The Colon Club, Virginia's temple of all that is politically incorrect, held its annual breakfast this morning, which meant the audience was large (and exclusively white male), the jokes were ribald (and very tame) and the hog intestines deep-fried (but still virtually inedible).
Founded in the late 1940s, when state politics were ruled by rural white conservatives, the Colon Club, like its cousin the Shad Planking, is one of those peculiar Virginia traditions that sprang up around earthy food -- in this case, chitterlings, the cooked and chopped pig intestines that would be eaten around Christmas after hogs were butchered in November.
The cultural curiosity endures, but not because of the featured side dish, a fatty nodule that tastes like wet socks. The ritual survives because it's all about the fellowship among politicians, business lobbyists and hangers-on in the Virginia capital, a chance for a little male bonding and off-color jokes at each other's expense.
The club convenes only for its once-a-year breakfast; the $2,600 in proceeds goes to charities.
"It's a fun tradition -- we poke fun at everybody," said Bill Andrews, 67, a Richmond insurance executive whose father helped start it all 63 years ago with then-Gov. William Munford Tuck, a famously rotund politician from Southside Virginia.
The club breakfast started informally as a holiday gathering at the Andrews home but became so popular that it had to be moved to a downtown hotel before taking up residence in the ballroom of the exclusive (and more permanent) Commonwealth Club, where today an overflow crowd of 240 paid $39 each for the chitterlings -- in addition, of course, to a real meal of eggs, bacon, sausage, spoonbread and biscuits.
The group has no clubhouse but does boast an official history, which declares that there will be "no patronizing and arcane by-laws, no elected officers or rules of decorum, no pretensions to any exalted purpose or redeeming value."
"We are EEOC and affirmative action violators," the history says. "We've never met a group or a special interest we couldn't offend, and if you have a cultural sensitivity, you can be certain we'll find a way to insult it. We enjoy laughing at ourselves and at everybody else."
Nobody, except perhaps Trent Lott, was off-limits this morning: There were jokes about the antics of the Richmond City Council, the eavesdropping scandal at the Virginia Republican Party and the sexual harassment complaint that toppled the former speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates.
Master of ceremonies Charles W. Sydnor Jr., a speechwriter in the administration of former governor Charles S. Robb (D), saluted "the big, bad" State Librarian Nolan T. Yelich as "Virginia's newest political bully" for taking on former governor James S. Gilmore III (R) in a dispute over official papers. The crowd loved that one.
Incoming House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) got into the spirit as the star attraction, telling jokes in a Bob Newhart deadpan about lawyers, good old boys and the caliber of a Virginia Tech education.
U.S. Rep. Eric I. Cantor, who represents the Richmond area, did look distressed when the club's presenter -- a visiting waitress from Hooters -- awarded him a toy whip for recently becoming the deputy whip of the House Republicans.
But Cantor gamely swung it over his head, saying later he enjoyed carrying on the tradition of attending the breakfast, as his father, a well-known Republican activist, had for years.
"It's all done with a bit of humor," Cantor said. "A bit of humor."