They’re a familiar, if somewhat marginal, sight in American eating culture. Perched over lonely back roads and interstates, gracing the covers of single-color paper menus, even casual consumers of barbecue can recall the curious sight of a food animal, often a pig somewhere partway to being a person, gleefully cooking or consuming the cooked product of his own species.
There’s definitely a sinister side to them, the way they present what amounts to no less than cannibalism with such winking nonchalance.
Where did these pictures come from? At first glance, it seems apparent that many, if not most, of these depictions draw from the aesthetic vernacular of early twentieth-century American animation. Many of them appear as counterfeit Porky Pigs, owing to the specialties served. They are always prudently off-model but still blinking with those familiar button eyes, that demure smile, dressed as a chef, frontiersman, or in the Warner Bros.’ character’s characteristic formal wear.
Looney Tunes, Merrie Melodies, Walt Disney’s creations and the rest of the so-called “Funny Animals” have themselves often traded in a strange relationship with food and eating. Sylvester might chase Tweety like any cat would any bird, but the fact that these creatures double as people, walking upright, speaking, joking with one another and the unseen audience give what would ostensibly be a simple fact of nature a cannibalistic edge. A shipwrecked hysteric’s famine vision might take the form of a companion inserted between a hamburger bun or fitted with turkey frills. Even Porky Pig, Warner Bros.’ de facto master of ceremonies, bears his own species’ kitchen name.
Funny Animals are said to have their roots in minstrelry - their ”rubberiness, their jazziness, their cheerful buoyance and idleness all chimed with popular images of African Americans” in the words of John Updike. But perhaps there’s an older mechanism at work here, one that hooks up with cartoon’s inherent mischief, their willingness to invert, to make the nonhuman human and vice versa. The coy cannibalism on display in these signs could be none other than a manifestation of the Carnival.
American barbecue has its beginnings in communal celebration. Before the cuisine was codified in restaurants around the country, the predecessors of the United States knew barbecue ephemerally, as festival food. These dishes were not so much a cuisine as they were the happenstance of a particular type of public event, pigs slaughtered and roasted en masse at court days, militia musters, and outdoor dances. Barbecue was less often sold than given away, by politicians seeking favor with their constituents or, in the first Independence Day celebrations, as a ritual celebration of republican egalitarianism.
They were often wild times of expenditure and waste, with both meat and drink flowing copiously and often, as carnivals are wont, terminating in violence. Barbecues were frequently criticized for their licentiousness, with one Southern Advocate correspondent complaining in 1827 of “harlequins and clowns…with fiddling, feasting, dancing, drinking, masquing”.
Misrule and “ritual license” are well-worn concepts in the anthropology of festival. It has been argued that the production of grotesquery and parody at feasting time serves to deflate the pretensions of the ruling orthodoxy and loosen the bonds of society, allowing the marginal a space for a space for criticism of both their superiors and their neighbors.
However rowdy and dangerous, the days of misrule were never a serious threat to the ruling order. Their neat arithmetic of dissent, dressing women and beggars as kings and bishops, allowing the eaten a seat at the table, underlines the fact that, after the hangover, everything will return to normal.
Despite the rise of barbecue restaurants and the emergence of the orthodoxies of regional styles, this festival heritage has not been exorcised completely from barbecue. Even the sleekest modern establishment feels the pull to serve ribs and sides not on any kind of “traditional” dishware but fork-and-knifeless on trays lined with butcher paper and Styrofoam cups – clearly recalling the bygone roaming feasts that root the cuisine.
And perhaps the appearance of these cannibalistic animals in the context of barbecue was not cued so much by a desire to wash over or transform race depictions but rather an acknowledgement of their trickster inheritance. Like so many things in this culture, American barbecue emerged from an amalgam of heritages, feeding from both the folk rites of European immigrants and the famous tricksters of black culture, Br’er Rabbit and John the Conqueror.
Just as the prey outsmarts the predator, the pig eats his own meat, and the eruption of the festival invites the population to indulge in reversals. Thus barbecue can be seen as a site where different American bacchanals converge, linked together by a thoroughly twentieth-century image of misrule.