Jim Auchmutey’s new book, “Smokelore,” is a wonderful history of the South’s (and maybe our nation’s) favorite food: barbecue. And his research proved, with blinding clarity, that the connection between barbecue and politics has been part of the American story since the beginning.
Story by Jim Auchmutey
A few weeks before the 1996 presidential election, I visited Ellijay, Georgia, to report a feature story for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about two barbecue places that didn’t see eye to eye on politics.
One of them was the Pink Pig, whose owner, Bud Holloway, was a friend of President Jimmy Carter and had catered many Democratic fundraising events. The other was Poole’s Barbecue, famous for the hillside — staked with hundreds of plywood pigs — that rises behind the restaurant to catch the eyes of highway travelers. Its owner, Oscar Poole, had been chairman of the local Republican committee and had hosted conservatives like Pat Buchanan during campaign stops.
The two men were not enemies exactly, but neither were they members of each other’s fan club. Poole called Holloway’s place "the Pinko Pig" and suggested its meat was full of fat, just like the government. Holloway considered Poole’s wooden pigs illegal outdoor advertising and confessed when he overheard diners trash-talking Carter, he had been known to toss them out of the restaurant.
Jimmy and Billy Carter eating barbecue in Billy’s gas station in Plains, Georgia, during the 1976 presidential campaign.
I asked Poole whether he would ever honor a Democrat with a plywood pig. "I’ve got one up there," he said. "Someone paid me to do one for Al Gore. I put him on the left side of the hill and tried to hide him."
I asked Holloway whether he’d ever do a barbecue for someone like Newt Gingrich, then the Republican speaker of the house and a devoted barbecue lover. His face went sour like he’d found some gristle between his teeth. "I’d never cook a pig for that man," he said.
We called the article "Political Pork." In writing it, I certainly knew of the historic connection between barbecue and politics, especially in the South, but I had no idea how old and abiding that association was. And I didn’t know that barbecue was present at the creation of the American republic.
I could have started my new book, Smokelore: A Short History of Barbecue in America, a hundred ways. I chose to begin with the first great political barbecue in American history, the laying of the cornerstone for the U.S. Capitol building on September 18, 1793.
President George Washington, who had attended many a plantation barbecue in Virginia, wore his ornate Masonic apron as he led the solemn rites of consecration. When the service was finished, he joined the other dignitaries as they celebrated the construction of the building that symbolizes American government more than any other with a feast of barbecued ox. Yes: beef, not pork. Those battle lines had yet to form.
I like this scene because it shows how intertwined with American culture barbecue had already become by the late 1700s. I also like it because the story raises questions about who did the work and who got to sit at the national table. You can bet that the Father of His Country didn’t cook that barbecue; in his time, that task almost always fell to enslaved Americans from Africa.
Cooking meat over fire and smoke is a universal and timeless technique that has gone on since cavemen and shows up in many guises around the globe. The American version goes back more than 500 years to the earliest encounters between Spanish explorers and natives in the Caribbean. During the colonial era, barbecue — the English equivalent of the Spanish word for what the Indians were cooking on — took root in Virginia and the Carolinas and eventually spread across the continent. It became our most truly American food, the centerpiece of countless Independence Days.
Barbecue has meant different things over time. When we speak of barbecue today, we usually mean something served at a restaurant or cooked on a backyard grill or smoker. The word meant neither of those things for much of our history. In researching my book, I looked up hundreds of digitized newspaper mentions of barbecue. From the late 1700s until the early 1900s, barbecue almost always referred to an event where slow-smoked meats were the focal point of the festivities: a church dinner, a community celebration, a fraternal banquet, a big feed at a convention.
The most common excuse for a barbecue, by far, was a political gathering.
George Washington dedicating the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol in 1793, as depicted in a 1950s mural by Allyn Cox at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia. Barbecue was involved.
