In the United States, a barbecue season like no other
May kicks off the barbecue season in the United States. These festivities represent a real social time in the lives of Americans. Yet this year, the big cookouts are not a priority.
“It’s probably the first time I’ve ever celebrated the national holiday at home with so few people around,” Hannah says bitterly from North Carolina. In the family of this 23-year-old American student, the month of May heralds the time of national festivities. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day, and the famous “4th of July” punctuate the social life of Americans until September.
At Hannah’s house, barbecuing is still the norm, as it is in many other homes across the country. In fact, 75% of Americans own a barbecue. This way of cooking represents “the family, the gathering, and the occasion to meet in great numbers during special events”, explains Kaitland Byrd, sociologist specialized in the food of the Southern States. But more than just festivities, barbecues have become an essential social event for Americans, says Richard Moss, a culinary historian: “Barbecues were above all a political event. In the 20th century, political campaigns were organized around huge barbecues in the Southern states. It’s more than just food, it’s ingrained in our culture.”
Maximum ten people around the grill
Hannah lives in a residential neighborhood in a small town in North Carolina, a state where barbecue is an institution. Here, people don’t settle for meager kebabs and sausages. “The great tradition of this state is pork with a salt, pepper and vinegar sauce,” says Kevin Sandrige, creator of a podcast dedicated to the barbecue issue.
This year, Covid-19 is jeopardizing these festivities. In most U.S. states, gatherings are limited to 10 people. Traditionally, barbecues have gone well beyond this limit. On the Fourth of July (the national holiday), gatherings around the grill can involve as many as 100 guests.
“If we don’t gather in the neighborhood, then we go to festivals and there again we eat meat from the grill. We even attend barbecue contests,” exclaims Hannah. Usually the atmosphere is “festive, you look forward to it. It’s kind of the feeling you get when Christmas is coming. You know we’re all going to get together,” the 23-year-old student enthuses. But this year, popular barbecue festivals have been canceled one by one, and when neighbors get together, it’s hard to respect the physical distance.
For food writer and journalist Larry Olmsted, there are simple ways to celebrate safely: invite fewer people and use disposable cutlery and utensils. For this culinary expert, “the problem is supply.
Slaughterhouses, hotbeds of Covid-19
While the coronavirus is particularly virulent in American slaughterhouses, the meat industry is experiencing a slowdown in the country. American supermarkets fear a stock-out. Some fast food outlets are running out of burgers. The wholesale specialist Costco, has warned to limit its meat sales to three items. Other big box stores in the country, such as Kroger and Wegmans, have also followed suit.
“Slaughterhouse workers are among the people most affected by the virus,” says culinary historian Richard Moss. A report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 5,000 employees in this sector are infected with Covid-19. U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order on April 28, directing slaughterhouses and meat processing plants to remain open. According to the U.S. United Food and Commercial Workers union, more than 20 meat plants have reportedly closed since March.
Faced with this situation, Hannah assures that she “will not hesitate to reduce her meat consumption”. For the student, this year, the trend will not be towards huge barbecues, but more towards small-scale festivities. Next up is Memorial Day on May 25, which she plans to celebrate by videoconference.