The Meat of the Matter

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

Today’s barbecue joints tend to serve just one or two kinds of meats, with pork predominate in the Carolinas and Georgia and beef the star out in Texas and Kansas City. Not so in the old days. Back when barbecues were large-scale community affairs, the meat served was whatever people had on hand and could donate to the cause. Lists like the following, from a description of an 1868 barbecue in Spartanburg, South Carolina, were par for the course: “beef, mutton, pork, and fowls were provided in superabundance.”

At the largest events, the menus could be eye-popping. Perhaps the most extensive is the selection served at the 1923 inauguration of Oklahoma governor Jack Walton. The event was held in January, and just before Christmas, Walton sent out a call to Oklahoma farmers to donate animals for the event.

Jack Walton stares off into distance; contemplates smoked meats. Photo courtesy of Oklahoma Historical Society.

And donate they did. The final tally, as printed in the Dallas Morning News, included thousands of cows, hogs, sheep, and chickens plus 103 turkeys, 1,363 rabbits, 26 squirrels, 134 opossums, 113 geese, 34 ducks, 15 deer, 2 buffalo, and 2 reindeer that had been “shipped in from the North.” A man from Sayre, Oklahoma, captured a live bear and offered him to the cause, too. But the bear won the sympathy of Oklahoma school children, who pooled their pocket change, bought him for $119.66, and donated him to the Wheeler Park Zoo. The bear was a crowd favorite for more than a decade.

The rest of the animals weren’t so lucky.

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.