The barbecuing of Rick Perry

Posted Oct. 13, 2011, at 5:17 p.m.

Rick Perry’s past came back to haunt him recently. No, not drugs or women or a phony resume. Perry, it turns out, once touched the real third rail of politics: barbecue.

Nineteen years ago, at the 1992 Republican National Convention, a barbecue taste-off pitted beef tenderloin from Joe Allen’s Bar-B-Que of Abilene, Texas, against pulled pork from Kings Restaurant in Kinston, N.C. Perry, then the agriculture commissioner of Texas, sampled the Carolina barbecue and declared, “I’ve had road kill that tasted better than that.”

This indecorous remark might have remained discreetly buried in the past if it hadn’t been quoted at the time in the Raleigh News & Observer. A few years ago, that story was dug up by a pair of Southern sociologists and cultural historians, John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed, and included as an anecdote in their book, “Holy Smoke: The Book of North Carolina Barbecue (2008).”

Last month, a new generation of News & Observer reporters stumbled on the quote in the Reeds’ book and thrust it back into the political limelight, announcing to the world that Perry was on record as saying that North Carolina barbecue tastes worse than road kill.

The reaction in North Carolina was swift. Newspaper columnists declared Perry unfit for office and demanded a retraction. A representative of the Smithfield’s Chicken N’ Bar-B-Q chain mailed Perry 2 pounds of pork barbecue and an open letter encouraging him to “revisit your experience with Eastern North Carolina Bar-B-Q and … rectify your statement.”

Wilbur King of Kings Restaurant even weighed in. “He has admitted to eating road kill and knowing what it tastes like,” King told a local television reporter. “How can this person judge any food?”

So far, there has been no official response from the Perry campaign, and that doesn’t bode well for his electoral prospects. Just ask Rufus Edmisten, who ran for governor of North Carolina in 1984. Late in the campaign, after eating barbecue at rallies three times a day for almost a year, he broke down at a public feed in Raleigh. “We haven’t had any of the damnable barbecue,” he proclaimed. “I’ve eaten enough barbecue. I am not going to eat any more!” The quote ran in local newspapers, and Edmisten lost by almost 200,000 votes.

When asked to comment on Perry’s chance to recover from his similar gaffe, Edmisten told the Raleigh News & Observer: “He’s had it. He’s done. He’s beef toast.”

This all may be tough to understand in California, where in my experience there’s not much in the way of barbecue worth arguing about beyond the virtues of the slow-smoked tri-tip.

But barbecue has been getting politicians into trouble for almost 200 years.

In the early 19th century, candidates began crashing public barbecues on the Fourth of July and making stump speeches on literal stumps. Later, realizing that smoked meats and whiskey could draw huge crowds, campaigns began organizing barbecues solely for political speechifying.

This new political institution shocked conservative thinkers, who fumed about how it debased the electoral process and pandered to the passions of the mob. “The question [about a candidate] now,” wrote one barbecue critic in 1827, “is not what is his mental capacity? But, what are the dimensions of his stomach? Not if he will enact wholesome laws? But, if he will drink raw whiskey, eat rawer shote, dance barefoot on a puncheon floor?”

Politicians quickly learned the danger of spurning campaign barbecues. In 1829, an anti-barbecue movement in Madison County, Ala., culminated in a petition drive demanding that candidates pledge not to attend any barbecues that election season. The only candidate who publicly took the oath, Josef Leftwich, finished seventh out of nine candidates in a race for tax collector.

On the eve of the Civil War, Stephen A. Douglas, the Democratic nominee, broke the long-standing tradition of presidential candidates not campaigning in public and appeared at barbecues across the country. He even introduced the first political barbecue to New York City. It was held in a grove at what was then the edge of Manhattan (today, 66th Street) and featured a whole barbecued ox. The event devolved into chaos when whiskey-soaked hooligans broke through the fences around the serving area, overturned the tables and carried off massive chunks of meat. A hundred police officers were required to quell the mob, and the Douglas campaign was reviled in the press. He lost to Abraham Lincoln.

Almost as old as the campaign barbecue is the tradition of interstate barbecue competitiveness — good-natured ribbing, if you will. One of the best public exchanges started in 1977 when Vic Gold, an Alabaman who was raised in New Orleans, wrote in the Washington Post Potomac magazine that the only “real barbecue” was that served at either Ollie’s or the Golden Rule, both in Birmingham. Jerry Bledsoe of the Charlotte Observer responded with a five-part defense of North Carolina barbecue in which he declared Gold an “oyster sucker from Louisiana whose taste buds obviously are so Tabasco-seared he couldn’t tell barbecue from baloney.”

So these sorts of spats are nothing new, and Perry really should have known better.

Still, I’m glad he didn’t. When you get to a certain point in a campaign — when everything is getting really shrill and everyone is staking out positions and throwing rocks at each other — it’s a nice escape to find something fairly harmless to argue about, such as which makes for better eating: pork, beef or truck-squashed armadillo.

Barbecue squabbles are a sign of a strong community, not any sort of deep-rooted dysfunction. They’re like the trash-talking that goes on around college football, or the kind of heated arguments you hear between owners of Ford and Chevy pickups.

But, Rufus Edmisten is right about Rick Perry’s prospects in the North Carolina primary. He’s totally beef toast.

Robert F. Moss, a food writer and culinary historian from Charleston, S.C., is the restaurant critic for the Charleston City Paper and the author of “Barbecue: The History of an American Institution.” He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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