There’s been some big food and drink news on the campaign trail of late, from Paul Ryan’s catfish-noodling hobby to President Obama’s home-brewed “White House Honey Ale.” They got me wondering if barbecue had ever taken center stage in a presidential campaign. (Well, since this one.)
Barbecues as a social event/fundraiser have a deep tradition in U.S. politics, but I think that Lyndon Johnson took things to another level in his effort to make barbecue a symbol of his 1964 re-election campaign. That summer, the Baton Rouge State-Times reported that Johnson had a “plan to turn Texas barbecue into a political weapon” with a “cross-country series of barbecues supervised by the barbecue chef from the president’s LBJ ranch in Johnson City, Texas.” The “barbecue chef” in question was Walter Jetton, a pitmaster and caterer from Fort Worth.
What distinguished this ambitious plan from past campaigns was that it aspired to take Texas barbecue to the uninitiated masses in cities like Beverly Hills, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis. The St. Albans (Vermont) Messenger reported in October 1964 that Johnson even contemplated occupying Wall Street with a massive, open-air barbecue where “several or more blocks of the nation’s financial center would be roped off.”
The idea was nixed by New York Democrats, who felt it was “too corny for Manhattan, especially for the President of the United States.” I wonder what they—and LBJ himself—would have made of today’s Big Apple Barbecue Block Party.