Political barbecues were already a staple of colonial life before the Revolution. Playwright Robert Munford mentions one in The Candidates, or the Humors of a Virginia Election, a 1770s satire about a contest for a seat in the House of Burgesses. It’s considered one of the first comedies written in America.
George Washington knew about barbecue because he came from Virginia, one of the first places on the North American mainland where the institution became part of social life. In his diaries he mentions attending several plantation barbecues, but never settles on a standard spelling, an inconsistency that persists to this day.
Washington was not, however, the president who sealed the ties between barbecue and politics in the new republic. That was the seventh chief executive, Andrew Jackson of Tennessee, who held the first barbecue at the White House in 1829. His nickname, Old Hickory, had to do with his toughness as a military leader, not his choice of hardwood for cooking.
In an 1834 editorial cartoon, President Andrew Jackson was roasted like a pig.
During the Jacksonian era, competing factions evolved into political parties, and candidates openly campaigned for office at rallies, bonfires, and barbecues. Jackson’s Democratic Party was especially fond of barbecues. During the election of 1832, The Louisville Journal, a Whig newspaper in Kentucky, pilloried the opposition for its love of pork and liquor: “They have one sort of answering for everything. If we show them that we have elected our Lieutenant Governor by a majority of nearly 30,000, they reply by swallowing a pig. If we show them that we have gained great strength in the Senate, and added to our superiority, they reply by devouring a turkey. If we show them that we have attained a majority of two-thirds in the House of Representatives, they reply by pouring off a pint of whiskey or apple-toddy. There is no withstanding such arguments. We give it up.”
Jackson himself was the butt of a classic 1834 editorial cartoon captioned “The Political Barbecue.” It shows the president roasting on a bed of coals labeled “Public Opinion,” one of his boots removed to reveal a cloven pig’s foot, as his enemies hover over him — one of them, Daniel Webster, brandishing a knife.
The Whigs used barbecues to their own ends in the presidential election of 1840. They wanted to portray their nominee, William Henry Harrison, as a man of the people, even though he came from a plantation manor in Virginia. His campaign staged enormous barbecues and displayed log cabins to symbolize his supposedly humble background. While the image makeover worked — Harrison won — some voters disapproved of what the barbecue hoopla implied about the values of the populace.
“There is not much difficulty in the South in raising money for a barbecue, or to buy whiskey for political purposes,” wrote the Reverend J.D. Long, an abolitionist minister in Philadelphia, “but when the funds are wanted for a library, that is quite another question.”
Political barbecues were by no means limited to the West or the South. During the 1860 presidential election, backers of Stephen A. Douglas held an ox roast in New York City for the nominee of the Northern Democrats. Vanity Fair made sport of the occasion in a parody of a Walt Whitman poem it called, “The Song of the Barbecue.” A typical stanza:
Jerk it off from the sirloin, rump,
Ribs or shoulder, haunch or quarter,
Throw it to the starving crowd,
Bloody, half-cooked though it may be
Each Bite is a Bite for Douglas!
Douglas fell a few bites short in the election that fall, losing to Abraham Lincoln, who had a long history with barbecue himself. It started before he was born when his parents, Nancy Hanks and Thomas Lincoln, celebrated their 1806 wedding in Kentucky with a barbecue that included bear, venison, and wild turkey. Their son launched his political career in Illinois during the heyday of campaign barbecues and honed his folksy speaking style at countless such gatherings. During the U.S. Senate campaign of 1858, Lincoln was the guest of honor at a barbecue in Urbana, Illinois, and, according to one witness, insisted a server take his place at the head of the table while he sat on the ground gnawing on a turkey leg and a biscuit.
Barbecues were such an enshrined part of politics during the 19th century that the grounds of the U.S. Capitol had two spaces set aside for parties and rallies over smoked meats. The landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted noted the “barbecue groves” when he was commissioned in 1874 to develop a new plan for the property. He reported a dozen trees had been planted on the east side of the Capitol during the Jackson administration, forming two areas, “one probably intended for Democrat, the other for Whig jollifications.”
