Barbecue and politics go together like hickory-smoked pork and baked beans. It is the one and only food that can make a boring stump speech seem almost bearable.
A candidate who serves barbecue at a political event deserves serious consideration from all Southern voters. First of all, barbecue is one of the lasting traditions of politics in this part of the country. While passing out free whisky on election day has gone out of style, good barbecue has not. And let me be clear on this point: I’m talking about pork, not the beef or goat they try to pass off as barbecue down in Texas.
I grew up in North Carolina, where attending partisan “pig pickin’s” was a must for any candidate seeking public office. I recall covering one such event for former North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford when he was running for the U.S. Senate in 1986.
Sanford, a Democrat, went on to defeat a protégé of then Sen. Jessee Helms in that race, thanks in part to a photograph taken of Sanford at a barbecue. It was an image of Sanford, with his shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows and tomato sauce dripping from his chin, biting into a rack of barbecued ribs. Voters felt they could trust a politician who cared more about his barbecue than his appearance.
Serving barbecue at political gatherings has been a proud tradition in our part of the country since Colonial times. That’s why I shudder every time I see hotdogs served at a campaign event. What are these candidates thinking? Our Founding Fathers would be aghast.
Thankfully, most candidates in our region don’t engage in snooty wine and cheese fundraisers like those held by politicians up North. Candidates here like to identify themselves with the voters, and let’s face it, Northeast Tennessee residents prefer a pulled pork sandwich and sweetened ice tea over a glass of red wine and some fancy French cheese.
Of course, there are some candidates who do not appreciate the cultural and historical significance of barbecue. They believe it is part of the Old South, and should be dismissed as such. While I agree there are some vestiges of the Old South that should be forgotten, barbecue is not one of them.
Most experienced candidates (particularly those who have had success at the polls) have enough insight to put barbecue on the menu for at least one campaign event. That’s why this election year should be a particularly good one for restaurants that specialize in the noble art of smoking a pig.
I don’t have to tell you we are blessed to have a number of such establishments in our area. Some of these restaurants are popular places for politicians and pundits to gather to start rumors and swap campaign gossip.
There will be a slew of candidates vying for a number of state and local offices on the ballot this year. If any of these candidates decide to feed their supporters at a campaign rally, I hope they will have the good sense to steer clear of hotdogs. Beans and cornbread are OK in a pinch, but they can’t win the hearts nor satisfy the stomachs of the voters quite like barbecue.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at [email protected]