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Barbecue Diplomacy at LBJ's Texas White House

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TasunkaWitko View Drop Down
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    Posted: 28 December 2011 at 13:11

http://www.amazingribs.com/BBQ_articles/LBJ_and_BBQ.html

 

Barbecue Diplomacy at LBJ's Texas White House

Barbecue has been used as a tool in American political campaigns for more than a century, and will no doubt be employed extensively this summer, especially by John McCain, who has been known to brag about his skill with the grill. But no politician ever used the conviviality and informality of cooking and eating outdoors than the 36th President, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who stepped away from the Oval Office in 1969.

LBJThe rolling Hill Country west of Austin, TX, is inelegant, rocky, dusty, tangled with brush and prickly pear cactus, cloven occasionally by meager stream beds that lie dry and barren much of the year. There are few cattle because there is little grass and less water to sustain them, but there are plenty of tarantulas, scorpions, horned toads, and barbecue pits.

Johnson emerged from this terrain molded by it: Craggy, unadorned, complex, and formidable. Although he rose to the Presidency, he remained rooted in Texas, and used his LBJ Ranch and the barbecue skills of Walter Jetton to achieve political ends.

In 1950, the former school teacher and his wife, Lady Bird, bought a parcel on the banks of the lazy Pedernales River (pronounced PERD-nah-less) just west of his boyhood home in Johnson City. The modest ranch became an integral part of the image he wanted to project in Washington. Rich Texans all had ranches. He was not rich, but his wife had an inheritance that she had parlayed into a tidy sum by buying a radio station in Austin.

It was also a place to retreat, relax, and recuperate from the pace of the Washington. He often invited constituents, donors, politicians, and staff to the LBJ Ranch. When they arrived he would show them his spread, often on horseback. The visits were opportunities for LBJ to parlay with his guests man to man as they passed across the pastures, returned to the ranch house for bull sessions, then a barbecue, and an overnight stay. The intimacy was politically effective.

As his political career progressed, the barbecues got bigger and more elaborate, and as more important guests came to Hill Country, Lady Bird undertook the first of several remodeling plans to host them in style. Eventually the ranch would include several guest suites, a swimming pool, a radio tower, and an airstrip capable of handling small jets.

LBJ RanchIn October 1959, as Majority Leader of the Senate and candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination, he hosted his first big barbecue, for his friend, Mexican President Lopez Mateos. Among the guests were his father's old friend, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, and former President Truman, a man LBJ admired greatly. It was a great success, politically and socially. Even Truman wrote to compliment his host.

John F. Kennedy, the charismatic young senator from Massachusetts, thwarted Johnson's nomination attempt, but he invited the powerful Senator from the South to run for Vice President on his ticket. They won a close campaign against Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge, in 1960.

In April 1961, the new Vice President hosted a barbecue for West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. The American West held a romantic appeal to Europeans, and the attraction was greater to Adenauer because Hill Country had been settled by many German families. According to Hal K. Rothman, author of the book LBJ's Texas White House, "The American West and its ranching, its barbecues, beans, and chuck wagons, had a cross-cultural resonance that allowed even those raised in other parts of the world to participate in an American myth made universal by popular fiction and the movies. Foreigners could see their preconceived vision of the 'real America' in the vistas, settings, entertainment, and libations of the LBJ Ranch. For Europeans, this was all especially poignant; it resonated with the myths they held about the American West. Adenauer's visit began a universalization of the ranch, its transformation from a place of continental iconography to one of international symbolic meaning."

Later that year Field Marshall Mohammed Ayub Khan of Pakistan was feted at the ranch. Khan deftly averted a diplomatic incident by ignoring the fact that pork ribs were served. Pork is forbidden to Muslims. But a connection was made between men of rocky soil and poor farmers. Khan later became President of Pakistan.

The most important barbecue ever planned for the LBJ Ranch never happened. It was scheduled for November 23, 1963, when the Vice President, the President, 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. Instead of taking his boss for a tour around his spread and feeding him barbecue, Johnson found himself back in Washington attending memorial services, and meeting with the cabinet, leaders of Congress, and former Presidents Eisenhower and Truman.