People had barbecue "jollifications" for all sorts of political causes.
There were barbecues for war. When Southern states seceded from the Union, communities across the region sent their soldiers off with a parade and a pig roast, carrying on a tradition of militia barbecues going back to the 1700s.
A stereopticon view of the barbecue pits at the 1895 encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic in Louisville, Kentucky.
There were barbecues for peace. For decades after the Civil War, veterans on both sides reassembled for reunion barbecues. One of the largest barbecues in American history, serving 100,000, was for the 1895 meeting of the Grand Army of the Republic in Louisville, Kentucky. Sometimes, the former enemies met at reconciliation gatherings like the one in 1889 that drew 25,000 of the blue and gray alike to Chickamauga, Georgia, the site of one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
“The barbecue was specifically prepared and tendered by the ex-Confederates to the Union soldiers,” reported The Washington Post.
There were barbecues for freedom. The formerly enslaved people of the South frequently celebrated Emancipation Day with barbecues — only fitting since they had usually cooked the food at plantation barbecues before the war. The observances took on a special character in Texas, where the Emancipation Proclamation was virtually unknown until the state’s military governor announced it on June 19, 1865. Juneteenth, as the anniversary was known, became a traditional day for black Texans to gather at picnics and barbecues to remember.
There were barbecues opposed to that freedom. The Ku Klux Klan, renowned for its love of bonfires and flaming crosses, used barbecue as a recruiting tool all over the country — not just in the South — especially during its rebirth in the 1920s. The Klan ran newspaper ads and printed posters for a homecoming in Evansville, Indiana, that touted “BRASS BANDS … A BIG BARBECUE … ONE DAZZLING DAY OF DIVERSIFIED DELIGHTS!”
Today, if you want to draw a crowd or promote a cause, you need a social media expert. For many decades in America, the first thing you needed was a pitmaster.
Perhaps the oddest political barbecue ever held occurred in Georgia.
After his election as president in 1908, William Howard Taft vacationed for six weeks at a luxury resort in Augusta. With the incoming chief executive so close by, the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce seized the opportunity to promote the city and invited him to a huge public banquet. The main dish: Barbecued Opossum with Persimmon Sauce.
The choice of entree wasn’t as strange as it seems. Americans ate a wider range of meats then, and possum was not yet a roadkill joke, especially in the South. There was some political tomfoolery at work as well. Taft’s predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt, had refused to kill a young bear cub during a hunting trip in Mississippi, inspiring the creation of the Teddy Bear. The popular imagination demanded a similar mascot for Taft, so editorial cartoonists settled on a portly critter they called Billy Possum. Atlanta decided to cook one of Billy’s kin for the big event.
For days, newspapers ran tongue-in-cheek stories about the search for the tastiest marsupial in Georgia. At the banquet on January 15, 1909, 600 guests filled the floor of the Municipal Auditorium and watched as a waiter ferried the unfortunate selection down the middle aisle in a chafing dish and presented it to the guest of honor. He lifted the lid and, in the words of The Atlanta Journal, the main course “sat grinning in a bed of gravy and sweet potatoes.”
Taft, an Ohio native who had never tried possum, took an exploratory nibble, smiled, then dug in and pronounced himself pleased. But he soon tired of Billy Possum. When admirers in Cairo, Illinois, presented him a live specimen as a gift, he thanked them but admitted he didn’t “hanker for it.”
The New York Times seemed puzzled by the whole affair. While its story about the Atlanta banquet made the front page — headline: “Taft Eats ’Possum” — an editorialist considered such victuals beneath the dignity of the office: “It is not part of the President’s duty to eat strange foods merely to satisfy neighborhood pride. We earnestly beg Mr. Taft to stop with the ’possum.”
