Barbecue Meets the Law

Both the Cue Sheet and the Smoke Sheet had articles on legal issues involving barbecue this past week. That’s old news to those of you who subscribe to these invaluable barbecue newsletters, but some of you may not. You really should.

But three can play at this game, and everyone interested in barbecue should be aware of the landmark case of Katzenbach v. McClung. Ollie’s was a barbecue place in Birmingham that cooked the best barbecue in the world, aided by the best barbecue sauce in the world.

You don’t want to run out (still available online).

The case was argued before the Supreme Court on October 5, 1964, my 15th birthday, and involved a challenge to the Civil Rights Act. Ollie McClung believed that he did not have to desegregate his restaurant (there was a separate carry-out only window for black customers) because it was too small to affect interstate commerce, and thus fell outside Congress’ power under the Commerce Clause. That mule wouldn’t plow. People from far and wide crossed state lines to eat at Ollie’s, and I doubt if we ever had out-of-town guests we didn’t take to Ollie’s. I imagine Justice Hugo Black took out-of-state guests to Ollie’s, and probably returned from time to time to eat barbecue. It was a huge case, and gave all people equal access to the best barbecue the world.

The Smoke Sheet links to a US News article about Arick Whitson of BBQ Masters in Stockbridge, Georgia — you can see their menu here — who recently won a $1.7 million dollar judgment over his claim of the City’s harassment of his restaurant. The story is that Mayor Pro Tem Elton Alexander asked if Whitson wanted to “do business with the City” as he tried to get $60 worth of barbecue without paying, rather than over-tipping as he should these days. Whitson declined and a line of code inspectors was on his doorstep, etc. The insurance company decided that writing the check for $1.7 million would be the better part of valor. The City denies wrongdoing, but that’s a nice check.

The April 18 ‘Cue Sheet piece, Barbecue Jurisprudence, is written with Robert Moss’ customary erudition, wit, and grace, and describes the very moment of the death of the English Language, the moment that set Western Civilization plummeting toward “barbecued seitan.” In 1960, that fateful decade, Hesmer Foods acquired a trademark for “Beanee Barbecue,” baked beans cooked in an actual pot over flames outdoors with actual pork over actual hickory. The Campbell’s Soup Company then introduced Barbecue Beans, a congeries of beans (limas!) that had never been near pork or anything else anyone would associate with the term “barbecue.” The dread 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for Campbell’s. To the Court, the term “barbecue” means … nothing, and can be applied helter-skelter to anything from pork cooked over a brick pit to chicken nuggets, much as groceries now advertise pink plastic balls as “tomatoes.”

Ah, the law is a double-edged sword. Sometimes good wins, sometimes it loses, but Arick Whitson’s attorneys got $524,000.

You really should sign up for the ‘Cue Sheet and the Smoke Sheet. In addition to interesting articles, both the ‘Cue Sheet and the Smoke Sheet list upcoming barbecue festivals and competitions. I don’t. I have found that the skills necessary to win barbecue competitions are far from the skills necessary to run a barbecue place, and much is the time I’ve spent eating atrocious food so you don’t have to. My attitude toward food festivals is governed by an aversion to (1) waiting in line for food, and, even more, (2) waiting line for a portable toilet. Festivals that involve drinking beer are a particular issue, and, really, what food festivals don’t involve drinking beer? Obviously, millions of other people differ, as witness the long lines at portable toilets, where people stand for hours with a stoicism that recalls Valley Forge. I respect but do not join them.


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5 thoughts on “Barbecue Meets the Law

  1. Ollie’s BBQ was my dad’s favorite and also became mine. He could walk in the front door and by the time he sat down at the counter for lunch the servers would have have a bowl of turnip greens, corn bread and buttermilk waiting for him. He also loved their BBQ. It was sad when they relocated to the burbs and the restaurant closed in less than a year.
    As to the court case, strange because most of the workers were African Americans. But that was then and now it’s now


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