LBJ & AmbassadorA month later, frazzled from, as Ladybird described it, the "tornado of activity that has surrounded us", 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 and his entourage 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." Jetton's famous six-shooter coffee was also served, a brew that one Texan said is "so strong it will float a .44." The food was served on paper plates, buffet style.

The President's aides wanted to add some sophistication to the event, so they got the world's most famous pianist, another Texan, Van Cliburn, to play classical music. Erhard presented Johnson with a bottle of 1959 Piesporter Goldtröpchen Feinste Spätlese by Reichsgraf von Kesselstatt, a superb sweet white wine. Johnson presented Erhard and his entire delegation with Stetsons.

Richard "Cactus" Pryor, a Texas humorist and KTBC employee, was master of ceremonies at this and several other barbecues. Pryor jokingly apologized to the German delegation because they could not find a recipe for barbecued sauerkraut.

Johnson's cookouts strove for authenticity with "the look and feel of a chuck wagon dinner" said Pryor. Unfortunately that included cowpies that the Air force was asked to remove. For future events it was decided that the cattle should be kept on the south side of the river.

Johnson began spending more and more time on the ranch. In his five years in office he flew in 74 times and spent 490 days there, almost 25% of his term. The phrase "barbecue diplomacy" was coined by W. D. Taylor of The New York Herald-Tribune. Johnson liked the symbolism. It conveyed the sense of an everday man as President, the same image conveyed by Truman. It was so effective the Johnsons occasionally staged barbecues at the White House, also a first.

During the Presidential election campaign of 1964, Johnson flew Jetton around the nation to cook at political rallies. After a Jetton campaign barbecue at Gracie Mansion, New York City's mayoral residence, Brendan Gill wrote in the New Yorker "Barbecues as a symbol compare favorably with the 1952 hole in Adlai Stevenson's shoe."

LBJ and HHH chow down on ribsJohnson and Minnesota Senator Hubert H. Humphrey won the election over Barry Goldwater and William E. Miller with the greatest popular vote in history up to that time, and 61% of the votes.

Shortly after the election, Johnson staged an impromptu Victory Barbecue at the Ranch on November 4, 1964. He and Humphrey hosted the White House press corps as guests of honor.

The two dressed in western suits and Stetsons, rode horses, and ate ribs for the cameras. Jetton later wrote in his cookbook that Humphrey "sure gave these ribs a fit... He went at them like Clyde Beaty to cats and must have eaten them for an hour, putting away more of them than I have ever seen anybody do. So far as I could tell, they did him no harm."

One of the largest barbecues was on April 1, 1967, with 35 Latin American ambassadors and their wives. There was a huge re-enactment of the settling of Texas by Native Americans, followed by Spaniards, then Anglo cowboys, complete with buckboards and cattle. Johnson spoke briefly of his War on Hunger and he pledged three million tons of food grain to India and another $25 million in food for distribution by CARE. After all the guests left, he demonstrated his penchant for micromanagement by telling Social Secretary Bess Abell that "The food needed to be hotter in the future." It is unclear if he meant chili pepper or thermal heat. But in the next few moments he demonstrated his leadership. When told that Congressman Gonzales was unhappy because so many Republicans had been invited to the barbecue, Johnson replied that he was "President of all the people, Republicans and Democrats."

Walter Jetton: "The Barbecue King"

Walter Jetton

The food for most of LBJ's barbecues was prepared by Walter Jetton (pronounced ji-TON). Jetton (1906-1968) ran a popular catering company out of Ft. Worth, just a few hours from the LBJ Ranch.

Jetton was a natural showman. He was usually dressed in a Stetson, apron, creased white shirt, and string tie, and he billed himself as the "Barbecue King". He often had a whole headless cow rotating on a spit beside a smoldering log fire. Texas humorist Richard "Cactus" Pryor jokingly wondered aloud if he used the same carcass at all his barbecues.

Jetton was even admired by the classically trained, Swiss-born, Henry Haller, who served as Executive Chef of the White House from 1966-1987. Haller wrote in his 1987 book The White House Family Cookbook, "After announcing that he would not be seeking re-election, President Johnson hosted a party on the White House lawn to thank over 200 friends for their support... . The party was a Texas-style barbecue. The ribs were prepared by Walter Jetton... . He did a terrific job and I was most impressed with the results. His barbecue sauce avoided all of the common flaws (oversweetening, overcooking, excessive thinning) and by serving the sauce separately, he also avoided drying out the meat. The ribs were tender and juicy, and very delicious (yet cost only $1.80 per serving!)... . This professional production will long stand in my mind as one of the more strikingly successful White House parties."