The biggest political barbecue — probably the biggest barbecue of any type ever held in the United States — occurred 14 years after l’affaire opossum.
On January 9, 1923, John Calloway “Jack” Walton was sworn in as the fifth governor of the young state of Oklahoma. A populist Democrat, he wanted an inaugural celebration that invoked the memory of Andrew Jackson’s when he became president almost a century before and opened the White House to a crowd of people who got rowdy on potent punch. Walton planned a parade, square dance, and barbecue for as many people as Oklahoma City could handle. In the weeks leading up to the event, it became clear that was going to be a lot of people.
Thousands of carpenters started building the barbecue infrastructure at the state fairgrounds on New Year’s Day, constructing tables and chairs, platforms, and temporary dining facilities. Workers dug six trenches running a quarter-mile each and filled them with 19 railroad cars of wood. Two days out, the pits were fired up and the cooking commenced. Armies of livestock, game, and poultry were laid over the coals: 289 cattle, 70 hogs, 36 sheep, 2,000 pounds of buffalo, 1,500 pounds of reindeer, 2,540 rabbits, 134 possums, 25 squirrels, 1,427 chickens, 210 turkeys, 34 ducks, 14 geese, 15 deer, and one lonely antelope.
Inauguration Day began with a parade that stretched more than 10 miles and included 100 bands, cowboys and Indians on horseback, and floats from each of Oklahoma’s counties. At its conclusion, Walton took the oath of office in front of the throng, and only then were people allowed to partake of the feast they had been smelling for hours. All afternoon and evening, thousands filed through 15 serving sheds to get piles of meat, bread, and pickles, some of them going back for seconds, until an estimated 125,000 meals had been dispensed.
“It was a big day, a big time — and it was the biggest barbecue,” The Daily Oklahoman concluded, predicting it would receive worldwide attention.
The inauguration of Jack Walton as Oklahoma governor in 1923 might have been the biggest feed in the annals of American barbecue. Six barbecue pits, each a quarter-mile long. The great feast drew national attention and was the occasion for souvenir postcards like this one.
Journals far and wide did carry news of the extravaganza. The New York Times published several dispatches. Souvenir postcards were issued.
But it didn’t end well for Walton. Before the end of the year, the Oklahoma governor was impeached and removed from office for corruption and abuse of power and for having the brass to take on the Ku Klux Klan, which was frighteningly influential then. Jack Walton was remembered as a man who didn’t know how to navigate state government but certainly knew how to throw a party. As Dan Lackey, the head of the barbecue committee, put it: “Man, wasn’t that the barbecue of all barbecues?”
Jack Walton’s inauguration in Oklahoma set off a wave of gargantuan gubernatorial barbecues across the South. In Louisiana, Sam Houston Jones took office in 1940 at a barbecue so large it had to be held in the LSU football stadium. A year later in Texas, Pappy O’Daniel had a trench dug in the lawn of the governor’s mansion to smoke thousands of pounds of beef for 25,000 people at his inauguration.
If anything, the political barbecue became an even bigger institution by the middle of the 20th century. Voters in the South and Southwest came to expect free meat with their stump speeches. Sometimes, politics overtook barbecues founded for other purposes. The Fancy Farm Picnic, in the bucolic town of that name in western Kentucky, started in 1880 as a Catholic fundraiser but is known today as a place for candidates and constituents to mingle over pork and mutton. The Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church Barbecue in Charlotte, North Carolina, began in 1929 as a way to pass the hat and pay off a building debt. It soon became one of the don’t-miss dates on the Tar Heel political calendar.
“No man has been elected governor of North Carolina without eating more barbecue than was good for him,” Raleigh newspaperman Herbert O’Keefe wrote in the 1950s, and the same was true of other states.
