One afternoon last week on Capitol Hill, a steady stream of the nation’s top elected officials paraded into the same marble-lined room atop the Russell Senate Office Building. It wasn’t for any sort of vote or debate, but rather to dig into good old-fashioned barbecue personally prepared by award-winning Georgia pitmasters.
The 12th annual bipartisan luncheon, held Thursday, September 29, was particularly poignant for its co-organizer Sen. Chris Coons. He was close friends with its founder, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who retired his seat in 2019 and passed away last December after a battle with Parkinson’s disease.
“Johnny was a remarkable bridge-builder between caucuses that had a hard time hearing each other all the time,” Coons tells Eater. “He fought fiercely for his state but routinely put his country over his party.”
The off-record event, held in the Beaux-Arts building’s soaring Kennedy Caucus Room, was created to build relationships across party lines at a time when weekly caucus and conference lunches petered out.
Sticking to tradition, Coons says he carried on Isakson’s sole rule of the annual bipartisan buffet: “Come in, get a plate, and sit next to someone you don’t know or ever talk to. That is your price of admission.”
Coons, previously just a hungry attendee for years, co-led the luncheon this year with a fellow Democrat from Georgia (Sen. Raphael Warnock) and two other iconic names from across the aisle: Republican Senators Roy Blunt of Missouri and Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. All 100 U.S. Senators are always invited, and this year had an excellent attendance rate, with around 90 members congregating around circular white-clothed tables.
The pandemic put the self-serve barbecue on pause in 2020, but it returned last year with a 75-percent showing of the senate — just months after insurrectionists stormed its same building that connects to the Capitol. (This year, a cluster of earpiece-wearing suits noticeably stood outside the tall double doors as senators dined inside.)
Despite a monumental midterm election looming ahead, the delicious smell of barbecue filling the soaring dining room seemed to dissipate any apparent blue-and-red tension in the air. (Georgia’s game-changing Herschel Walker scandal may have been a juicy topic of conversation, had the news broke last week.)
“If you take a look around, [barbecue] puts people in a good mood,” says Coons. “It gives them a reason to chat about ‘What barbecue is like where you’re from’ and ‘Do you have a favorite restaurant.’ That often leads to longer conservations because everyone gets seconds.”
Dale Thornton and Tracey Thornton, the owners of South 40 Smokehouse in Marietta, Georgia, always cater the event. Their late home-state senator Isakson personally recruited them to do so.
“Being the Southern gentleman he is, Isakson knew how to win peoples’ hearts. Sit down at a table and put differences aside,” says Thornton.
Just 40 senators showed up to that inaugural one, which was also Thornton’s first-ever trip to D.C.
“When you get into this business you never dream you’ll be driving to Washington,” he says. “You think you’ll do it once in your lifetime and now here we are on year 12. It’s an incredible honor and very humbling.”
This year, the Thorntons brought along Food Network stars William “Bubba” Latimer and Shannon Latimer — of Salty Mule in Canton and Bub-Ba-Q in Woodstock and Jasper, Georgia — to help cook and expand the menu. Bub-Ba-Q’s award-winning dry rub was tasked with seasoning the meats.
“It takes a lot of coordination and months of planning to make the event go smoothly,” says Thornton.
He’s not kidding. Days before the event, the pitmaster couples packed up a massive 24-wheeler and made the 600-mile drive up from Georgia to a staging location in Alexandria, Virginia. There they slow-smoked 560 pounds of meat on hickory wood up to 12 hours the night before the luncheon. By the numbers, that’s 170 pounds of pork, 180 pounds of Texas beef brisket, 130 pounds of St. Louis spare ribs, and 80 pounds of jumbo chicken wings.
“The quantity is simply staggering,” says Coons. “It’s spectacular barbecue.”
Despite representing a mid-Atlantic state synonymous with crabs and orange crushes, the 12-year Delaware senator happens to be a brisket buff.
“I’ve built trips around barbecue,” says Coons. While once campaigning for a Democrat in North Carolina, he drove 150 miles out of his way just to hit a good barbecue joint. “It added four hours,” he says. Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas are also home to some of his favorites.
(As far as D.C. restaurants go, he says Rasika is his top choice for Indian food, downtown’s Pisco y Nazca is a new Peruvian favorite, and Joselito Casa de Comidas on Capitol Hill makes a “very good” gazpacho. And back home in Delaware, he’s a regular at farm-centric Heirloom in Lewes.)
The annual event also brings the South’s first-picked pecans of the season to D.C. Grown by a third-generation farmer in Fort Valley, Georgia, the nuts played a starring role in dessert and sides.
Sides also include gallons of baked beans, mac and cheese, and Sister Schubert’s dinner rolls.
This year’s co-organizers shared a few words at a podium during the event, and Graham appeared a tad distracted at one point:
Shockingly, the annual feast is “virtually the only” official bipartisan event on the Hill at this point, says Coons.
“The gym is one of the few other places where any real off-record bipartisan conversations happen,” says Coons. (Turns out, those do happen on the treadmill; “it’s an interesting dynamic,” he notes.)
When Coons was sworn in back in 2012, the then-Vice President Joe Biden gave him an unexpected piece of advice from his own Delaware senator days: “Go to the senator’s dining room for lunch.” Comprised of two wooden tables, it was nothing fancy — just a quick place to grab salads and such between meetings.
“Biden said repeatedly to me that’s where he’s learned more about how to be a senator and [work] across the aisles,” says Coons.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who was sworn in on the same day, told Coons he got the same lunchtime recommendation from his senior counterparts. But that decades-old tradition of going to a casual, low-key bipartisan place, free of reporters, staffers, and lobbyists, is long gone. In the way the caucuses are structured now, separate weekday lunches keep Democrats and Republicans from breaking bread in the same room.
That makes the rare bipartisan meal all the more important each year, and the catered barbecue ceremoniously ends with a standing ovation from the political heavyweights the Georgia pitmasters have gotten to know over the years. One of their biggest fans was former Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. (“He’s a serious barbecue guy. He tossed some dignitary out of the office just so he could visit with us,” says Thornton, of the SNL writer-turned-politician.)
“Food is the big connector. Maybe this [event] plays a small role in bipartisanship,” says Thornton.
Even if just for one hour a year, sitting down over brisket has proven to break the ice between parties.
“My senior senator commented that he had the longest and best conversation with Mitch McConnell at the  barbecue he’s had in years,” says Coons.
And now, feast your eyes on pictures of suit-wearing senators throwing back barbecue last week: