Sunday Poetry: The Gospel of Barbecue, by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

The Gospel of Barbecue

for Alvester James

Long after it was
necessary, Uncle
Vess ate the leavings
off the hog, doused
them with vinegar sauce.
He ate chewy abominations.
Then came high pressure.
Then came the little pills.
Then came the doctor
who stole Vess’s second
sight, the predication
of pig’s blood every
fourth Sunday.
Then came the stillness
of barn earth, no more
trembling at his step.
Then came the end
of the rib, but before
his eyes clouded,
Uncle Vess wrote
down the gospel
of barbecue.

Chapter one:
Somebody got to die
with something at some
time or another.

Chapter two:
Don’t ever trust
white folk to cook
your meat until
it’s done to the bone.

Chapter three:
December is the best
time for hog killing.
The meat won’t
spoil as quick.
Screams and blood
freeze over before
they hit the air.

Chapter four, Verse one:
Great Grandma Mandy
used to say food
you was whipped
for tasted the best.

Chapter four, Verse two:
Old Master knew to lock
the ham bacon chops
away quick or the slaves
would rob him blind.
He knew a padlock
to the smokehouse
was best to prevent
stealing, but even the
sorriest of slaves would
risk a beating for a full
belly. So Christmas time
he give his nasty
leftovers to the well
behaved. The head ears
snout tail fatback
chitlins feet ribs balls.
He thought gratitude
made a good seasoning.

Chapter five:
Unclean means dirty
means filthy means
underwear worn too
long in summertime heat.
Perfectly good food
can’t be no sin.
Maybe the little
bit of meat on ribs
makes for lean eating.
Maybe the pink flesh
is tasteless until you add
onions garlic black
pepper tomatoes
soured apple cider
but survival ain’t never been
no crime against nature
or Maker. See, stay alive
in the meantime, laugh
a little harder. Go on
and gnaw that bone clean.

– by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

Doing a Sunday poetry post every week is a discipline that pays off big-time. A couple hours ago, I had never heard of Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, and now I’ve read parts of her blog and “liked” her Facebook page. All this Just because I felt obligated to find a new poem to present on Sunday.

As an aside, it’s kind of scary to write about living, breathing, internet-alive writers. Poets know how google works, and they sometimes come by and comment, or email me. So far, nobody has threatened a copyright lawsuit, or, much worse, brought to life my Prufrock-inspired paranoid fear:

Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

But I feel like it’s bound to happen one of these days.

This poem challenges me. I’m a middle-class, midwestern, middle-aged white guy facing a poem written by a younger black woman from the South, and the poem tosses into the mix race, slavery, whippings, second sight, chittlins, and even Carolina vinegar-based barbecue (KC style being my zone of comfort). I’m a perfect product of white privilege presuming to comment on a poem written by a woman who knows what she’s doing, and whose blog demonstrates she is most definitely alert to nuance, symbolism and politics.

But the Gospel of Barbecue provides its own advice down there at the end –

. . .See, stay alive
in the meantime, laugh
a little harder. Go on
and gnaw that bone clean.

So here are a few of the things that appeal to me out of this poem, like the abominations that Uncle Vess chewed on.

“Leavings off the hog” – there, straddling the third line and fourth lines, is a phrase I hadn’t even seen turned before, but it’s a wonderful descriptor of the bits that get left behind when someone else locks up the ham, bacon and chops. Even though the times have changed and the necessity of eating the leavings is long past, Uncle Vess chooses to enjoy them, even though they bring high blood pressure and failing health. The poet doesn’t ignore the reality of nutrition and risk to present a falsely happy picture of food traditions brought on by slavery, but she answers her own concerns with Chapter One of the Gospel – “Somebody got to die with something at some time or another.” This is not a Gospel of Eternal Life – it’s a Gospel of Barbecue.

Chapter 4 kills me. Verse one – the great grandmother speaks of whipping and how it changed the food. Verse two – Old Master expects gratitude for nasty leftovers. This isn’t some rose-tinted song-of-the-South food reviewer waxing eloquent about a great plate of barbecue – Jeffers is placing this food into a context as distasteful as history.

Chapter 5 lets us in on the secret – it’s survival. Religious tradition in parts of Africa might consider pork unclean, but this Gospel preaches that survival is not a crime against Nature or the Maker. Whatever alien gospels might proclaim, the Gospel of Barbecue has arisen to allow laughter and gnawing and staying alive.

3 Responses to “Sunday Poetry: The Gospel of Barbecue, by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers”

  1. les says:

    Needs moar controversy, apparently. Pome’s too hi-brow for me.

  2. Joyce MacDonald says:

    Please explain: “Then came the doctor who stole Vessa’s second sight, the predication of pig’s blood every fourth Sunday.”

  3. gonemild says:

    I interpret it to mean that the doctor interfered with Vessa’s anticipation of a monthly barbecue on the fourth Sunday of the month.

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