Tuesday, July 17

"A Most Disgraceful Scene": Barbecue Comes to New York City

From the sauce-stained keyboard of guest blogger Robert Moss.

In recent years, thanks to the arrival of the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party and the opening of serious barbecue joints like Blue Smoke and Hill Country, New York City has awakened to the joys of slow-smoked barbecue. But this is hardly the first time that Gothamites have enjoyed pit-cooked meat.

New York's first barbecue took place way back in 1860, during the presidential campaign that pitted Stephen A. Douglas against Abraham Lincoln. In early September, the Douglas Central Campaign Club announced that it had procured a hog, a heifer, two sheep, and a giant ox from Kentucky and would stage a "Monster Democratic Rally, Grand Political Carnival, and Ox Roast." The event was to be held at Jones's Wood at the edge of Manhattan, which stretched between what is now 66th and 75th Streets. The ox was paraded through the streets of New York for two days in advance to generate interest.

A small man with a big appetite for barbecue. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Unfortunately, the barbecue quickly devolved into, as one newspaper put it, "a most disgraceful scene." The Douglas club had secured the services of Bryan Lawrence, a butcher from the Centre Market, to cook the animals. Lawrence, an Irish immigrant, would later become a bank executive, philanthropist, and prominent figure in the Democratic party. But it's not clear whether he had actually cooked barbecue before. One reporter described the product that emerged from Lawrence's pits as "the charred remains which are sometimes seen in this city after the destruction of an old tenement home."

The assembled crowd didn't seem to mind. When "feeding time" was announced, they degenerated into a shouting mob. Hungry men burst through the pine fences around the serving area, overturning tables, scattering bread and crackers, and seizing whatever hunks of meat they could get their hands on. It took three hundred policemen to restore order so that Stephen Douglas could take to the platform for his stump speech.

"Nothing like it in politics ever occurred here before," The New York Herald concluded. It would be many years before another political barbecue was attempted in the Big Apple.

Robert Moss, a food writer and restaurant critic for the Charleston City Paper, is the author of Barbecue: The History of an American Institution. You can follow him on Twitter at @mossr.