(Black) Cookout Etiquette

Obviously my husband isn't the only person who thinks cookouts are a "unique" cultural experience.

I love the month of July for two reasons: first, because it's my birthday.  Yes, that's right, I claim the entire month of July as my birthday and accept gifts year-round (just ask my friends, they'll confirm).  Second, because I consider the Fourth of July weekend the official kick off of "Cookout Season."  Now I always thought my cookout experiences growing up were pretty universal.  But several years into our marriage, my husband hinted at the fact that a black cookout might be a cultural experience in and of itself.

So, while cleaning the apartment last week, I came across the "Emily Post's Etiquette" book I purchased around the time of our wedding, and I thought I would look up her "code of behavior based on consideration and thoughtfulness"applicable to cookouts.  The first thing I noticed is that the word "cookout" appears no where in the book! Shocking! So my search was limited to the chapter on "Barbecues" and "Picnics."  And I came to the conclusion that (Black) cookout etiquette basically consists of the rules of "etiquette" flipped upside down.  Here are few to consider:

Be Late.
I don't know if I have ever been to a cookout that started "on time" and had people actually come one time.  Well, I take that back, our church cookouts were pretty punctual.  But otherwise, the party doesn't really get going until the sun starts setting.  Maybe people don't want to get hot sitting out in the sun.  Maybe they had other cookouts and commitments during the day or maybe they just got off of work.  But don't be alarmed if the invite says 2pm and you show up at 2pm and the grill isn't even set up yet. You may find yourself in the kitchen helping the hosts cook, or outside setting up chairs or worse, being sent on an errands to pick up some extra paper plates (which will inevitably be the most expensive brand since its a last minute purchase).

Know Whose Food You're Eating.
Anytime we're at a function that involves food cooked by people we don't know or just met, my husband is usually close to my side pointing to dishes and asking "What about this? What about that one? You think that's okay?" I respond very covertly and swiftly, nodding "yes" or shaking my head "no" at my approval or disapproval based on intelligence I've gathered from family members, friends, and from scanning the crowd within the first five minutes of our arrival.  The fact is, you can't just eat anybody's cooking.  And when it comes to food, people have reputations, and those reputations STICK.  Everybody remembers exactly which potato salad gave everybody the runs at the last cookout and they know it was you who cooked it and no, you don't get a pass just because you're the host.  Not only that, but they are making sure everyone they brought to the cookout stays clear of your food, and they're making comments to other people in the food line they don't even know whispering, "Uh, sista, you might not wanna eat that."

Pack A Gun. A Water Gun.
Or at least keep one in the car just in case a fight (water or otherwise) jumps off.  Oh and keep a stash of balloons in there too.

Claim Your Seat.
I find that "guest lists" at cookouts are practically non-existent.  The cool thing about that is you never know who you might see or run into.  The not-so-cool thing is that space can get a little tight and chairs become a scarce resource.  It's always a good idea to make sure the people sitting next to you know that yes, even though you are getting up tot go to the bathroom, you intend to return to your seat.  First in time, first in right.

And lastly, my favorite:

A cookout is one of the few functions where you cannot only get away with taking home a plate of food, but you are expected to take home a plate of food.  Now some of folks take it a little to the extreme by taking home entire coolers and boxes full of food, but generally, where there is aluminum foil or a Ziplock bag, there is a take-home plate.

I wish all of you a very happy and safe 4th of July (if you're British then you can just ignore this).  
Happy Birthday to all my fellow July babies, and happy birthday to "Yes, We're Together."  This month marks its one year Bloggerversary.  Thanks so much for reading!


  1. That's interesting to read. Down here, I'm from Florida, The only two from your list that doesn't equate to my experiences with white southern cookouts, is bringing along a water gun, and being late. Everything else is what I've experienced. It's generally assumed that if you attend one, you're going to bring home some of the meat, potatoes, cole slaw, baked beans etc.

    1. Interesting the vast range of norms around bringing food with you when invited over. My mom and I were just having a conversation (okay, not really, we were just texting back and forth) about this as we prepare for Thanksgiving 2012. Apparently we have a few relatives who are chronic "non-bringers." I won't name any names though; I'm sure they know who they are.
      Thanks for reading and for your comment!

    2. Turning to food, I just read a list of what is considered soul food, and growing up I remember eating many of the foods thinking they were only really southern, and lack of a better word redneck, traditional meals, and quite surprised to find out that they're considered traditional black meals. I remember when I was younger asking why we didn't eat more black-eyes peas because they were absolutely delicious, or other foods such as cornbread, or sweet potatoes, or candied yams.

    3. Yup, I tend to associate food regionally rather than racially. When I left Maryland for North Carolina I discovered dishes common to NC or certain parts of the state that I never knew existed. Same with my travels to different states and regions in the southeastern US.