BBQ at the White House
By Lisa Readie Mayer
Forget pork barrel politics. One might argue our nation was built on pork barbecue politics. Throughout our history, politicians have recognized the power of barbecue for everything from getting out the vote to building bridges between nations.
This quintessentially American cuisine cuts across cultures and classes, breaks down barriers, and cements bonds. It can inspire pep rallies and peace treaties alike, and is a heck of a lot more fun than a typical “rubber chicken” campaign fundraising dinner. How could you not support someone, agree to something, or learn to love your enemy over a plate of smoky, savory deliciousness?
“Barbecue Diplomacy” is something our founding fathers practiced from the get-go. Although the term is usually associated with Lyndon Johnson – the president recognized as the most prolific “Barbecuer in Chief” – politicians as far back as George Washington were employing barbecues as an effective strategy in both political campaigns and diplomatic relations.
|“Barbecue: The History of an American Institution” by Robert Moss.|
According to “Barbecue: The History of an American Institution” by Robert Moss (University of Alabama Press, 2010), the first political barbecues were held in Virginia during Colonial times, when candidates used a tactic called “treating” to win votes. The practice involved inviting the locals to big barbecue parties and treating them to dinners of spit-roasted pigs, smoked meats, and lots of booze.
George Washington hosted such an event during his campaign for the House of Burgesses in 1758, and went on to host at least six more barbecues between 1769 and 1774. He wrote in a 1769 diary entry about how he “went to Alexandria to a Barbicue and stayed all night,” and in 1773, wrote about hosting “a Barbicue of my own giving at Accotinck.”
The practice continued as part of all subsequent presidential election campaigns, but it was Andrew Jackson who elevated barbecues beyond social events, and began using them as a platform for speeches to advance his ideas and debate important issues. He also shrewdly realized that the out-of-state newspaper reporters in attendance would help spread his ideas to citizens far beyond the smoke ring.
This was very important because, at the time, states were expanding voting privileges beyond just white male landowners to nearly all white men. Between 1824 and 1828, the number of eligible voters increased from 400,000 to 1.1 million, and campaign barbecues became an effective way to reach these new voters.
Presidential and congressional campaign barbecues drew crowds of thousands throughout the South and Midwest in the 1830s and 1840s, and “establish(ed) the barbecue as the premier form of political campaigning in the mid-nineteenth century,” according to Moss.
One Fourth-of-July barbecue hosted by Whig party candidate William Henry Harrison, running against Democrat Martin Van Buren during the presidential election of 1840, drew 4,000 attendees and served beef, oxen, hogs, sheep, goats and chickens barbecued on spits over a wood-fired pit. (Harrison later won.)
Perhaps inspired by his grandfather’s barbecue-based victory, Benjamin Harrison hosted his own campaign barbecues about 50 years later in his bid to become the nation’s 23rd president, one of which drew more than 30,000 people. (He won, too.)
Not everyone supported these campaign strategies, particularly religious and civic reformers who considered the barbecues “morally wrong.” Although they mainly objected to the public drunkenness that usually went hand-in-hand with the pork at political barbecues, temperance reformers campaigned to stop the events.
According to Moss, an anti-barbecue sentiment was working its way through the South in the early 1800s, led in part by a newspaper reporter who wrote scathing editorials about the debauchery of political barbecues under the pen-name “Barbecuensis.” An 1829 petition in Madison County, Alabama, was signed by more than 1,000 citizens opposed to campaign barbecues.
Moss writes about Tennessee lawmakers who, in 1833, “passed an act dictating that any person preparing a barbecue within one mile of a worshipping church assembly ‘shall be dealt with as rioters at common law, and shall be fined in a sum not less than five dollars.’”
Interestingly, Moss points out that those politicians who vowed to take the high road and avoid campaign barbecues usually lost on election day. Clearly, the barbecue was more important than the candidate.
|President Lyndon Johnson hosted a number of State Dinner barbecues at the LBJ Ranch in Texas, conducting business and entertaining friends, fellow politicians and foreign dignitaries. To his left is vice president Hubert Humphrey.|
Fortunately, there was no such objection when President Lyndon Johnson held the first barbecue on the White House lawn in the 1960s. According to White House chef Henry Haller in his book “The White House Family Cookbook,” the Texas native and his family brought a friendly, low-key atmosphere to the White House when he assumed the presidency in 1963 after the assassination of President Kennedy.
