Thursday, June 15, 2017

Lyndon Johnson's Barbecue Diplomacy and a Brief History of Father's Day

Some historians say that the origins of Father’s Day can be traced to a young woman by the name of Sonora Smart Dodd, who reportedly came up with the idea while listening to a Mother’s Day sermon in Spokane, Washington in 1909. Raised by her widowed father, a Civil War veteran who had lost his wife after the birth of their sixth child, Sonora felt that her father should be honored in the same way that mothers were on Mother’s Day.

Toward that end, a special Father’s Day observance was held on June 19, 1910. Although that celebration was a local affair, the idea of a national Father’s Day picked up steam when it was endorsed by President Calvin Coolidge in 1924, but it would take another thirty years before Father’s Day was recognized by a Joint Resolution of Congress. Then, in 1966, the first presidential proclamation honoring fathers was issued by Lyndon Johnson, who designated the third Sunday in June as Father's Day.

Although it’s hard to say what Johnson ate on that particular day, it’s likely that the Texan native requested a barbecue. Barbecuing, of course, has been used as a tool in American politics since the early nineteenth century, but no politician ever used “the conviviality and informality of cooking and eating outdoors” more than Johnson.

But the most important barbecue ever planned for the LBJ Ranch never took place. This is what happened:

It was scheduled for November 23, 1963, when President Kennedy, Johnson, and their entourages were planning to dine beneath the oaks on the Pedernales. But a few hours before they were to board the choppers from Dallas to Johnson City, on November 22, Kennedy was assassinated two cars in front of Johnson as they drove in a motorcade.

A month later, the Johnson family retreated to the ranch on Christmas Eve. West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard was scheduled to visit the President to discuss the Soviet threat, the Berlin Wall, and other important matters. Rather than return to Washington for a formal State Dinner, Lyndon invited Erhard on down to what historians claim was the first official Presidential barbecue in history. Yes, Johnson's first state dinner was a barbecue for 300 catered by Walter Jetton on December 29, 1963.

When his staff realized it would be chilly that day, the sit-down part was moved indoors to Stonewall High School gymnasium, about two miles away. Workers did an admirable job of creating an outdoorsy feel with bales of hay, red lanterns, red-checkered table cloths, saddles, lassos, and mariachis. According to Lady Bird's diary, "there were beans (pinto beans, always), delicious barbecued spareribs, cole slaw, followed by fried apricot pies with lots of hot coffee. And plenty of beer."

Although those recipes may have been lost to posterity, some Johnson family favorites included Pedernales River Chili, Chipped Beef with Cream, Beef Stroganoff, Tapioca Pudding, and Lady Bird enjoyed handing out her recipe for Barbecue Sauce. If you’d like to add a little zip to your Father's Day celebrations this weekend, here's a great recipe to try and here's Lady Bird's original recipe:

¼ cup butter
¼ cup vinegar
¼ cup ketchup
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
Salt, pepper, red pepper flakes to taste

Melt butter in a medium sauce pan over medium-high heat. Add other ingredients and bring to a boil. Add Tabasco sauce to taste.