While most politicians used barbecue to rally supporters and raise money, one used it as a memorable metaphor. In a 1935 radio address, Senator Huey Long of Louisiana pitched his wealth-redistribution ideas as a simple matter of mealtime fairness: “I wonder if any of you people who are listening to me were ever at a barbecue. We used to go there — sometimes 1,000 people or more. If there were 1,000 people, we would put enough meat and bread and everything else on the table for 1,000 people. Then everybody would be called and everyone would eat all they wanted. But suppose at one of these barbecues for 1,000 people that one man took 90 percent of the food and ran off with it and ate until he got sick and let the balance rot. … Well, ladies and gentlemen, America — all the people of America — have been invited to a barbecue. God invited us all to come and eat and drink all we wanted.”
At the time he spoke those words, Long was contemplating a primary challenge to Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1936 presidential election. He was assassinated before he could follow through.
Louisiana Governor Huey Long
As for FDR, he was a son of the New York gentry and knew little about barbecue until he contracted polio and sought treatment in Warm Springs, Georgia. He learned to enjoy the food during his many stays at the Little White House and liked to picnic atop a nearby mountain, Dowdell’s Knob, where his party cooked on a stone barbecue pit that’s still there.
On April 12, 1945, Roosevelt sent word he would attend a barbecue the mayor of Warm Springs was hosting later that day. The president said he’d pass on the pork but would like some Brunswick stew and an Old Fashioned cocktail. He never made it. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage that afternoon.
If there was one name that became synonymous with political barbecues in the South it was the Talmadges of Georgia. Their run started in the 1920s with Eugene Talmadge, a rural populist who stood on the podium snapping his red suspenders, a flock of hair flying loose, and tore into the city slickers in the state capital and “them lyin’ Atlanta newspapers” that told on him. He liked to say that there were only three things that the poor dirt farmers of Georgia could trust: God almighty, the Sears Roebuck catalog, and Gene Talmadge.
Ole Gene, as he was known, kicked off his 1932 campaign for governor with a barbecue that drew 10,000 people to McRae, his hometown in the piney woods of southeastmiddle Georgia. Farmers donated scores of pigs, cows, goats and chickens, and a local man nicknamed the Barbecue King, Norman Graham, oversaw the cooking. A crowd of townspeople came out to watch the preparations as if the barbecuing were as much an attraction as the speechifying.
In his Talmadge biography, "The Wild Man From Sugar Creek," William Anderson describes the eve of the barbecue: “Some were so enthralled by the enormity of the scene that they stayed long into the night, close by the dull glow of the coals to stare into the fires the Barbecue King had built and to be able to say, ‘I was there.’ Insects swirled and buzzed crazily out of the night, whizzing around and crashing into the string of naked light bulbs that wound over the pits giving a hard brightness to the cooking area. So many bugs wandered into the kettle of stew, drawn there by its sweet aroma, that no pepper had to be added for flavor.” As one of the men explained, "Bugs was good spice.”
After Gene died, his son, Herman Talmadge, followed him as governor and then became a U.S. senator, continuing the barbecue tradition. He and his wife, Betty, lived in a white-columned house near Atlanta said to be a model for the Twelve Oaks plantation in Gone With the Wind, the setting for one of the most famous barbecues in fiction and film. Betty Talmadge took that heritage to heart and staged barbecue galas at the house for conventioneers, special parties, and latter-day politicians like Jimmy Carter when he ran for president. She wrote a book about her career as a Southern hostess in 1977, calling it How to Cook a Pig.
By then, the role of political barbecues was evolving. They were still used to raise money or celebrate victories or thank supporters, but they weren’t regular stops on the campaign trail anymore. With the spread of mass media, there were better ways to connect with voters than a big feed.
Marvin Griffin, a former Georgia governor, learned about the changing times when he tried to regain the office in 1962. He ran an old-fashioned campaign, crisscrossing the state and drawing large, raucous crowds with the lure of fiery rhetoric and free barbecue. His opponent, Carl Sanders, a handsome young attorney and, an exemplar of New South leadership, concentrated on broadcast advertising and skipped the barbecue circuit altogether. He won in a landslide.
