Saturday, September 04, 2010

Labor Day Barbecue

It's Labor Day weekend, and for many Americans that means one thing: barbecue.  (Or, at least, grilling out in the backyard.  There's a difference.)  Ever wondered why?

Barbecue and Labor Day have a long association, going back to the early years of celebrating the holiday. As the name suggests, Labor Day was as product of the 19th century labor movement.   Around 1880, unions and other labor organizations staged the first celebrations and gatherings, and it was made a Federal holiday in 1894.

In the early days, Labor Day celebrations were specifically linked to unionism, and they usually included massive parades with music, pro-labor banners, and lots of American flags and other patriotic symbols, too.  During the conservative 1920s, the celebrations were gradually stripped of their more radical trappings, and marches were replaced by more general gatherings, festivals, and speeches, and, particularly in the Midwest and the South, barbecue was frequently served at the event.

Serving the Crowds at the Free Labor Day barbecue, Ridgway, Colorado (1940)

Over time, Labor Day became a more general public holiday dedicated to leisure. In the South, leisure time meant picnics and outings, and barbecue pitmasters took advantage of the opportunity to make a little money. In Columbia, South Carolina, a half dozen barbecue stands advertised their wares in newspaper ads each Labor Day during the 1920s and 1930s. As E. B. Lever's advertisement below shows, the meat was often sold by the bucketful, with the customers bringing their own buckets to the barbecue stand to be filled.  Rival pitmaster S. E. Perry sold his "Bucket Barbecue" for 60 cents a pound and hash at 30 cents. Some of these  holiday barbecue stands evolved into permanent barbecue restaurants. (I just wrote about Columbia Labor Day barbecue stands and other little known nuggets of South Carolina barbecue history in this a piece for the Charleston City Paper.)

During the 1950s, the AFL and CIO still hosted massive barbecues on Labor Day. In 1955, for example, the organizations hosted a Labor Day rally at Denison Dam that drew union members from all over the state of Texas and was capped by a keynote address by Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Sam Rayburn. By this time, however, the Labor Day barbecue had lost many of its connotations of unionism and was treated more as a long weekend of relaxation, and the barbecue gradually shifted from the pit-cooked to the backyard variety.

In 1956, the Dallas Morning News reported that members of the city’s country clubs were "preparing for a gala and final summer fling over Labor Day weekend,” with events including dances, swim meets, and barbecues.  Newspapers and magazines in the 1950s and 1960s were filled with advertisements for charcoal, grills, and meat for Labor Day barbecues, and cooking out in the backyard has been an inseparable part of the Labor Day holiday ever since.

So, whether you're digging a pit to roast a whole hog, or are picking up a big aluminum tray of pulled pork from a local barbecue joint, or even just grilling some burgers out on the back porch this holiday weekend, you're taking part in a long and storied American tradition.


NMissC said...

Probably the longest running barbecue "event" in Mississippi is the Turner family labor day picnic, which dates back to at least the 1920s and probably before (versions of it were done by several families of musicians in a community called Gravel Springs near Como, MS). The long-running patriarch of the event, Othar Turner, recently died at age about 92.

The barbecue at the picnic is goat (which is parboiled and then smoked) and pork shoulder. I'll have to say it is not very good. On the other hand, the music is very good and has been documented by the likes of Alan Lomax-- one part is fife and drum playing, an African American tradition that's died out everywhere else in the south, although it's been documented to some degree in Columbus GA, TN, and South Carolina.

Robert said...

Goat and fife & drum music? Mississippi barbecue never ceases to surprise me! The Turner Family Labor Day picnic is a new one on me. I'll have to look into it more . . . sounds quite interesting.

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