A reminder that all politics is local (and cultural): avoid the barbecue third rail in North Carolina

National political candidates or officials often have to make sure that they can adapt to many different cultural contexts. Witness this example of Rick Perry and North Carolina barbecue:

And now Perry’s in hot water in North Carolina for a remark he made all the way back in 1992, when he was Texas agriculture commissioner and Houston was hosting the Republican National Convention.

Last week, in the Raleigh News & Observer’s “Under the Dome” politics blog, staffers Rob Christensen and Craig Jarvis wrote:

According to “Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue,” in 1992 when Perry was a promising Texas politician but not yet governor, he tried some Eastern North Carolina barbecue from King’s of Kinston, which was served at the Republican National Convention in Houston.  “I’ve had road kill that tasted better than that,” Perry was quoted as saying…

“Holy Smoke” co-author John Shelton Reed, a retired University of North Carolina sociology professor, said Monday that people in his state do not mess around with this form of cooking. “Barbecue,” he said, “is the third rail of North Carolina politics.”

I don’t envy the task of politicians who have to continually switch gears on the campaign trail to keep up with all of the local cultural quirks. However, I wonder if these politicians have some sort of database or chart that alerts them to these local “third-rail” issues to avoid. What would an outsider have to avoid in coming to Chicago or the Chicago suburbs?

If anything, this story illustrates some basic sociological concepts. Residents of North Carolina rally around barbecue, among other things, and see it as a critical part of their state identity. When an outsider comes along and makes the comment that their prized food tastes worse than roadkill, they band together to defend their barbecue, reassert their group identity, and reestablish the symbolic boundaries that separate the group from other groups. It is not that different from sports fans reacting to perceived attacks from the outside, such as the reaction of a number of Chicago Bears fans to a new biography of Walter Payton that reveals his more human side. Even an outsider who might be telling the truth (though I’m willing to bet the barbecue was better than roadkill) still will have difficulty “attacking” one of the sacred features of the group.

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