, in contrast to the hastily assembled and precariously balanced plastic tables and chairs everywhere else, consisted of long gleaming tables, inviting chairs, and an actual wooden floor. And, in contrast to the bearded, sweating, and cardiovascularly compromised crazy uncles everywhere else I’d been, the crewmembers were thin, blonde, clean shaven, and calm. They looked like a bobsled team. Sensing my confusion, Stuart put his arm around my shoulder and said, “This, my friend, is the tent of the Danish National Barbecue Team.” As in Denmark.
Now, I’m not so parochial as to imagine (as my father surely did) that people from the Southern United States are the only people in history to smoke meat. I know that’s not true. And I also know that this event was called the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. But, being American, I assumed that this was meant in that distinctive way that Americans have of saying “world” but meaning “the United States.” As in “the World Series.”
But there, standing before a tent that exuded what can only be characterized as hygge, I realized my error. And I did not like it. I mean, honestly. We were in Memphis. It was springtime on the banks of the Mississippi River. This was Barbecue. And I was wearing my stretchy pants. What were the Danes doing here? How would they like it if Stuart and I showed up in Copenhagen and started autographing copies of Beowulf? Or sweeping the podium in the luge? Maybe I was overstimulated. Or maybe I was slipping into a tryptophan coma. I don’t know. But what I do know is that I was teetering on the edge of a public meltdown. And so, ever helpful, Stuart took my arm, gave me the universal “pull yourself together” smile, and steered me into the tent.
After taking our annoyingly comfortable seats at the even more annoyingly non-sticky tables, smiling team members began to set the food before us. “This looks amazing,” Stuart crowed as the first courses came. And, though I couldn’t bring myself to say so, he was right; it did look amazing. Worse, it smelled amazing. But worst of all, it tasted amazing. Greens, sharp, with a hint of sweet. Okra, at once crisp and soft. Macaroni and cheese, layered and melty. Cornbread, golden and buttered. Beans, flecked with crispy pork belly and sauced with brown sugar and heat. And, of course, barbecue: Pork, perfectly seasoned and generously pulled. Wings, brined, roasted, and smoked over an open fire. Ribs, meat lifting from the bone with no more effort than a glance. Brisket, perfectly barked and melting to cream in the mouth. And, as a coup de grâce, a banana pudding that sent me off searching the kitchen for my grandmother. Each made with real knowledge and delivered with undeniable warmth. What were the Danes doing here? They were creating authentic Southern American barbecue. And it was unbelievably good.
As we came to a break between courses, I found myself growing philosophical. And so as those around me stood around stretching their stretchy pants and chatting about the meal, I pulled a chair to a quiet corner of what I referred to as “the Mead Hall,” sat down, gazed out at the gleaming river, and began to ask myself a question that has become something of a mainstay in my life: “Why am I being such a jerk?” Though presumably an adult, I had just spent the better part of two hours criticizing tables for being too clean, chairs for being too comfortable, and cultivating animus, I mean real animus, toward—of all things—a floor. Why?
As I asked myself this question, I came to the surprising realization that I somehow felt infringed upon; felt that these warm, smiling people had presumed upon my culture and had taken something that didn’t belong to them. Something that belonged, in fact, to me. Not only this, they were getting medals for it. And I was having a really hard time getting past it.
This seems like a reasonable time to acknowledge the obvious. Namely, that the idea that barbecue is somehow uniquely mine is ludicrous. After all, as Adrian Miller has definitively shown in his wonderful Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue, North American barbecue originated in the cooking techniques of indigenous peoples long before my Ulster peasant ancestors ever stepped foot on these shores. And not only this, due to the complex culinary rituals that emerged from American chattel slavery, North American barbecue is more credibly identified with African American culture than with my own. It is they who, as he puts it, “took what they learned from Native Americans and eventually became barbecue’s primary experts and ambassadors across the United States and, later, the world.”
Even so, the sights, smells, and tastes of barbecue were central to the sensuality of my childhood, the rituals of my family, and—because of this—the structure of my identity. And though the Danes had no way of knowing it, when they took up barbecue, they took up each of these things as well. Why was I being a jerk? The same reason as always: because I felt vulnerable; afraid that the most intimate parts of my life would be presumptuously taken, imperfectly understood, exploitatively used, and then simply cast aside like so many bones.
Why was I being a jerk? The same reason as always: because I felt vulnerable; afraid that the most intimate parts of my life would be presumptuously taken, imperfectly understood, exploitatively used, and then simply cast aside like so many bones.
The Colonial Background
My meltdown in the Memphis Mead Hall is but a species of a much larger conversation currently taking place in our moment regarding cultural appropriation. Formally speaking, this conversation is about the propriety of embracing the practices—culinary, artistic, sartorial, semantic—of a culture other than one’s own. But at its heart, it is about much more than this. It is about the nature of personal identity, the pain of historical inheritance, and the potential for enduring harm. It is, in this respect, a conversation not simply about the practices but about the very possibility of a common life. And while this conversation ranges in its depth and varies in its conclusions, its origins lie deep in the profound harms done during the history of European colonization and the ways in which those harms continue to shape the lives of all who have inherited that history.
