Tuesday, September 11

Eugene Talmadge and the Art of Political Barbecue

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

In this era of televised debates and relentless campaign ads, the role of the barbecue in politics has faded. (Well, somewhat.) Into the mid-twentieth century, it was an important campaign weapon, especially for populist politicians in the South and West. Perhaps none used barbecue more effectively than Eugene Talmadge, who served three terms as governor of Georgia in the 1930s and
Photo of Eugene Talmadge courtesy of the New Georgia Encyclopedia.
At a time when Georgia’s politics was dominated by “courthouse gangs” of powerful county officials, Talmadge gained power by going directly to the people—and he did so with barbecue. In 1932 he kicked off his first gubernatorial campaign with a massive rally in his hometown of McRae. Local farmers donated over ten thousand pounds of pigs and goats, and they were cooked over a shallow pit by Norman Graham, the “Barbecue King of Telfair County.” After the feast, the crowd of ten thousand cheered wildly throughout Talmadge’s speech, carrying him from the platform on their shoulders at the end. That kicked off a two-month campaign tour in which Talmadge staged similar barbecues in most of Georgia’s rural counties. “We didn’t carry any counties with streetcars running in them,” he later noted, but he won the election handily.

During Talmadge’s reelection bids, “The Tree-Climbing Haggards of Danielsville” became a regular part of the barbecues. The elder Haggard and his eight sons dressed like Gene Talmadge in black suits, wide-brimmed hats, and red suspenders. They climbed to the top of tall pine trees around the barbecue grove and shouted down scripted cues like, “Tell us about the schoolteachers, Gene!” and “Tell us about the old folks!”

One afternoon a Haggard boy ate a little too much barbecue at the previous campaign stop and dozed off up in his tree. He tumbled down through the pine branches to the ground, bringing Talmadge’s speech to a crashing halt and demonstrating the perils of too much political barbecue.   

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.