INSIGHTS | Serving up politics with food's a tradition


COLORADO SPRINGS — On a rainy Saturday at the foot of Pikes Peak, hundreds of politically engaged Coloradans gathered for politics slathered in tradition to hear candidates for governor answer questions.

We had a Colorado Civic Barbecue on May 19, presented by the El Pomar Foundation’s Forum for Civic Advancement, The Gazette and Colorado Politics. TV host Aaron Harber and I served up the questions.

The Republicans battled it out in the morning, as Ernest Luning reported. Doug Robinson looked as strong as I’ve seen him in a year of watching him campaign.

To pay for roads, most of the Republicans agreed the Colorado Department of Transportation simply needs to operate more efficiently, instead of new taxes to bridge a $20 billion need over the next 20 years.

Robinson veered off.

“I’ve looked at the budget, and there are savings to be made; CDOT can be operating more efficiently,” Robinson said. “But we don’t have the billions of dollars needed to make an immediate impact on our roads.”

Yet, he doesn’t support the statewide sales tax being proposed by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, either, viewing it as a regressive tax that hits poor people harder. He then laid out a plan to borrow $3.5 billion, getting half the money by leading an effort to continue the expiring FasTracks bonds, which Regional Transportation District voters passed in 2004 to put $4.7 billion into metro Denver commuter rail. Then he, too, would look for efficiencies elsewhere in transportation spending and tap state operating budget fairly close to what Democrats supported last legislative session.

That’s a workable plan, not a partisan applause line.

In the afternoon, Democrats took questions, and sparks flew between former state Sen. Mike Johnston and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis over who was the stronger foe of the National Rifle Association.

Under cross examination on another thorny issue, Polis didn’t back down from his years of pushback on the oil and gas industry. I asked him what he’d say to the thousands of people who depend on drilling for a living. Polis replied, rightly, that it’s an industry of booms and busts that rides on finite resources. Those voters need to think about the future, he said.

In between the debates, the crowd filled their plates with burgers or hot dogs, beans or potato salad.

The very excellent Tejon Street Corner Thieves from Colorado Springs played bluegrass music under threatening skies on the grounds of the one-time Dixon apple orchard. It’s called El Pomar, the old-world Spanish word for orchard.

When Spencer and Julie Penrose bought the estate in 1916, “it became a gathering spot where important business was conducted and visions were transformed into reality,” according to the foundation’s official history.

It’s fitting that the Penrose estate has its roots in fruit uncommon to Colorado. Good food with a side of public discourse predates the orchard, however. The tradition predates America.

Discounting the great feasts of Rome, historian Robert F. Moss found the first reference to politics and a public roast in 1706 at a gathering of Englishmen who were plotting a new life as colonists in Jamaica. Three pigs were “nicely cook’d” on “long wooden spits on which they turned as a cook basted them in a spicy sauce (green Virginia pepper and Madeira wine), using a foxtail tied to a stick.”

George Washington wrote in his diary that he attended at least six outdoor feasts between 1769 and 1774, including “a Barbicue of my own giving at Accotinck,” two miles away from Mount Vernon.

I compared notes on food and politics with Michael Fortney, Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton’s campaign guru, a fellow Southerner. We’ve eaten at more Knights of Columbus fish fries than we could count — spaghetti nights, too.

The Rotary Club served barbecue and silver queen corn for the city campaign picnic in Fairhope, Alabama, in 1990. “Come for the pork, stay for the bull,” I wrote in the newspaper I edited.

Texas has fed Fortney well, he said: Brisket, calf and crawfish have been on the menu. He’s pinched the tail off a few mud bugs in Louisiana, too, along with his fair share of mutton in Kentucky.

Mississippi mixes politics and food like a strong drink. For generations, families have camped out in tents and decorated tiny homes at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Miss.  Since 1896, politicians who hoped to be somebody in the South have sought the audience in Philadelphia’s Founders Square. It’s a meeting place for fairgoers and those staying the week in the 600 privately owned, festively painted cabins around the fairgrounds. They line sawdust streets like neighborhoods.

The author Willie Morris called it a “combination camp meeting, picnic, recital, amusement park, music jamboree, race track and political rally.” Ronald Reagan made his first speech there after he was nominated for president in 1980, delivering an allegiance to state’s rights that helped turn the South from blue to red.

Reagan warmed up the crowd with a story about when he was the governor of California. Mississippi Gov. John Bell Williams (once an arch segregationist) took him to an Ole Miss football game. The Tennessee Vols were heavily favored, Reagan told the crowd, a “foregone conclusion.”

The Rebels won 38-0. “There was a lull in the noise of the crowd,” Reagan, a famous actor, said. “And I heard a voice in the crowd up in the stands behind me say, ‘Man, if they would do this for him, imagine what they would have done if John Wayne was here.'”

People who stay in the fairgrounds cabins cook for one another in block parties. “Black-eyed peas, ham, fried okra, caramel cake,” to name a few, my old friend, Mississippi Capitol reporter and Associated Press veteran Emily Wagster Pettus reminded me.

“To say that food is important here is to vastly understate the reality,” The New York Times wrote in 2012.  “We like our food fried and our beer light,” local William Schneller told the Gray Lady.

Colorado occasionally celebrates a royal wedding of politics and gluttony, as El Pomar proved.

On the Western Slope, Club 20 does it right with a Western steak fry each September at a historic ranch in Grand Junction, where you can pluck a fresh apple if no one is looking. Candidates for state office debate that weekend at a convention center in town, and in election years it has the excitement of a prize fight.

But it wouldn’t be the same with cookies and coffee.


Editor’s note: This article was updated at 5:46 p.m. May 29 to correct the spelling of Johnston’s name.

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