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Posted at 8:00 AM ET, 02/22/2011

Smoke Signals: Celebrate Washington’s birthday with barbecue

By Jim Shahin
george washington_opt.jpg Says George: Let there be barbecue. (Flickr Creative Commons, History Rewound)

On this, the glorious 131st anniversary of the Federal Holiday known originally as Washington’s Birthday, implemented by an Act of Congress in 1880 for government offices in the District of Columbia, and expanded five years later to include federal offices throughout the Land, to celebrate the First President of these United States, a.k.a. George “I Cannot Tell a Lie” Washington, and modified in 1971 to the Third Monday of February to facilitate mattress sales, let it be hereby known that, by all things true and good (and by “good,” we mean “good tasting”), Smoke Signals decrees the Official Food of Presidents' Day to be the venerable foodstuff, barbecue.

Okay, so Smoke Signals can’t decree jack, and so yesterday was actually Presidents' Day. So what? The day this item is published, Feb. 22, is actually Washington’s birthday. And Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, which is lumped into the holiday, is somewhere around here, too.

It seems fitting to mark the day with a patriotic decree, and there is no more patriotic foodstuff than barbecue. According to “Barbecue: The History of an American Institution” (University of Alabama Press, 2010) by Robert F. Moss, barbecue is threaded through U.S. history. “To prove this,” as they say in the Declaration of Independence, “let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”

You know those “Washington slept here” come-ons? Don’t be surprised if ‘cue joints start bragging that, “Washington ate here.”

“Went in to Alexandria to a Barbecue and stayed all Night,” Washington wrote in his diary for May 27, 1769.

According to Moss's book, Washington “recorded attending six such events between 1769 and 1774 -- including, on September 18, 1773, ‘a Barbicue of my own giving at Accotinck.’”

One can’t help but wonder if young George chopped down the cherry tree to use as smoking wood to barbecue a whole hog.

As for Lincoln, his parents attended a barbecue reception after they were married. And while the old rail-splitter himself does not make it much into the annals of barbecue lore, an interesting episode involving the 1860 presidential campaign does.

Defeated by Stephen Douglas in 1858 for the U.S. Senate, Lincoln faced Douglas again in the presidential election of 1860. During the campaign, Douglas hosted a barbecue in New York City. The event was a disaster, with hundreds of police having to restore order to a ravenous mob that overturned tables in pursuit of smoked meat.

‘There was a wild scramble for the choice bits; a pulling and hauling at greasy bones and gravy-soaked fibre, a melee over the rind of pork, a tossing of crackers and bread and meat hither and thither, and the barbecue was ended,” reported The New York Times.

The Times later called the scene, “Another illustration of the crazy state of the public mind…”

While the incident may not have influenced the election (Douglas was soundly defeated), one can’t help but wonder if it retarded the growth of barbecue in the North. It’s a question better left to scholars.

The relationship of barbecue to America is far more entwined than a simple blog item can describe. After the Civil War, for example, white residents in Washington, Ga., rebelled against a Fourth of July “mongrel” barbecue celebration attended by blacks. Whites held a “rebel ‘cue” on July 6, an early example, writes Moss, of Southern white rejection of barbecues to celebrate the Fourth for the next 30 years. And it was a barbecue restaurant that brought suit against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in a 9-0 ruling that cited interstate commerce as the underpinning rationale.

The point? Forget apple pie. Celebrate the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln, and any other president you choose, by slow-smoking some pork or brisket or, as they used to do in the day, oxen.

It’s the American thing to do. Smoke Signals decrees it.

Just don’t cut down any of the cherry trees at the Tidal Basin for your wood. They sell that stuff in bags now.

By Jim Shahin  | February 22, 2011; 8:00 AM ET
Categories:  Smoke Signals  | Tags:  Jim Shahin  
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