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All you need is ribs: Isakson barbecue brings hungry senators together

Leadership may have hated it at first, but the lunch is now a big hit

South 40 Smokehouse from Marietta, Ga., serves up brisket, pulled pork and ribs Thursday in the office of Sen. Johnny Isakson for his annual barbecue lunch. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
South 40 Smokehouse from Marietta, Ga., serves up brisket, pulled pork and ribs Thursday in the office of Sen. Johnny Isakson for his annual barbecue lunch. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The smell of pulled pork, Texas beef brisket, Saint Louis pork ribs, baked beans, and creamy mac and cheese wafting through the halls of the Russell Senate Office Building can mean only one thing: Johnny Isakson’s annual barbecue lunch.

Every year, for more than a decade, the senior senator from Georgia feeds his colleagues from both sides of the aisle a BBQ lunch prepared by a pitmaster from his home state. Despite being met with initial pushback from party leaders, the get-together has grown into a highly anticipated event.

The tradition is part of the Senate Republicans’ weekly Thursday lunch, when a member of the party conference treats his or her colleagues to some home-state cuisine. But Isakson’s lunch is a bipartisan affair, and this year almost 70 senators met in the Russell Building’s cavernous, marble-lined Kennedy Caucus Room to partake. He also held a separate lunch for more than 160 Hill staffers, Capitol Police and a few journalists.

“You had any shrimp, lately?” Isakson asked me when we talked before lunch.

I’ve known the senator since I got my start in D.C. as an intern and staff assistant in his office. Like the most skilled retail politicians, Isakson is good at remembering small details about his encounters with constituents and staff, even those that occurred years ago. (As an intern, I was particularly excited about a Southern Shrimp Alliance reception taking place at the Capitol Hill American Legion. Isakson has never forgotten it.)

How it began

The idea for the bipartisan barbecue came during a particularly contentious time when Senate gridlock — which saw the collapse of an immigration deal, among other things — marred relations between the parties. Isakson said he brought the suggestion to party leaders Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid, who both initially hated it.

“Guys, we’re not making progress, so why don’t we do this?” Isakson recalled asking them. “And they said OK, and I tried it and everybody bitched about it. Harry Reid bitched about it, but within two years, it became very popular.”

Isakson said leadership was worried he was using the luncheon to build a base of support for a potential challenge.

“They thought I had a secret idea that I was going to campaign for leader,” he said. “Usually, leadership is always scared you’re gonna run against ’em.”

It’s an interesting theory, considering Isakson’s reputation on the Hill as a loyal Republican. “I had no desire to do that,” he said.

Bringing them together

Catering the meal is a point of pride for Dale Thorton, who brings his South 40 Smokehouse team up from Georgia to prepare the feast.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever thought that I would be doing such a distinguished catering event,” he said.

Isakson hopes the bipartisan lunch tradition continues even after his time in the Senate is up, especially given the times.

“We’re in a less cooperative environment as human beings than we’ve been in a long time,” he said. “There’s a lot of adversity and strife. It’s not just Republican, Democrat, man, woman, immigrant, non-immigrant.”

But Isakson hopes to be remembered as someone who brought people together.

“Here lies a man who tried his best to make things happen,” he wants his headstone to read.

The BBQ is a hit with the entire Senate, according to Isakson — so much so that former Sen. Ted Stevens, who died in 2010, even had it flown to Alaska during his corruption trial. 

Isakson told me another story about running into Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer the other day. The New York Democrat was expressing his excitement about the lunch when another colleague reminded him it might not be kosher. Schumer responded, “Well, this Jew eats barbecue.”

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