Jetton was a devotee of open-pit barbecue. In a letter to a man in Minnesota he offered advice that still makes sense today: "First, we would suggest you abandon the idea of a spit and instead of trying to barbecue the beef in quarters or halves, just buy eight or ten pound pieces of boneless brisket points. Use building blocks stacked four high. Run two rows as long as you like with a three foot space between them. Place grills, reinforced screen or expanded metal across the top. Remove one or two blocks at ground level and through this hole rake in live coals that have been burning close by. The live coals should come from oak, hickory, walnut, pecan, or some form of hard wood. Repeat the process during the time of cooking which should be approximately eight hours as you don't want to cook the meat very fast.

"Just prior to placing the meat on the grills it should be mopped with a solution made of weak vinegar, water, salt, black pepper, and vegetable oil. Make up to three gallons of this as mopping should be repeated throughout the cooking time of the meat as the meat is turned over, which should be done every 30 minutes. Use a long handle new dish mop. Do not use ketchup in any form until you are through cooking.

"If you use the briskets of a good grade as I have suggested, you will not have any trouble with the meat being dry as this is a fat meat. The cooking temperature should be about 275 degrees. Remember, barbecue has to be cooked with wood or wood coals. The coals will furnish enough heat and smoke. Do not have a big fire under the meat. If a fire should start from grease of the meat or mop, put it out with a cup of water. Cook with coals only!"

In 1965 Jetton capitalized on his fame, and, with the help of with Arthur Whitman, published a 77 page paperback, Walter Jetton's LBJ Barbecue Cookbook. In it he offered recipes for everything from calf fries (testicles) to beef heart to barbecued bologna, which he called a "dingwilly of a dish". Here are his standard mop and sauce. They work great on beef brisket.

Walter Jetton's Mop for All Barbecue Meats

Jetton's original recipe made 6 quarts, enough to mop a whole cow. I have modified it and reduced it here to make about 1 quart. He recommends you mix all the ingredients and let it sit overnight in the refrigerator.

2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon ground bay leaf
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon Louisiana Hot Sauce
1/3 cup Worcestershire sauce
1/6 pint vinegar
3 cups beef stock
3 ounces oil
1 teaspoon MSG

Walter Jetton's Barbecue Sauce

According to his obit in TIME Magazine, Jetton bragged that his barbecue sauce would "tickle the tongue of your Grandma's shoe." In his book, Jetton wrote "This is the secret of the ages I am giving you here, and I would not be surprised if wars have been fought over less. Use this as a plate or table sauce with beef, chicken, pork, or almost anything else. Don't cook things in it. Combine all the ingredients and bring to a boil. Simmer about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and strain. About 2 1/2 cups.

1 cup tomato ketchup
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups water
3 stalks celery, chopped
3 bay leaves
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons chopped onion
4 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon paprika
Dash of black pepper

Lady Bird's Barbecue Sauce

Lady Bird Johnson enjoyed handing out her recipe for barbecue sauce, similar to Jetton's (above), but simpler. Source: LBJ Library & Museum.

Lady Birds Sauce recipe

Sources

No news, just ribs at McCain barbecue - CNN.com, March 4, 2008.

Entertaining in the White House - By Marie Smith, 1967, Acropolis Books.

LBJ's Texas White House, Our Heart's Home - By Hal K. Rothman, 2001, Texas A&M University Press.

Mrs. Johnson built business empire but looked out for people - By Lori Hawkins, Austin American-Statesman, July 16, 2007

The Presidents' Cookbook - By Poppy Cannon & Patricia Brooks, 1968, Funk & Wagnalls.

TIME Magazine, 2/9/1968.

Ruffles and Flourishes - By Liz Carpenter, 1970, Doubleday & Co.

Walter Jetton's LBJ Barbecue Cookbook - By the Caterer to the LBJ Ranch, Written with Arthur Whitman, 1965, Pocket Books.