After the election, Griffin admitted he might have relied on an outmoded strategy, putting it in colorful terms that Gene Talmadge would have appreciated. “Everybody that ate my barbecue,” he said, “I don’t believe voted for me.” The quote became so legendary that a slightly altered version became the name of a 2011 biography of Griffin by Scott E. Buchanan, Some of the People Who Ate My Barbecue Didn’t Vote for Me.
Griffin was trying to be humorous about an embarrassing defeat. But in his rueful way, he was also pronouncing an elegy for a bygone era.
Political barbecues were changing, but they weren’t disappearing. Far from it.
The year after Georgians rejected Griffin, the president most identified with barbecue rose to power in a tragically ironic way. On November 22, 1963, staffers at the LBJ Ranch outside Austin were preparing a big barbecue for the next day, when Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was to host President John F. Kennedy. When the ranch received word of the assassination, the beef barbecue was quietly given away.
President Lyndon B. Johnson and his personal pitmaster, Walter Jetton. L.B.J. and Vice President Hubert Humphrey enjoying a plate of barbecue.
As president, Johnson hosted scores of barbecues at the ranch, most of them staged by his personal pitmaster, Walter Jetton, a Fort Worth caterer who became for a time the most famous man in barbecue. The first barbecue was held barely a month after the JFK assassination for the chancellor of West Germany, Ludwig Erhard. The New York Herald-Tribune called it “barbecue diplomacy.”
The presidential barbecue became a regular thing during the coming decades. The Carters hosted them at the White House. Ronald Reagan presided over California-style ranch barbecues cooked by pitmasters from the Santa Maria Valley. George W. Bush hosted Vladimir Putin at a barbecue on his ranch in Crawford, Texas. When reporters asked the Russian president what he thought of the mesquite-smoked tenderloin, his answer, via translator, was curious to say the least: "I had a hard time imagining how could a living person create such a masterpiece of cooking."
More often, presidents and politicians at all levels simply show up at barbecue restaurants to meet the voters and show what regular people they are. They have to be careful, or they might leave the opposite impression. When President Barack Obama dropped in at Austin’s Franklin Barbecue in 2014, he cut ahead of the long line that always forms at the restaurant and took some heat for it. He made amends by paying the bill for the people waiting behind him.
President Barack Obama and Bobby Flay
No current presidential candidate has made more use of barbecue than Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman who tried to unseat Senator Ted Cruz in 2018. Combining old politics with new tech, the O’Rourke campaign held 110 barbecues across the state on a single day, the candidate visiting them all virtually, via YouTube Live, as he sat in front of his computer screen. Cruz countered by saying that if the Democrats won, they’d outlaw barbecue and make Texans eat tofu. It was clearly a joke, but it cut close to the bone in an electorate obsessed with brisket.
O’Rourke lost the election but parlayed his better-than-expected showing into a run for the presidency. Earlier this year, he expanded his barbecue horizons and made a campaign stop in North Carolina, in person, where he sampled the renowned chopped pork of Lexington.
"We’ve had the Western North Carolina barbecue, and we’re going to have the Eastern," he told the media. "We’ll compare them and get back with you."
Spoken like a true politician. The quest for votes — and ’cue — continues.
Jim Auchmutey spent almost 30 years as a writer and editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in stories about the South’s history and culture. He has written extensively about food and is a founding member of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi. His previous book was The Class of '65: A Student, a Divided Town, and the Long Road to Forgiveness. Auchmutey chronicled the experience of writing that book in a 2015 story for The Bitter Southerner, “A Reconciliaton in Georgia.”
Auchmutey will give a talk on politics and barbecue at The Carter Center in Atlanta at 7 p.m. on June 25. Admission is free. Copies of Smokelore will be available for signing at the event, and if you can’t be there, signed copies are available from our friends at A Cappella Books.