I cannot tell a lie: I did not barbecue yesterday.
Should have, I know. Because yesterday was Presidents’ Day, which means it might as well be called Barbecuers’ Day.
George Washington was himself quite the barbecue hound. “Went into Alexandria to a Barbecue and stayed all Night,” he wrote in his diary for May 27, 1769.
According to “Barbecue: The History of an American Institution” (University of Alabama Press, 2010) by Robert F. Moss, the father of our country “recorded attending six such events between 1769 and 1774, including, on September 18, 1773, ‘a Barbicue [sic] of my own giving at Accotinck.”
Note the capitalization of the word. I think we should return to that spelling, according the food its proper respect.
Barbecue, you might say, is the food of kings. Or, you would say it if Washington hadn’t put the kibosh on that royalty stuff. So, okay, barbecue is the food of presidents. Not as grand sounding, but good enough for the rabble.
Washington was by no means the only president to chew the fat, which, back in revolutionary America, would have included oxen.
Thomas Jefferson, though more a Francophile, is said to have enjoyed a pepper vinegar very much like today’s eastern North Carolina sauce. Mary Randolph, an extended family member, developed the recipe from pepper pods boiled in vinegar, then strained.
James Madison, the nation’s fourth president, hosted several barbecues. Last fall, archaeologists at Madison’s Montpelier plantation in Virginia, unearthed what they believe is a barbecue pit, a trench filled with wood ash, charred wood and “a jaw from a juvenile pig (shoat).”
Benjamin Harrison, president of the United States from 1889-1893, hosted a barbecue that drew more than 30,000 people. Abraham Lincoln’s parents attended a barbecue reception after they were married.
In modern times, Lyndon Johnson became so known for Texas barbecues that his pitmaster, Walter Jetton, wrote a cookbook and has become one of the legends of smoked meats. Although Johnson hosted barbecues at the White House, he often traveled home to his Texas Hill Country ranch, where he conducted official business. His visits were so common that W. D. Taylor of the New York Herald-Tribune coined the phrase “barbecue diplomacy.”
Jimmy Carter hosted a “pig pickin’” for about 500 guests. Ronald Reagan entertained with barbecue at his California ranch. George H. Bush launched an annual barbecue on the White House’s South Lawn, dubbed the Congressional Picnic, which included all representatives and senators, the president and vice president — and all their families.
His son, George W. Bush, continued the tradition. On Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists struck Washington and New York City, the barbecue was cancelled. Bush picked the tradition back up the following year.
Barack Obama’s relationship to barbecue leans toward the 1950s idea of quick grilling. He hosted a Fourth of July barbecue on the South Lawn, though it was actually more of a cookout. It didn’t serve ribs, brisket or pulled pork — the staples that purists think of as barbecue. Rather, Obama’s menu consisted of hot dogs, hamburgers and grilled chicken. Obama also took steak-grilling lessons from Bobby Flay during the Young Men’s Barbecue, an event promoting fatherhood. Incidentally, the president is, in his words, “a medium-well guy.”
In celebration of Presidents’ Day, four top chefs were scheduled to cook at Mount Vernon. They were Restaurant Eve’s Cathal Armstrong, Bayou Bakery’s David Guas, Bastille’s Christophe Poteaux and Marcel’s and Brasserie Beck’s Robert Wiedmaier.
You know, of course, what they cooked. That’s right: pancakes.
Washington’s favorite breakfast, says the Mount Vernon Web site, was “hoecakes swimming in butter and honey.”
Hey, it’s okay. We all make mistakes. I didn’t have barbecue yesterday, either. At least the chefs were to cook the hoecakes over an open fire.
That, anyway, is a start.
Here’s a revolutionary idea: Next year, how about having the chefs make the food that kept the Founding Father out all night? The meal he hosted for others, the template-dish for presidents to come?
And it ain’t pancakes.