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Barbecue Hall of Fame welcomes Charleston’s Rodney Scott, diversity initiatives


A Black food writer’s yearslong effort to bring racial equity to the American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame may be partially responsible for Charleston pitmaster Rodney Scott’s recent induction.

But Scott said he prefers not to view the honor in racial terms. And that food writer, culinary historian and certified barbecue judge Adrian Miller, emphasized that Scott was already a top candidate, regardless of race.

Scott was inducted into the American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame in May, alongside contemporaries Meathead Goldwin of Chicago and Ollie Gates of Kansas City, Mo. Deceased legacy candidates Arthur Bryant of Kansas City, Mo., and Lyttle Bridges Cabaniss of Shelby, N.C., also were inducted. 

The inclusion of two Black chefs, Scott and Bryant, in the 2021 class comes after the American Royal, along with other food award establishments across the country such as the James Beard Foundation, began examining the diversity among its board members and inductees.

American Royal’s own personal reckoning occurred after the organization was openly criticized for a lack of non-White inductees by Miller, whose new book “Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue” traces whole-animal fire pit cooking in the Americas to the flavor traditions of enslaved Africans on plantations. 

“Imagine the halls of fame for baseball, basketball and football largely filled respectively with starting pitchers, point guards and quarterbacks,” Miller wrote in a 2018 Op-Ed column for the Kansas City Star. “What if an overwhelming majority of those honored athletes selected were white?”

Miller noted that, of the 27 inductees chosen for the honor between the hall of fame’s creation in 2007 and the summer of 2018, there was only one African American. That was Henry Perry of Kansas City, inducted in 2014, after the American Royal took over the operation from original founders Mike Tucker and Ray Basso in 2012. 

“This is an absurdity that needs to be rectified given the significant contributions that African Americans have made to American barbecue culture,” he wrote. 

After Miller painted a portrait of what was wrong with the hall of fame, the American Royal did something he never expected. They asked him to join the board. 

“Typically, people are like, ‘Go kick rocks!’ when you criticize them,” Miller told The Post and Courier. “It was to their credit they invited me in, and internally, I realized several people were like, ‘You know, he’s right.'” 

Since Miller joined the board in 2019, the inductees have included significantly more Black barbecuers.

In 2019, two of the three inductees were Black: John “Big Daddy” Bishop of Tuscaloosa, Ala., and C.B. “Stubb” Stubblefield of Austin, Texas. Then in 2020, the first and only Black woman, Desiree Robinson of Memphis, Tenn., restaurant Cozy Corner, was inducted. 

“Rodney Scott’s World of BBQ: Every Day is a Good Day” by Rodney Scott and Lolis Eric Elie. Jerrelle Guy/Clarkson Potter/Penguin Random House/Provided

Scott, who chooses to focus on the craft of creating great barbecue and making connections with the people who eat it rather than race relations, admitted to The Post and Courier he hadn’t put too much thought into the historical lack of diversity among nominees and board members in organizations like American Royal and James Beard. 

“I’m always so happy to just be included that I never really paid attention to who’s involved and how they’re being nominated,” Scott said. “As an individual, I focus on my surroundings and my world. I won’t say I’m blinded, but I’m happy to be a part of them.” 

Scott said this induction, in addition to his James Beard Foundation Award in the category of Best Chef: Southeast 2018, has propelled his career and renown in the barbecue and food world. He said he’s still getting contacted by people who have only heard of him because of the James Beard success. 

“In my opinion, any recognition in your craft is a plus,” Scott said. “When you hear hall of fame, you immediately think of the best among the best.”

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Rodney Scott works in the pit house at Rodney Scott’s Barbecue on King Street in Charleston. File/Staff/Grace Beahm

Miller made it his mission to examine institutions that bestow a status on a group of people each year and has done just that with American Royal. 

One immediate issue he recognized, beyond race representation, was that the initial board was heavily made up of competition-circuit people and the names they decided to promote belonged to chefs they knew from that network or ones who would bolster the organization with their preexisting fame.

“Picking Guy Fieri and Henry Ford (for inventing the charcoal briquette) — that was all about publicity,” he said. “What have they really contributed to the world of barbecue, I mean compared to what these other nominees have?” 

American Royal event manager Emily Park said the organization has made efforts to expand diversity in general. 

5 min to read

For starters, more people were asked to join the nominating committee, including barbecue authors, historians and food writers. 

“It had not been a specific goal to add non-White committee members,” Park said in an email. “Rather, our goal at that time was to make sure we had a committee that was inclusive of individuals who live and breathe barbecue, had a diverse understanding of barbecue and were from all across the country.” 

Rodney Scott, winner of James Beard Best Chef Southeast, lifts the lid on smoking ribs at his King Street restaurant on May 10, 2018, in Charleston. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

From 2012 to 2016, nominees were required to fall into one of three categories: Business/Industry, Celebrity/Humanitarian and Pitmaster. Those were done away with in order to select candidates based on their overall influence on the world of barbecue. 

In addition, an annual legacy category that honors two historical figures along with three contemporaries was added. 

Miller said this category that gives historical balance is vital to creating a more notable and influential hall of fame. The meaning behind the induction relies on the impressive body of inductees, he said. 

Ribs served at Rodney Scott’s BBQ. Grace Beahm/Staff

Park said that hall of fame nominations have been increasing about 15 to 20 percent each year, and they are kept for three years to review again.

Scott was one of those considerations who was nominated previously and inducted this year as a “no-brainer,” said Miller. 

“It’s another great accolade for a guy who’s worked really hard to get where he is in barbecue: One of most recognizable figures in barbecue,” Miller said. “This is a validation of his lifelong work, not that he needs it from us.” 

Miller, the only African American out of the board’s current eight members listed on the website, hopes the organization will keep striving to recognize the contributions African Americans have made and continue to make to barbecue.

Eventually, the hall of fame’s makeup will represent those overlooked contributions, he said.

As of now, seven of the 40 inductees are Black.

Rodney Scott’s BBQ, located on King Street. Lauren Petracca/Staff

This content was originally published here.

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