Guest Commentary

It’s time to diversify Kansas City’s Barbecue Hall of Fame

Adrian Miller
Adrian Miller

Imagine the halls of fame for baseball, basketball and football largely filled respectively with starting pitchers, point guards and quarterbacks. What if an overwhelming majority of those honored athletes selected were white?

Seems unfair, right? A similar situation currently exists with the American Royal Barbecue Hall of Fame (which we refer to as “the Hall”), based in Kansas City and founded in 2011.

Of the 27 inductees chosen thus far, only one African American is in the Hall. This is an absurdity that needs to be rectified given the significant contributions that African Americans have made to American barbecue culture.

Before getting to the meat of the matter, let me offer two caveats: First, with only a few exceptions, the Hall is filled with people who should be celebrated for their barbecue accomplishments. This year’s induction class includes the noteworthy competitive barbecue champion Tuffy Stone of Lynchburg, Virginia, and longtime restaurateurs Tootsie Tomanetz of Lexington, Texas and Charlie Vergos of Memphis, Tennessee.

Second, I’m not immediately jumping to the conclusion that the Hall is run by a bunch of racists. Yet the Hall’s persistent exclusion of people of color, and African Americans in particular, is too improbable to defend.

The Hall currently honors two non-white members. The first is Henry Perry, the only African-American inductee mentioned above, who is the acknowledged father of Kansas City’s now-famous barbecue scene. The other is Dave Anderson of the successful Famous Dave’s barbecue chain. Anderson is a Native American with Choctaw and Ojibwe tribal heritage. Both deserve the recognition.

Perhaps sensing a problem, the Hall’s selection committee sought nominations from the general public for its 2018 induction class. As a result, four of the nine finalists nominated for the Hall were African Americans. Despite an 88 percent chance that at least one of these diverse candidates would be one of the three selected, none was. What gives?

Cast in its best light, what ails the Hall’s selection committee is a problem common to much of today’s food media. Given white people’s dominance in management positions, they are usually the ones who make critical decisions about whose stories will get told and who will be put in the spotlight. If they are unsure about a judgment, these decision-makers will often consult people in their professional and social networks — who also tend to be white.

Unless diversity is strongly considered in these consultations, this is a recipe for mostly white people making the short lists.

So, where do we go from here? First, the Hall’s selection committee members always need to include people of color. This will necessarily expand the universe of people they know in the barbecue world. I contacted the Hall about its diversity problem, and they appear open to this recommendation.

Second, the Hall’s selection committee should also be much clearer about what makes someone suitable as a nominee, and then live up to those standards when they choose inductees.

Any hall of fame recognizes people who have excelled in a particular field, and it tells a story. We can learn a lot about barbecue — its history, its present popularity and the possible future it inspires — through the lives of the people who are inducted. An honorific body for barbecue that’s overwhelmingly white just looks bad, and it doesn’t reflect reality.

There’s a wide, diverse world of barbecue out there with a lot of fascinating people waiting for some well-deserved recognition. I hope the Barbecue Hall of Fame will induct more African Americans and relieve me from future cases of heartburn.

Adrian Miller is a James Beard Award-winning author and a certified barbecue judge. He lives in Denver, Colorado.