Blowing smoke, preferably hickory
The Capitol bureaucracy rains on a congressman’s attempt to heal with barbecue
Congress last week finally turned to something genuinely important, when Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas blistered the Architect of the Capitol, the caretaker of the government’s buildings on Capitol Hill, for interfering with the preparation of his barbecued ribs.
Getting in the way of authentic barbecue is a crime for which there is no forgiveness. It’s a crime almost as heinous as serving fraudulent barbecue, of which there is, alas, no shortage.
Mr. Gohmert represents a district in East Texas which should give him an understanding of the real thing. When the wind is up and blowing from the east, hickory smoke from Arkansas and Louisiana sometimes reaches Longview, Gladewater and even Gun Barrel City. The deeper a hungry man travels into Texas, however, the greater the risk of ordering barbecue and getting smoked beef, which can be delicious but is not, strictly speaking, barbecue. Only the noble pig, after spending 24 to 36 hours in the smoke house, is the stuff of authentic barbecue.
Mr. Gohmert resumed his beef with the Capitol’s maintenance operation in a speech to the House about the misplaced priorities of federal agencies.
“About seven years ago,” he said, “the Architect of the Capitol, who works for the House and Senate, had decided that we all work for him, and started making demands. One of which was, I could not cook the ribs and share them with other members of Congress.” Putting a grill on the balcony of his office in the Rayburn House Office Building was deemed a fire hazard.
“I have enough of my late mother in me that I enjoy cooking and enjoy people enjoying what I cook,” he says. “It’s probably the only time here on Capitol Hill when I actually leave a good taste in people’s mouths.”
His ribs are popular with colleagues on both sides of the aisle. One Democratic colleague told him that she took some of the ribs home, looking forward to second helpings, and her husband, a vegetarian, ate them before she could. Others tell him they’re the best ribs they’ve ever had. Sometimes Mr. Gohmert uses the balcony of Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, which is larger and does not violate the Capitol’s barbecue code. But he doesn’t like putting him to inconvenience and he still has his beef with the Capitol maintenance police.
Anyone unfamiliar with barbecue — which is nearly everyone north of the Potomac, though the food of the gods can be discovered in unlikely places — is often surprised by the passion that barbecue stirs in the breasts of the mildest mannered of men. Debate can rage on the finest of fine points, such as whether the authentic goods can be found in a place advertising “Bar B-Q.”
Men have fought duels — hushpuppies thrown at 30 yards — over the relative merits of a Memphis sauce, red and tomato-based, against a Carolina sauce, yellow with mustard beginnings. Marriages have foundered on such arguments.
Pit masters in the South argue true barbecue can only be smoked with hickory, which gives off an aroma that is the authentic signature of a respectable pig. Texans argue that only mesquite logs are worthy of “cowboy style” beef ribs.
Barbecue joints cannot be fancy — paper towels in abundance to wipe the sauce away, never white tablecloths or napkins. A congressional office is about the limit of respectability. One such joint in the nation’s capital displayed on the wall this tribute from a satisfied customer: “Best barbecue I ever ate in a building that hadn’t already been condemned.”