How Barbecue Works

Barbecue in Politics and Race
Representative Jeffrey Sánchez, chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, jokes with Ghiana Guzman during a cookout at the Mildred C. Hailey Apartments in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston in 2017. Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Barbecue's linkage with politics dates to before the Declaration of Independence, when candidates for Virginia's colonial legislature held events where they plied potential voters with ribs and liquor. Eventually, some communities also began holding holiday barbecues of their own, and candidates came as guests.

The custom of political barbecues spread throughout the South. In a time when mass media didn't yet exist, barbecues filled the information void, becoming the places where people could gather to hear speeches and engage in spirited debates about issues [source: Moss]. Barbecue was a food that people of different races and economic levels — from the poor to the wealthy — all seemed to love, so it was a convenient unifying tool. Fourth of July events generally featured a barbecue, along with parades, speeches and a reading of the Declaration of Independence.

By the 1830s, these barbecues had proven to be such an effective tool for reaching voters that they spread beyond the South, and grew larger in size. In 1836, for example, U.S. Sen. Daniel Webster, a Whig politician who represented Massachusetts, gave a two-hour speech to 5,000 people at a barbecue in St. Louis. In the presidential campaign of 1840, Whig candidate William Henry Harrison relied heavily on barbecues as an organizing tool, and even gave out aprons decorated with the log cabin in which he'd been born [source: Moss].

Holding barbecues gradually became an established presidential custom that continued into the modern era. In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson threw barbecue parties on this Texas ranch where he often invited important people to conduct official business — a practice that one journalist of the time called barbecue diplomacy. George H.W. Bush hosted an annual barbecue on the White House's South Lawn, to which he invited all the members of Congress and their families, and his son George W. Bush resurrected that tradition when he was president [source: Shahin].

Barbecue was also intertwined with racial issues in the U.S. "Slaveowners used barbecues as a means of control, giving Fourth of July and Christmas barbecues to their slaves as a supposed reward for their labor," wrote historian Moss. However, slaves also held barbecues at other times often using them as a cover to plan uprisings. Even the Nat Turner rebellion took place after a barbecue.

After the abolition of slavery, many blacks went on to open their own barbecue joints. In an ironic twist, during the Jim Crow era, many whites would stealthily visit black-owned joints to get some take out barbecue [source: University of Virginia].

Barbecue also played an important part in the Civil Rights movement. During the Montgomery bus boycott in the 1950s, for example, a barbecue joint called Brenda's in Montgomery, Alabama, became the place where organizers printed flyers and held meetings to plan their protests. In Atlanta, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. met with his lieutenants at a small establishment called Aleck's Barbecue Heaven [source: Shahin].

Many white-owned barbecue restaurants were the scenes of desegregation battles. In the 1968 case "Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises," the Supreme Court ruled that Maurice Bessinger's chain of four barbecue restaurants had unlawfully discriminated against African-American patrons by refusing to serve them and that he had to comply with the 1964 Civil Rights Act (Bessinger claimed serving black people was against his religious beliefs) [sources: University of Virginia, Collins].

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