Tuesday is Primary Day in North Carolina, and while things like trade, immigration and the deficit will help people pick their candidate for president, there’s another issue that has an outsize impact on how the Tar Heel State votes: barbecue.
Year in and year out, the way a politician approaches the question of cooked meat determines how he fares at the polls. As Herbert O’Keefe, the editor of The Raleigh Times in the 1950s, once said, “No man has ever been elected governor of North Carolina without eating more barbecue than was good for him.”
In our state the linkage between politics and barbecue dates back at least to 1766, when the governor appointed by the king, William Tryon, tried to win the good will of citizens annoyed by the Stamp Act by laying on a barbecue in Wilmington. (It didn’t work: The local Sons of Liberty poured out the beer and threw the barbecued ox in the river. Note that this was a full seven years before the Boston Tea Party, which gets all the publicity.)
In more recent times, barbecue has even figured as a campaign issue. When a North Carolina secretary of state, Rufus Edmisten, ran for governor in 1984, he got in trouble with an offhand remark. “I’d be eating barbecue three times a day for a solid year,” he later recalled, “and I got up one night and, in a very, very lax moment — the devil made me do it — I made a horrible statement. I said, ‘I’m through with barbecue.’ Well, you would have thought I had made a speech against my mother, against apple pie, cherry pie, the whole mess.” He lost the election to a Republican (only the second one to be elected since Reconstruction).
When Elizabeth Dole and Erskine Bowles were contending for the Senate in 2002, they were asked if they preferred the vinegar-and-cayenne sauces of eastern North Carolina or the sauces of the Piedmont, which add a touch of ketchup. Ms. Dole spoke for the style of her native Piedmont, but Mr. Bowles (who had criticized Ms. Dole for ducking tough issues) wouldn’t say which he preferred — and he lost.
In 2012 Michelle Obama also got burned by an ill-advised comment. When she announced that the Democratic National Convention would meet in Charlotte, she spoke of that city’s charm, hospitality, diversity “and, of course, great barbecue.” Many Charlotteans were puzzled. A headline in The Charlotte Observer read, “Charlotte = Great Barbecue? Who Knew?” Even Mayor Anthony Foxx admitted that while his city has good barbecue, great barbecue is always “brought in on a truck.” And one snarky commentator said, “Complete the sentence: As a barbecue town, Charlotte is, one, not what it used to be; two, like Minneapolis for gumbo; three, good enough for Yankees; four, not far from Shelby” — home of the well-known Bridges Barbecue Lodge.
At least the first lady meant well. You can’t say that for Rick Perry. Shortly after Mr. Perry, the Texas governor, announced in 2011 that he was running for president, The Raleigh News and Observer reprinted an injudicious remark he’d made nearly 20 years earlier. In 1992 the paper had reported that Mr. Perry, then Texas commissioner of agriculture, had eaten some eastern North Carolina barbecue and said he’d had road kill that tasted better.
At the time, some of us wondered how he knew what road kill tasted like, but we let it go. When a man wants to be president, however, it’s a different matter. A typical response came from Jeffrey Weeks, in The Charlotte Examiner: “Rick Perry is not fit to be president of the United States. In fact he is apparently not fit to be a guest in my house.” The furor got national attention, and Mr. Perry withdrew from the race three months later. Surely not a coincidence.
North Carolina is a so-called purple state, just as likely to go blue as red, which means we’ll get a lot of attention from the presidential candidates this year. My advice: When it comes to barbecue, watch what you say.
If obliged to say something, you should, like Elizabeth Dole, stand by your place. When President Obama comes to North Carolina he eats ribs with a sweet, sticky red sauce, and I don’t think anyone holds that against him. Even though ribs barely count as barbecue in these parts, he’s from Chicago, so that’s what he should like. “I’m from Chicago and I’m a rib man” may be a sadly mistaken position, but it is not a contemptible one.
Generally speaking, honesty is the best policy. So Bernie Sanders should say, “I’m from Vermont and don’t know anything about it.” Ted Cruz should say, “I’m from Texas, so let’s not discuss it.”
If possible, though, try not to say anything. You’re very likely to offend some North Carolina voters, and it’s possible that you will offend them all. Just shut up and eat.
John Shelton Reed is a founder of the Campaign for Real Barbecue and the author of “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue” and “Barbecue.”