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Annual BBQ Unites U.S. Senate 

Senior Georgia Senator Isakson treats his colleagues, from both sides of the aisle, with annual barbecue lunch. 

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Barbecue News Magazine Exclusive



Barbecue is needed more than ever in the political world we live in today. The United States Congress seems to be more divided than ever. Democrats and Republicans used to sit together at least once every week during lunch sessions, but today you will only see that one time per year!

For more than a decade now the senior Senator from Georgia, Johnny Isakson, has offered up a southern barbecue lunch that any true BBQ fan would give up their right arm to attend. The catering job was given to a close friend and supporter Dale Thornton who runs South 40 Smokehouse Catering from Marietta, GA. Dale and his very talented crew have provided the prestigious meal every year since Senator Isakson has been hosting it. This year Dale invited the National Barbecue News family to join his team and help out. We are still in awe at being asked to help with this fantastic crew.

When Senator Isakson first started his bi-partisan lunch, he caught a ton of flack from his own party leaders who thought it was an attempt for him to make a move on their leadership positions. Senator Isakson told us, “I never really thought about doing that, but I do know the leaders are always watching their backs to see who is going to challenge for their jobs.” After the first few years of doing the event, the entire US Senate building goes up in smiles and celebration when talking about “Johnny’s Big Georgia Barbecue Lunch!”

The lunch itself is a really tough catering gig for Dale and his crew. Basically, the headcount is about 500 and offers ribs, pulled pork, brisket, baked beans, mac & cheese, and broccoli salad. Peach cobbler was served as dessert with sweet iced tea, lemonade, and soft drinks being the drink options. While that is a rather extensive menu for a hungry crowd, they make it even more difficult by having to divide the food up into two different counts and serving locations. The Senators themselves were fed inside the Kennedy Caucus room while all of their staffers and interns were invited to enjoy their meal inside Senator Isakson’s office. The smell inside the Russell Office Building reminded us all of a great BBQ joint.

Dale and his crew took the reins and dished out the barbecue and sides to all the staffers and aides while the Senate kitchen crew served all but three Senators. Not sure if I can remember seeing such a unanimous vote for something in the past few years! Raylyn Phelps, our youngest, got to welcome everyone with a plate and silverware while Janet and I staffed the drink table. We got a massive kick out of hearing every positive comment imaginable to describe the event. And just know that sweet tea is a much-needed thing up in Washington, DC!

Just as we finished serving our group of patrons, we were escorted into a back stairway that led us into the Kennedy Caucus Room. It was here where the entire crew was welcomed with a standing ovation by nearly 30 active US Senators who were still pigging out! Thinking about that moment still seems a bit unreal. Inside we got to witness precisely what bi-partisan means. Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Chuck Schumer, Senator Mitch McConnell, Senator Ted Cruz, Senator John Cornyn, Senator Kyrsten Sinema, and Senator Mitt Romney were just a few who expressed their gratitude to each member of the team. This event was an experience that we would love to do again and understand why Dale and his crew continue to show up every year. It is hard to imagine that Dale and most of his team have experienced this event a dozen times. We were beyond honored just to be there once!

While inside the Kennedy Caucus Room we had the opportunity to ask Senators Cruz and Cornyn from the great state of Texas about their thoughts on the brisket after we noticed they didn’t partake of the sauce that was provided. Senator Cruz shared his barbecue wisdom when he replied, “Great BBQ doesn’t need anything to make it any better!” We laughed in agreement because we all were raised up with the same exact philosophy.

Before we finished getting everything stored away, we were escorted up into the top seating area of the Senate chambers. After we got seated, the entire South 40 Smokehouse catering team was honored again. This time we were all recognized on the congressional record for the effort of helping to unite the US Senate. Meeting most of the Senators was indeed a neat experience but hearing your name called from the floor during an official proceeding. Now that had us all a little choked up.

In closing the National Barbecue News family wants to thank Dale Thornton for the experience of a lifetime. We also want to thank the entire crew that welcomed us and made us all feel like family while hanging out and working with them. Tracey Thornton, Dale’s wife and better half, Charles Wells, Todd Houghton, Margaret Houghton, Brian Rule, Chuck Taylor, Jeff Carson, Kell Phelps, Janet Phelps, and Raylyn Phelps were all recognized and thanked for coming to not only fed everyone but for their efforts in uniting the 116th United States Congress.


Photos courtesy of U.S. Senate Photography Office

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