Friday, June 17, 2011

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

Some historians say that the origins of Father’s Day in the United States 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 proclamation honoring fathers was issued by President Lyndon Johnson, who designated the third Sunday in June as Father's Day.

Today, of course, Americans celebrate Father's Day in a wide variety of ways, with perhaps the most traditional festivity being an old-fashioned, American-style barbecue, and so it seems only fitting this week to honor President Johnson, who was well-known for his love of down-home country barbecues at his beloved family ranch in Gillespie County, Texas.

Barbecuing, of course, has been used as a tool in American political campaigns and elections for more than a century, but no politician ever used “the conviviality and informality of cooking and eating outdoors” more than Johnson. As his political career progressed, LBJ's barbecues got bigger and more elaborate, and as more important guests visited the ranch, his wife 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.”

But the most important barbecue ever planned for the LBJ Ranch never happened. It was scheduled, according to historians,

for November 23, 1963, when Vice President [Johnson], President Kennedy, 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.

A 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."

Although those particular recipes may have been lost to posterity, biographers say that some Johnson family favorites included Chipped Beef covered with Cream, Pedernales River Chili, and Beef Stroganoff. And Lady Bird reportedly enjoyed handing out her own recipe for Barbecue Sauce.

If you’d like to add a little history and zip to your Father's Day celebation this weekend, here is the original recipe for Lady Bird's Barbecue Sauce:

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

Melt butter in a medium sauce pan over medium-high heat. Add other ingredients and bring to a boil. Yields 1 ½ cups.

FAST FACT: With the Vietnam War raging overseas, the Johnson family cut back on the lavish White House entertaining that had been a Kennedy hallmark. There were occasional barbecues at the White House, according to historians, but most social occasions were used to elicit political support. Johnson's Texas ranch provided the real refuge from the pressures of office, and the family retreated there often, where Johnson could be seen driving the dusty ranch roads in a large Cadillac convertible or relaxing on long walks."