A White House Diary - By Lady Bird Johnson, 1970, Trafalgar Square.

The White House Family Cookbook - By Harry Haller with Virginia Aronson, RD, MS, 1987, Random House.

LBJ Library & Museum Online and numerous documents from the files of the LBJ Library & Museum, 2312 Red River St., Austin TX 78705. Special thanks to archivists Barbara Cline and Elizabeth Hansen for their help when I visited in February 2008.

Photo credits, from top to bottom

LBJ in the buffet line with Nellie Connally (left) and Mrs. Guillermo Sevilla-Sacasa, Latin American Ambassadors' Weekend, 4/1/1967, by Yoichi R. Okamoto, with permission of the LBJ Library & Museum.

Ribs being cooked on the pit, Latin American Ambassadors' Weekend, 4/1/1967, by Yoichi R. Okamoto, with permission of the LBJ Library & Museum.

LBJ and guest eye the food, Latin American Ambassadors' Weekend, 4/1/1967, by Yoichi R. Okamoto, with permission of the LBJ Library & Museum.

LBJ and Hubery H. Humphrey, Victory Barbecue, 11/4/1964, by Hulton Archive, with permission of Getty Images.

Walter Jetton mopping beef, Latin American Ambassadors' Weekend, 4/1/1967, by Yoichi R. Okamoto, with permission of the LBJ Library & Museum.

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TasunkaWitko View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TasunkaWitko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 28 December 2011 at 13:22

Here is the dry Rib Rub recipe from Walter Jetton's LBJ Barbeque Cook Book

Dry Rib Seasoning

6 Tablespoons Salt
6 Tablespoons Sugar
1 Tablespoon Dried Lemon Powder
2 Tablespoons MSG
2 1/2 Tablespoons Black pepper
1 Tablespoon Paprika

Combine seasoning thoroughly. Rub into meat and refrigerate overnight before cooking.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote oldpro Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11 March 2012 at 06:28
I was born in Ft. Worth and lived through the period when Walter Jetton and Lyndon Johnson made Texas barbecue famous.  Unfortunately, the quality of Jetton's cue failed by a large margin to live up to the hype.  It just flat out wasn't all that good.  If you happen across a book called "A Texan Looks At Lyndon", you'll find a lot of Texans weren't all that enamored with LBJ either.
 
The best barbecue in town was served at Angelo's.  This was brisket at it's finest.  Initially, spare ribs weren't offered at all.  Later, when Jimmy Dean started making sausage, Angelo's started buying the ribs from those hogs and they did a great job on them as well. 
 
There were a lot of great food stories in Fort Worth, a town where "the West begins" in that period.  Jetton's story is great reading, but from a pure food perspective, most natives of the town didn't go there for their cue "fix".
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote TasunkaWitko Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 12 March 2012 at 09:28
hey, oldpro - thanks for giving a local perspective on this. i've never been down there, so i had no way of knowing ~ i can certainly agree that in a lot of similar situations, the legend and the reality can be two different thigns!
 
i have heard of angelo's however, and it has always been on my list of places to try when and if i ever find myself down there.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote HistoricFoodie Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 12 March 2012 at 13:22
the legend and the reality can be two different thigns!
 
"This is the West, sir. When the legend is different from the reality, print the legend!"
 
From The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Margi Cintrano Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 12 April 2013 at 08:07
Tas,
 
Truly interesting article ... Thanks for posting it ... I am a Barbecue Fan ... Too bad, we live in Urban dwellings, and thus it is not possible to have a BBQ. However, we do love BBQ and I am a great fan of Hickory BBQ Sauce ...
 
Since we are speaking about BBQ Sauces on another thread; I thought to do some in-house research !!! Found these BBQ recipes ...  
 
Walter´s  is quite nice --- love Lea and Perrins ... very flavorful ... and all available without ordering online and incurring ship charges ...
 
Margaux.
 
Kind regards.
www.guidepost.es
Gourmet´s Choice - Time Out In Spain ...

WEBSITE: www.visionsgourmandes.com
www.issuu.com / Beyond Taste, Oltre il Gusto ..
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Muleskinner Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 29 September 2013 at 15:12
I'm not seeing the attraction of that recipe either. Seems under spiced. Pretty run-of-the-mill gringo sauce.
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