Know Your Place at the Cookout

A working hierarchy of who gets to do what, from grocery run to grill duty.

serving dish with baked beans
Photo: Photo by Caitlin Bensel / Food Styling by Margaret Monroe Dickey / Prop Styling by Lydia Pursell

Whether you're calling it a barbecue, get-together, or just "firing up the grill," a cookout is a staple in the South. As a Black girl growing up in the gummy heat of Southwest Georgia, cookouts happened on a whim and on different levels: a little something with immediate family and a neighbor, "on the yard" in college when fraternity boys needed to sell tickets to a party, the Vacation Bible School church cookout, and the top-tier cookout aka the family reunion.

I have conducted decades of research on cookout etiquette and their significance to Black folks. Cookouts mark time, people, and space. We take record of who attends and who is no longer with us. We pull out dominoes or "bones" and worn-in cards for Spades, Bidwhist, or Tonk. Food is presented, judged, and celebrated. Generations are marked by a particular recipe, grilling method, or side dish, and labor is multi-tiered love and community-building. However, be clear: people are also marked by their assigned task, an invisible tattoo that shows their rank beyond "cookout attendee."

A cookout's DNA is found in the sides and who made them.

Cookout tasks are assigned by a petty panel of judges, usually elders in the family and their people 'nem, who give you one chance to advance to the next tier or demote you after you make a mistake. There is no nepotism or playing favorites by this board of trustees. They entrust you with a task, and it is yours forever — or until you prove your unworthiness. While the levels and their descriptions may vary — Black folks and Southerners ain't a monolith — I have determined a working hierarchy of tasks.

Tier 1: Grocery Run

Usually reserved for the cooking-challenged, new guests, and new significant others, or teenagers who just got their driver's license and can go to the store on their own. This includes picking up plates, plastic cups and cutlery, chips, soda, and ice. Grocery Runners must be careful because everything is judged: the thickness of the plate (let somebody drop their hot link or ribs because of a flimsy plate, it's a wrap); chip or soda brand (c'mon folks, Diet Dr. Thunder Lite?), and the bag size and shave of the ice. Grocery Runners can't play around; they are on a deadline even if cookout attendees are not.

Tier 2: Throwaways

The name is harsh but these are sides people can discreetly scrape off their plate with little fanfare if it is nasty. It includes salads, coleslaw, or dip (i.e. French onion or spinach and artichoke). It's low-risk labor, with little to no cooking experience needed.

Tier 3: Signature Sides

If your beans taste burnt or your potato salad has raisins or olives, we talking bad about you 'til your grandchildren hear about it.

If you get assigned to the third tier it means you have proven that you don't burn water, and have demonstrated your worthiness with a recipe that can stand on its own as a side at the cookout. Third-tier sides include baked beans, mac-n-cheese, and potato salad. A cookout's DNA is found in the sides and who made them. This task is not for the faint of heart or the thin-skinned. If your beans taste burnt or your potato salad has raisins or olives, we talking bad about you 'til your grandchildren hear about it.

Tier 4: Desserts

Listen, nie. Desserts are no country for the soft-spoken. This includes cobblers (ya girl prefers peach with a thick crust), pies, brownies, cake, and homemade ice cream. Storebought sweets buyers need neither apply nor be spoken in the same breath as those assigned to desserts. This is the homemade, get up at 5:30 am to prep tier. You need years, references, and a strong talent in throwing shade to be part of this crew. Cookout desserts are blessed work.

Tier 5: Grill Grill, Gang Gang

Chile, this is God-level. You are not only allowed by the grill, you get to use it. People on grill duty are expected to have complicated palates and equally elaborate rituals about how they use their grill. Charcoal and wood still reign supreme, gas grillers get dragged. We're not talking about what my husband calls a "kiddie grill" that fits two hamburgers, a hot dog, and a piece of chicken, we're talking about the grill they made out of an old barrel with multiple grates, or a monster custom-made job with racks assigned by meat type and a separate smoke box. Grillers come prepared with coolers full of meat, rubs, wood, marinades, a couple of different sauces for their meat, and "secret" seasoning in a rack that they keep in their trunk. This is where people are expected to talk shit about their meat and their grills. If you can't, why should we trust your grillwork?

I need to confess something: my study of cookout-ology was halted because of the pandemic. Smells of charred sausage, sugary peaches, and chocolate cake haunt my nose. Memories of hands and hearts preparing plates feel like cobwebs on my wrists, neck, and shoulders. May the cookout come back full force, the poetry of its labor (no matter the tier) and its very existence intact.

Dr. Bradley's latest book, Chronicling Stankonia: The Rise of the Hip-Hop South, was published this year by UNC Press.

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