“Even the State Dinners and other formal functions seemed relaxed and enjoyable,” says Haller, who hails from Switzerland and oversaw the White House kitchen through five administrations, from the Johnsons through the Reagans. “The aura of the White House had been transformed by this Texan family from formal French to informal Western American.”
The first White House barbecue was held on the South Lawn as a way for Johnson to thank his supporters upon announcing he would not seek reelection. The 200 guests feasted on Texas-style barbecue fare, including ribs cooked in a charcoal pit by Walter Jetton, a Fort Worth pitmaster known as “The Barbecue King” who had been brought in for the occasion. According to Haller, “This … will long stand out in my mind as one of the more strikingly successful White House parties.”
In addition to this famous First Cookout, Johnson hosted a number of State Dinner barbecues at the LBJ Ranch in Texas throughout his presidency, conducting business and entertaining friends, fellow politicians, and foreign dignitaries. One of these events hosted West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard and 400 other guests who were served from chuck wagons on red-checked tablecloths.
Since then, every president has incorporated both big-event barbecues and day-to-day grilled fare on lunch and dinner menus at the White House. Not surprisingly, Southerner Jimmy Carter rivaled Johnson for his partiality to cookouts. The informal entertaining style of a barbecue fit in perfectly with Carter’s mission to reduce the size, formality and cost of State Dinners in light of the nation’s economic recession during his administration.
Among the Carters’ memorable White House barbecues was a State Dinner for the Prime Minister of Japan with suckling pigs, buffalo steaks and chicken, all grilled on the rooftop terrace off the State Dining Room. Although Haller says President Carter typically preferred spicy, saucy barbecued ribs to pulled pork, the Carters hosted a “pig pickin” for 500 guests with seven barbecued pigs, 42 gallons of Brunswick stew, pickles, cole slaw and cornbread.
President George H.W. Bush started an annual barbecue on the South Lawn for members of Congress and their families. The tradition of the Congressional Picnic was carried on by Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama; it was only cancelled in 2001 after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and again during last year’s acrimonious budget standoff.
President Barack Obama, admittedly more of a grilling kind of guy, has hosted many cookouts on the South Lawn with hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken and corn. At the “Young Men’s Barbecue,” an event dedicated to promoting the responsibilities of fatherhood, celebrity chef Bobby Flay and the president both took command of the tongs and talked grilling techniques (the president prefers his steaks medium-well, in case you were wondering).
Grilling is a key component of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative, a campaign to encourage healthy eating and physical fitness to combat childhood obesity. Let’s Move’s executive director, Sam Kass, and current White House chef, Cristeta Comerford, regularly advocate grilling as a healthy way to cook, and many recipes on the Let’s Move website feature grilled lean meats, fish, vegetables and other dishes such as grilled pizza and grilled garden flatbread with veggies from the White House garden.
Soon after having burgers and hot dogs at a “garden party” during a visit to British Prime Minister David Cameron in London, President and Mrs. Obama presented the Camerons with a gift of an Engelbrecht Braten 1000, an Argentinian-style grill and smoker fueled by wood or charcoal. The cooker, made in the USA by Engelbrecht Grills and Cookers in Paxton, Illinois, features an adjustable cooking grate that can be raised and lowered in proximity to the fire for direct grilling. It also has an offset firebox and a lid for indirect smoking.
What kind of grill is on the presidential patio? Inquiries to White House chef Comerford went unanswered, but we know from a post on CNN political photojournalist Mark Walz’s White House blog, the First Family had a Napoleon grill on the patio off the North Portico in 2010.
Clearly this all-American cuisine has been an integral part of our country’s political fabric throughout history, and barbecued and grilled foods continue to be featured on both presidential picnic tables and banquet tables. Perhaps a plate of ribs and a little “Barbecue Diplomacy” would help to bridge the divides among politicians today and bring about a little bipartisan consensus!