Barbecue has been called the only truly unique American culinary tradition. It is said to be to food, what Jazz is to music, a purely and uniquely American creation. While I don’t intend to debate that here, there is one thing about barbecue that is irrefutable, its connection to politics. Older than the Republic itself, barbecue has been an important event, deeply tied into our current system of campaigning, for good or ill.
In colonial times, when large Barbecues were first appearing in Southern plantation life, persons seeking election gathered on a court business day to be voted in or out of office. Seated behind tables, they watched as potential voters publicly announced their support for either candidate.
A risky business for a voter since the winner knew who their supporters were. Of course, those involved were thought to be scrupulous, honorable men who would never reduce themselves to pandering for votes or using their office for personal gain.
If one candidate or another chose to offer free food and drink (often in the form of a barbecue) outside the courthouse on election day it was merely for the benefit of his fellow citizens. This should in no way be seen as an attempt to draw more support by buying votes. Barbecues of this type and for these reasons persisted through the revolution and in one form or another survive to this day. Though, modern barbecues are used to raise funds and the days of free food and drink are long gone.
The definition of barbecue (let alone Spelling) is as problematic today as it was in the time of George Washington when he wrote in his diaries, “went in to Alexandria to a Barbecue and stayed all Night” in 1769. I found a much more enlightening quote from the first president written in a letter to Henry Bouquet in 1758 during the French and Indian war.
Washington, complaining of a lack of supplies wrote, “That we have not an Oz. of Salt Provision’s of any kind here, and that it is impossible to preserve the Fresh (especially as we have no Salt) by any other Means than Barbacuing it in the Ind’n manner; in doing which it looses near a half; so that a Party who receives 10 days Provision’s will be obliged to live on little better than 5 days’ allowance of meat”(1).
While Washington thought of barbecue as an event to which one might spend the night (and apparently win a few shillings playing poker), he also recognized it as a method of cooking. From the first colonial barbecues of the 17th century to the state barbecues of Lyndon B. Johnson, the method of barbecue remained largely unchanged. A hole, or pit, was dug in the ground and a fire built from whole logs (typically hickory). Once the fire had burned down to smoldering but hot coals, sapling branches where laid over the fire and the meat placed on this wooden cooking grate. The object was a slow roasting process and while this method appears to have more in common with modern grilling that modern barbecue, it is how barbecue got its start.
Large barbecues were time consuming and could be very expensive. Pits of could reach 40 feet in length and sometimes more than one pit would be required. These events were usually financed by wealthy patrons or by the guests who purchased shares, or basically tickets beforehand. Political barbecues on the other hand were designed to entice people with the promise of free food and drink and so required someone with deep pockets to finance them.
After the American Revolution, barbecues remained a common method of gathering a crowd for stump speeches on many levels of politics, with the exception of the presidential office. The early presidents didn’t think highly of campaigning and did little to seek votes until the election of 1828. Stinging from his defeat at the hands of the House of Representatives in 1824, Andrew Jackson, with the help of future president Martin Van Buren, created what we would now call the first presidential campaign. This meant lots of traveling, shaking hands, kissing babies, and of course, barbecues.
The true genius of this campaign was the logistics of finding political supporters who could organize and sponsor barbecues. Not to say that it all went seamlessly or that there wasn’t criticism of the drunken food orgies that many of these events were reduced to, but in what has been described as one of the dirtiest and most mean spirited campaigns in American history, few cared very much about the obviously vote buying that barbecue could provide.
Whatever the criticism, Andrew Jackson was victorious not only in the election, but in the appeal to the masses. Nearly twice as many voters turned out in 1828 than had in 1824 when Jackson had squared off against John Quincy Adams and John C. Calhoun. The populist appeal and all those barbecues kept the team of Jackson and Van Buren in the White House for 12 years and changed American politics forever. With their newly constructed formula, a golden age of Barbecues and Politics(2) emerged, though this strategy lasted until the disastrous New York barbecue of 1860(3).
Seeking the Oval Office in 1860, the campaign of Stephen Douglas organized what is often referred to as New York City’s first barbecue. A huge affair of speeches, fairs, and of course a barbecue capped with a whole smoked Ox. As was typical a local butcher by the name of Bryan Lawrence was hired to prepare the feast which consisted of the said ox, plus a heifer, hog, and two sheep. Unfortunately, Mr. Lawrence’s skills may have not been up to the task and the resulting barbecue was little more than a pile of massive chunks of charred meat. Nevertheless, the hungry mob broke through the fences and the resulting riot took over 300 of New York City’s finest to restore order so that Douglas to make his stump speech. Unfortunately the crowd wasn’t much interested in speeches by this time.
While political barbecues have persisted since these days, they are generally fundraisers for local elections. The relationship between presidential candidates and barbecue has been reduced to a quick photo opt at a local barbecue joint on the road to Election Day. That is not to say that there have not been presidents who didn’t love barbecue. Most notably, Lyndon B. Johnson threw elaborate “state” barbecues on his ranch in Texas, catered by his favorite pit master Walter Jetton, who became something of a celebrity chef in his time. Prominent politicians and heads of state from around the world were invited to these affairs.
Today, the eating of barbecue by candidates was an attempt to prove their connection to common voter and to demonstrate some kind of Southern sympathy. This is particularly true when a candidate is from the South, when it becomes vital to defend their own particular style of barbecue versus all others. Of course this is a dangerous path to tread. Just ask Republican candidate Rick Perry when comments he made in 1992 unfavorably comparing North Carolina Barbecue to roadkill surfaced during his run for the White House in September of 1992. Turns out, when it comes to barbecue and politics, you had better watch what you say, about barbecue.