If you’re a regular reader of Smoke Signals, you already know, whether from my writings here or in the print section, about America’s double helical structure of politics and barbecue.
You know that George Washington hosted and attended barbecues, that Lyndon Johnson conducted “barbecue diplomacy” and that, earlier this year, President Obama gave British Prime Minister David Cameron a gift of a custom barbecue grill.
You know, in other words, that politics and barbecue go together like chopped whole hog and pepper-vinegar.
In this post-election season, the 25th anniversary of one of the nation’s leading barbecue chains seems worth reflecting on, given it was co-founded by that most modern of alliances — a politician and a political strategist.
Red Hot & Blue, which has 25 outlets in seven states, opened in Arlington in 1988, the same year that George H.W. Bush was elected president. One of the four founders was Don Sundquist, then a Republican U.S. Representative from Memphis and later the governor of Tennessee. Another investor was Lee Atwater, the strategist behind Bush’s victory.
It is Atwater who I remember on this anniversary, partly because of his bracing story and partly because he signaled something new in American politics, the strategist as celebrity.
Political junkies remember Atwater as the leading strategist of his day. Born, as he put it, into “the middle of the middle class” in Atlanta, the Republican operative was by all accounts, including his own, a hell-raiser as a boy in South Carolina.
As a teenager, he played guitar in a rock band called the Upsetters Revue. He went on to perform with the likes of Percy Sledge and B.B. King. I saw him play at an Austin nightclub called Antone’s, run by one of the nation’s leading blues aficionados, the late Clifford Antone. Although Atwater was, quite frankly, a lousy guitarist, Antone confirmed the strategist’s blues knowledge was impressive. “He definitely knows his stuff,” Antone told me.
Atwater represented an archetype of the fiercely regional white Southerner. He loved raunchy B movies, one of his favorites being “Two Thousand Maniacs!,” about six Yankees gruesomely murdered in a fictional Southern town during a centennial celebration as revenge for the town’s destruction during the Civil War. One victim was dismembered with an ax, then roasted in a barbecue.
Democrats loathed him. He was, they claimed, behind a notorious ad that tied the 1988 Democratic presidential candidate, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, to a prisoner who committed rape while on furlough. The prisoner was black, and critics said the ad exploited racial divisions — a charge Atwater faced throughout his career and one that he denied. He argued that he was unfairly maligned because he was a Southerner.
Atwater’s love for all things Southern included barbecue. Although he was from South Carolina, he teamed with Sundquist to help launch Red Hot & Blue, a self-styled Memphis barbecue restaurant serving both “wet” and “dry” ribs. At the time, a regional-style barbecue restaurant launched outside its main geographic area was a novel concept. It took off.
These days, Red Hot & Blue is like so many other barbecue chains; it serves the gamut of regional styles, including Texas brisket and Carolina chopped pork. Its meats are cooked in a wood-enhanced gas oven. It joins chains such as Sonny’s Real Pit Bar-B-Q, Famous Dave’s and Dickey’s Barbecue Pit that serve a pan-regional version of Southern barbecue.
Although known for his use of divisive “wedge issues” such as abortion and race, Atwater, in 1989, spoke of the Republicans as “a big tent.” The term, coming on the heels of two Republican gubernatorial losses, was viewed as the master strategist positioning the party for a broader coalition. Whether that big tent would extend to barbecue, moving it away from its fierce regionalism to its modern-day ecumenicalism, is anyone’s guess.
In 1990, Atwater was diagnosed with brain cancer. He converted to Catholicism and wrote a number of apologies to political opponents. He even penned an article for Life magazine that offered a mea culpa to Dukakis for the “naked cruelty” of the 1988 campaign. Atwater died of brain cancer in 1991.
Red Hot & Blue threw a birthday party for itself earlier this month and will offer specials on the 25th of each month, excluding December, through next October.
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