A “new” barbecue holiday from 1766

How about a new holiday that would support North Carolina’s “First in Freedom” slogan and, at the same time, call attention to our pride in our distinctive favorite food: barbecue?

Got your attention?

The Campaign for Real Barbecue, an organization led by barbecue gurus John Shelton Reed and Dan Levine, proposes to celebrate a “Wilmington Barbecue” holiday on the fourth Monday of February.

Reed and Levine usually use their platform to extol the virtues of “real” North Carolina barbecue, which is meat cooked slowly over wood coals.

“When so-called barbecue is cooked over gas flames,” Reed told me, “I can smell the gas when I eat the meat.”

But Reed and Levine also educate us about the connection between politics and barbecue. Their search for such connections took them all the way back to late February of 1766 when “the Royal Governor of North Carolina, William Tryon, attempted to win the New Hanover militia’s good will by treating them to a barbecue. He did not succeed: citizens of Wilmington threw the barbecued ox in the river and poured out the beer. (This was not an early expression of North Carolinians’ preference for pork; they were upset about the Stamp Act.)”

Reed and Levine explain that this “expression” of discontent with British authority came seven years before “the Boston Tea Party of 1773, when some rowdy New Englanders threw boxes of tea in Boston harbor to protest a British tax.”

They argue that the Wilmington event was not only “seven years earlier than the Tea Party, its story is much more colorful. While the Tea Party offers only a pitiful attempt to avoid the blame by dressing up as Mohawk Indians, the barbecue story involves a stand-off between the local militia and the British Navy, a conflict between the Governor and the courts, a duel to the death, and a suicide by disembowelment.”

Reed and Levine ask why the Boston Tea Party has gotten all the attention, and they answer, that it is a matter of superior publicity by publishers located in the Northeast states. “And the regional disparity in public relations skill persists to this day: Boston has a Tea Party museum entirely devoted to ‘the event that lead [sic] to an American Revolution!’ while the Barbecue has been almost entirely forgotten, even in Wilmington.”

Reed and Levine found their facts in “The history of North Carolina from the Earliest Period” published in 1829:

“In the latter part of the month of February, there being a general muster in the town of Wilmington, the governor, with a view to please the militia, caused an ox to be barbecued and had a few barrels of beer unheaded; but the people, displeased with his endeavors to counteract their opposition to the stamp act, threw the roasted ox into the river and spilled the beer on the ground.”

The disorder continued, reminding us that our current president is not the first political leader to lambaste judges. Governor Tryon accused the chief justice of favoring a defendant charged with participating in a fatal duel arising out of the disturbances. The chief justice was so devastated that he “fired a pistol in his own mouth; the fire not proving mortal, he took out his pen-knife and, ripping open his belly, drew out part of his entrails and soon after expired.”

Back to the present. So far, there has been no official action on the proposed Wilmington Barbecue Holiday.

But there is no stopping us from taking matters into our own hands, gathering at our favorite barbecue eateries on Monday, and raising our glasses of sweet iced tea to the people in Wilmington who stood up to British oppression long before the Boston Tea Party.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.