Cultural appropriation is about the nature of personal identity, the pain of historical inheritance, and the potential for enduring harm.
At present, the narrative at the heart of the cultural-appropriation framework goes something like this: Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries the colonial powers of Europe deliberately used their military and commercial strength to systematically subjugate, violate, and decimate many of the indigenous cultures of Africa, southern Asia, and the Americas. Their motivations for this were complex—religious, political, economic, and existential—but the consequences were brutally simple. During these years, cultures that had existed for millennia entered into a long nightmare of spiritual conquest, material extraction, and spatial displacement from which there could be no return. As Willie James Jennings put it in his indispensable The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race, “[In] the European vision . . . everything—from peoples and their bodies to plants and animals, from the ground and the sky—was subject to change, subjects for change, subjected to change. The significance of this transformation cannot be overstated.”
And not only this. It is crucial to this framework to understand that the impulse toward the conquest, exploitation, and ultimate transformation of indigenous cultures did not end with the formal end of colonialism itself. To the contrary, it lives on in powerful cultural habits of pride and prejudice, in the pervasive tendency to continue the work of pillaging at the borders between the weak and the strong. Because of this, one of the most important tasks in the pursuit of an equitable society is the work of rooting out this colonial habitus; the anti-colonial work of active resistance toward anything that perpetuates the ravages of conquest, extraction, and displacement.
At present, much of this resistance is focused on the distinctively cultural and highly capitalized domains of fashion, music, literature, and food. Indeed, across the post-colonial world, all manner of things—from Mexican handbags to dreadlocks to young adult novels, to falafels—have become particularly heated fronts in the ongoing border war over the appropriation of cultures. Though it may seem strange to some that handbags could be an occasion for such furious acrimony, it actually makes perfect sense. Conflicts over cultural appropriation, while theoretically complex, are also profoundly intimate, touching on our most personal yearnings with respect to the clothes we put on our bodies, the stories we tell to our children, and the food we serve at our tables.
Some, of course, find this entire conversation ridiculous, balking at the very notion that one’s choices with respect to the clothes we wear, the songs we sing, and the menus we serve could in any way be constrained by abstract concerns over culture and colonialism. “What exactly does Sir Francis Drake have to do with my choice of sneakers?” For these, the entire discourse of “cultural appropriation” feels like manufactured grievance, the latest cause célèbre of a culture whose chief characteristic seems increasingly to be a preening form of woundedness.
I see it differently. In fairness, I do believe that a number of the categories fundamental to the discussion of cultural appropriation remain significantly under-theorized. I do not believe, for example, that there are yet truly satisfying answers to such questions as, In what meaningful way are cultures static? How do we determine the boundaries between different cultures? What does it mean for a given culture to be one’s own? And how can the language of appropriation more meaningfully interact with the undeniable tendency of neighbouring cultures to fuse into something new?
There is a good deal of work to be done before the concept of cultural appropriation can function as meaningfully in our moral and political imaginations as it should.
That said, I do not believe that the conversation about cultural appropriation should be so easily cast aside, especially by those who are concerned with the pains of history, the well-being of neighbours, and the healing of society. To the contrary, I believe that the accounts of history and of political vigilance that lie at the heart of the cultural-appropriation framework are more or less beyond reproach. The simple fact of the matter is that Western culture, even with all of its religious and scientific pretensions (as often as not because of them) was predicated on presumption and enacted through theft. And not only this, these presumptions and this theft continue to shape the complex ways in which those of us who have inherited this culture interact with one another. Because of this, I believe that the work of taking this history seriously by repairing its original harms and rejecting its lingering impulses is central to moral and political integrity in our time. All this to say, I find—even with its conceptual ambiguities—the framework of cultural appropriation to be an important source of theoretical and practical guidance in the ongoing work of overcoming the harms of our colonial inheritance.
The Current Impasse
And yet even as I write these words about the importance of cultural appropriation as a framework, I also feel a concern about its limitations. This concern is not, I should note again, about its accounts of history or political obligation. My concern, rather, is about the vision of the world that this framework imagines, and therefore makes possible. Here is what I mean.
The social narrative embedded in concerns over cultural appropriation is one in which invasion, conquest, theft, and loss are axiomatic. That is to say, it largely renders human interaction as an ongoing series of power struggles scattered across an infinite range of cultural borderlands. Thus the work of common life, insofar as such a thing exists, becomes characterized as the work of policing the borders between tribes and disrupting the inevitable incursions of greed. As an account of Western cultural history, this characterization of the world, while incomplete, is certainly reasonable.
But I am concerned that this narrative has become something more than an honest account of specific periods of Western cultural history. I worry that it has instead become a sort of generalized political metaphysic, an account of the world that reduces our life together to little more than a long nightmare of abusive power and self-interested vigilance. In this respect, I am concerned that it functions not simply as an empirical description of what we have been, but also—and perhaps more powerfully—as a theoretical proscription of what we might yet become.
