“Barbecue might be America’s most political food,” wrote the New Yorker earlier this year. The claim certainly applies to the 2018 race for Texas Agriculture Commissioner. Instead of farming or ranching issues, it’s Sid Miller’s recent history on barbecue that his Republican primary opponent, Trey Blocker, is using against him.
For some brief background, the Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) launched a program called Operation Maverick in 2015 to enforce, among other things, the requirement that barbecue joint scales be certified and registered, a rule that hadn’t been enforced in the past. Backlash from small business owners resulted in House Bill 2029, aka the “Barbecue Bill,” during this year’s legislative session. The bill, which exempted barbecue joints (and yogurt shops) from the regulation, easily passed the Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in June. The TDA then revised the wording of the bill—which had exempted “food sold for immediate consumption”—by adding “on the premises” in the rewritten regulation. Those three new words meant that any barbecue joint selling food to-go was no longer exempt. The Texas Restaurant Association cried foul, and the TDA asked Attorney General Ken Paxton for a ruling that is forthcoming. This has all become fuel in a food fight between the candidates.
The first shot came a few weeks ago from Miller, who mocked Blocker for holding a fundraiser at a restaurant that served Nutella crepes. Miller acted as if he didn’t know what Nutella was, despite only seeing the “tella” portion of the word on the blackboard sign behind Blocker in a photo from the event (which, for the record, was held at the Old German Bakery & Restaurant in Fredericksburg).
Blocker fired back with a fundraising email that described Miller’s stance as a “war on Texas BBQ.” Now, calling a Texan anti-barbecue is about on par with calling them un-Texan, but Blocker didn’t stop there. Over the weekend, he followed up with two campaign videos focused squarely on barbecue.
The ads star three barbecue joint owners from around the state: Brent Harman, of Sonny Bryan’s Smokehouse; Skeeter Miller of County Line BBQ; and Mike Cotten of Cotten’s BBQ in Portland.
We’re not taking sides here, but I can’t help but relish in the fact that barbecue has taken center stage in a Texas political campaign. These might be the first political advertisements where the message is solely from pitmasters. There’s not even a voiceover from the candidate. Blocker’s name is simply shown at the end over barbecue being sliced on a cutting block.
There’s also the emotional response that each candidate is looking for in their food fight. Miller used the barb about Nutella crepes to question Blocker’s rural Texan bonafides, and Blocker shot back by weaponizing our favorite food. His claim that Miller is at war with our state’s beloved food is on par with accusing him of torching fields of bluebonnets. We’re awaiting Miller’s next move, lest he be labeled all hat and no brisket.