There is nothing more 2018, and nothing more Texas, than one of the country’s most closely watched Senate races swerving into a barbecue smear campaign.
At a campaign event on Saturday at Schobels’ Restaurant in Columbus, Texas, Senator Ted Cruz referenced a tiny cluster of PETA demonstrators outside and said, according to a report in the Austin American-Statesman, “If Texas elects a Democrat, they’re going to ban barbecue across the state of Texas.” The joke, if you missed it, is that if Cruz’s opponent, Beto O’Rourke — the Democratic congressman from El Paso who faces long odds but is riding an unprecedented groundswell of grassroots support and fundraising as he seeks to become the first Democrat elected to statewide office in over 20 years — wins the election, he will outlaw a pillar of Texas life. An O’Rourke win conjures a miserable dystopia of government-mandated soy brisket and underground smoker networks perpetually hunted by the libs’ heat-seeking drones.
It was a joke, Cruz clarified on Twitter later. Of course, this was not the first time he had tried to attack his opponent as an enemy of Texas. Sometimes this script fits predictable patterns, like Cruz citing O’Rourke’s “F” rating from the NRA or his openness to abolishing ICE. But when the campaign tries to use food as an attack, things get weird. Cruz campaign spokesperson Emily Miller once called O’Rourke “a Triple Meat Whataburger liberal who is out of touch with Texas values,” a phrase that sounds mean but also makes no sense. At another rally, Cruz warned of O’Rourke and his supporters, “They want us to be just like California, right down to tofu and silicon and dyed hair.” In other words, inauthentic and feminized California will complete its terrible project of destroying Texas masculinity, starting with his thick, naturally colored locks, either his silicone-free body or silicon-free valleys (it’s unclear), and his hunk of smoked beef.
In case you didn’t know, food is identity politics now, especially when it comes to masculinity, especially when it comes to whiteness, especially when it comes to Texas. To be a real Texan, you must revere beef, not limp-wristed tofu, and demonstrate that love by eating smoked beef by the pound, or revere a straight white man who loves doing so — according to logic advanced by Ted Cruz. Suggesting a man likes tofu carries a clear message: He’s not a man at all, and he seeks to emasculate you, too. Cruz’s warning about tofu is the equivalent of calling O’Rourke a soy boy, a meme that declares a man so besotted with feminine thinking he consumes a food that supposedly messes with the hormones that make him a man. This is an especially telling insult coming from a candidate who, during the 2016 election, endorsed Trump after the presidential candidate insulted his wife, his family, and every other aspect of his masculinity.
And now tofu isn’t a feminized male’s sad protein crutch — tofu is somehow also powerful enough to endanger meat. “Banning barbecue” jokes are of a piece with the larger Republican strategy of suggesting the pleasures of straight, white men are endangered; Buzzfeed reported the party has seized on football players’ protests against police brutality and racial injustice as a wedge issue. Why else would Cruz invoke barbecue at a non-barbecue restaurant — Schobels’ is a buffet-style restaurant with a slight German accent — if a perfectly smoked beef brisket wasn’t currently Texas’s most beloved culinary ambassador?
The state’s barbecue ascendance is rooted in the long history of black pitmasters and Mexican smoked-meat traditions. But the contemporary face of Texas barbecue is largely white, and male, and it has become shorthand for a whole slew of Anglo, masculine Texan pleasures ostensibly threatened by a cultural order seeking to snuff those out, though in reality that cultural order is imaginary and the people who would compose it are busy Instagramming their barbecue trays — or making barbecue the way their grandparents and great-grandparents have, for generations.
If barbecue stands in for a certain kind of white, male, Texan mastery, PETA’s reasonable message outside of Cruz’s event — Texas is a major soybean-growing state, and Texans should make soybean foods like tofu part of their identity (likely many Asian-American Texans already do, but PETA doesn’t tend to highlight tofu’s cultural heritage) — becomes dystopian to those invested in protecting that identity at all costs. To shift the state’s tastes from beef to tofu, at the behest of radical and not-very-well-liked animal-rights activists, is the cartoonish version of fears animating so many people in the state, especially white people. These fears are outlined by writers like Manny Fernandez, who writes, “People throughout the state say they believe that their way of life is under assault and that they are making a kind of last stand by simply being Texan.” These are anxieties that benefit Cruz, for as long as “Texan” means “Republican” — and his campaign inflames them at every turn.
This is not to say barbecue isn’t political. For one, the erasure of black- and Mexican-owned businesses and traditions from earlier iterations of lists and profiles helped entrench the current overwhelming whiteness of meat smokers, an error writers like Texas Monthly barbecue critic Daniel Vaughn are now correcting with more inclusive criteria.
And in another way, the potent political and racial symbolism of barbecue manifested when Obama visited Franklin Barbecue in 2014. The elation that the president, who had previously made questionable barbecue decisions in town, was visiting the most beloved barbecue restaurant in Texas was quickly transformed by Twitter and right-wing media into the narrative that Obama “skipped” the famous line, in the entitled way the nation’s first black president dared to do so many things, such as be the first black president to begin with. Reasonable defenses — like how much it would have cost the city of Austin to protect a sitting president as he stood in a three-hour line for smoked meat — were available, but it wasn’t ever about being reasonable. The finger-shaking over his behavior suggested Obama didn’t belong, that he didn’t deserve to skip the line and enjoy barbecue on Air Force One, that barbecue wasn’t for him at all.
So far, Beto O’Rourke hasn’t fired back with a joke about barbecue or tofu or Texas food; maybe he doesn’t have to. His campaign once hosted 100 barbecue events statewide in a single day. In his successful quest to visit all of Texas’s 254 counties, O’Rourke has stopped at an impressive variety of relatable restaurants, from standout Laredo-based Tex-Mex chain Taco Palenque to smoothie shops, doughnut shops, tamale trailers, pupuserias, Irish bars, and tiny small-town restaurants with deer heads on the walls or murals for the local high school, not to mention his well-documented love of the state’s burger chain, Whataburger.
By visiting every corner of the state, his Instagram tells a more wholistic story of Texas food than barbecue — which in turn overshadows the state’s most important regional cuisine, Tex-Mex. O’Rouke’s campaign is betting that that Olympian restaurant crawl will say much more than a well-timed visit to Lockhart, or to Franklin: Though if he does feel the need to eat the state’s most famous barbecue, he should probably put his stamina (and sweat) to use and wait in line. And if he’s real real Texan, he’ll bring a cooler of Lone Star and a big paper bag of foil-wrapped breakfast tacos on flour tortillas, too.
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent and a former Texas resident who believes the true plant-protein scourge is beans in chili.