If this is true, then this means that the framework of cultural appropriation, while rightly critical of the colonial project, can nonetheless perpetuate colonialism’s moral logic and prolong our collective captivity to it. Indeed, I believe that this perpetuation of colonialism’s moral impulses by some of colonialism’s foes is one of the most confusing aspects of contemporary cultural life; one that creates not only joyless and resentful people but also an insurmountable impasse to our cultural and political healing. And so while the framework of cultural appropriation is an important tool for deconstructing an old way of living, it is by no means sufficient for creating a new one.
The Convivial Opportunity
And this, in a turn that will surprise exactly no one, brings me to the table. Allow me to take a step back. Since its inception, The Welcome Table has been explicitly animated by what we refer to as a “convivial imagination.” That is to say, no matter the presenting topic (whether it be memorialization or mental health), we are committed to viewing that topic through the lens of the table and the important things that happen around it.
This approach, however, could give the impression of a sort of eccentricity, of a willed quaintness that imagines that our deepest social problems could be solved by the mere sharing of roast duck with cabernet-cherry sauce. And while experience has certainly taught me that, on balance, a roast duck with cabernet-cherry sauce helps more than it hurts, this is not what having a “convivial imagination” entails.
Indeed, a convivial imagination is not fundamentally about the particulars of food or the practices of hospitality (though it inescapably entails these, in both granular detail and great abundance). It is, rather, an account of the world, a story about who we fundamentally are, and of who we are together. And that story is, in a word, welcome.
Embedded in this miraculous word is a series of elemental convictions—about God, about ourselves, and about the world we share. Those convictions are that we were made by God both in and for love. That because of this, our truest relationship to one another is that of friendship. And finally that, though we continually fracture this friendship into enmity, the ultimate work of our lives is to make our way home to one another and to celebrate that homecoming with a feast.
The convivial imagination, in other words, is much more than a vibe. It is a conviction about the reality of things, a settled confession that—even in the midst of our endless wars—the truest trajectory of the world is intimacy, and that the task of our lives is to make way for that intimacy and to toast it with singing when it arrives.
The convivial imagination is much more than a vibe. It is a conviction about the reality of things; a settled confession that—even in the midst of our endless wars—the truest trajectory of the world is intimacy.
When set against the infinite impasses of our current moment, this sort of convivial imagination can seem simultaneously pathetic and powerful. Pathetic, because in the shadows of a world cratered by endless campaigns of violent subjugation, amid the roar of the guns in our ears and the tragedy of lifeless children in our streets, the claim that we are not enemies but friends can feel not simply utterly ridiculous but also profoundly reckless.
And yet powerful, because it invites us—even in the face of such rapacious violence—to embrace the possibility of human community both before and beyond estrangement. Powerful, because it enables us to live out of the reality that before greed there was gift, before extraction there was enjoyment, before warfare there was welcome. Powerful, because it offers the world a new moral logic, a new story; one that offers the possibility of being transformed from conquerors into celebrants, from hoarding the world’s glories to lifting them up for the life of others.
It is from this vantage point that our lives at the table may be viewed for what they truly are: prophetic witness to the reality of welcome in a world of exclusion. Our faces reddened with steam from stoves. Our plates composed with care. Our tables set with expectation. Our doors opened to others. Our glasses raised against the night. Each of these is a sort of rosary, a practice of prayer offered up in faith to the welcome at the heart of all things. A convivial imagination, in other words, provides us not simply with a different way of viewing our life together but also with a different way of inhabiting that life. A way that, while ever vigilant against the brutal greed seething within the colonial imagination, is different precisely because it believes in a boundless generosity that is both before and beyond it.
From the Colonial to the Convivial
As I sat that spring evening watching the moon rise over the Mississippi, I was firmly in the grip of the colonial imagination, an imagination possessed by possession, harrowed by scarcity, and consummate in resentment. And it left me sullen and solitary on the edges of a (literal) world-championship feast.
But as is its way, conviviality claimed the last word. Hearing commotion near the entrance of the tent, I looked up to see another barbecue team—a medal winner from my own town—parading into the tent carrying platters of their own food. As my fellow guests clapped and cheered, the king of the Danes greeted them with warmth and led them to a central table where both teams laid out platters of their genius, sat down with one another, and shared a feast of their own.
For the next several hours Stuart and I sat among them as they ate their fill, shared their secrets, and toasted one another in friendship. And then, as we all prepared to leave, they stood and asked Stuart for a group photo. Before he could get in place, however, they began to strip to the waist and exchange team jerseys, refitting medals around one another’s necks. Moments later, shirts swapped and arms around one another, the two teams were in all important respects indistinguishable. No longer competitors, they had become common recipients of a fullness that bound them together in open-hearted joy. And, I, even I—sheepish of heart and stretchy of pant—was welcomed into the frame.