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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

George Bannister's Barbecued "Charles City Bacon"

Barbecued Charles City Bacon Advertisement - Richmond Dispatch April 25, 1885
I recently ran across this interesting bit of Virginia barbecue history. There was an advertisement in the April 25, 1885 edition of the Richmond Dispatch for a place on 15 N. 13th street (in those days also known as Governor St.) in Richmond, VA run by George Bannister that was selling turtle soup and barbecued Charles City bacon. I was curious about this fellow George Bannister so I dug deeper. I found that Bannister was born in 1852, his father was English and his mother was Irish, and he owned a restaurant/bar and was a caterer in Richmond, VA around the years of 1883 to 1930 and was a fairly prominent Richmond citizen during the last 20 years or so of the 19th century and early 20th century. For a while, he was also the oldest living Confederate veteran in Richmond, VA. He served as a drummer boy for the 48th Virginia Infantry Regiment. George Bannister was in every Civil War memorial parade held in in Richmond until he died in 1949. He also had a reputation for being a character.

According to an article in the Richmond Dispatch from August 04, 1886 Bannister was shot in the arm during a late night scuffle that occurred after he visited a bar where gambling was taking place. In his court testimony, Bannister admitted to gambling that evening. We learn from the January 25, 1887 edition of The Daily Times that Bannister lost the lawsuit against his assailant and it was dismissed. He was also accused several times of selling liquor on Sundays. While most of those cases were dismissed from court due to a lack of witnesses, he was fined $50.00 at least once for the offense.According to a report in The Times January 27, 1901 Bannister bought a building at the corner of Ross and Governor's streets that he planned to convert into a hotel called "Bannister's Place."
Richmond Dispatch of December 26, 1893

In spite of his gambling and other issues, George Bannister was apparently a very good employer and was respected by his employees. We are told from a report in the Richmond Dispatch of December 26, 1893 that George Bannister was presented with a Knights of Pythias badge as a token of his employees' appreciation.

Times Dispatch, February 1, 1903
So, what is this "Charles City bacon?" After searching and searching, I finally came across a mention of it in The Times Dispatch dated February 1, 1903. Charles City bacon is actually sturgeon.

Further investigation revealed the report "State of our Bay: Return of the Giant" where it states: "By 1890 or so, they noticed that the typical size of sturgeon, historically 10 to 12 feet, was now more like 8 to 10 feet, so they began ordering nets with 10-inch mesh, instead of 13-inch. But before long the average fish size was closer to six feet. At the time, of course, nobody knew that females didn't reach sexual maturity until they were about six feet. So, without realizing it, they had now begun to eat the seed corn--that is, they were harvesting the last of the spawning stock. At the turn of the 20th century, the inevitable happened: The sturgeon population crashed, up and down the coast, and watermen turned to other species. In 1926, the last sturgeon fishing operation on the Potomac closed down. Gradually, most people forgot about the fish."

Alexandria Gazette, February 23, 1900
I also found where legislation was introduced to prevent the harvesting of young sturgeon because authorities did notice a drop in the sturgeon population, however the legislation introduced in 1900 was aimed at preventing the harvesting of young sturgeon rather than females which didn't reach maturity until at least being six feet long. So, while good intentioned, it was not sufficient to prevent the depletion of Atlantic sturgeon in Virginia's waters. Today, the Atlantic sturgeon is on the endangered species list.

Charles City Bacon is Plentiful
and Everybody is Happy
The Times Dispatch dated June 5, 1904
There are several accounts of 19th century barbecues in Virginia that served barbecued sturgeon. Apparently, it was an important food in the commonwealth especially in the southeastern part of the state as indicated by the report from The Times Dispatch dated June 5, 1904 where it states "When 'Charles City bacon' is plentiful there is more contentment to the square mile than all the rest of the world."

So, why learn so much about George Bannister? The reason is, there are so many unnamed Virginia barbecue cooks. History has been so far fairly silent on the names and stories behind the people that cooked Virginia barbecue in the 18th and 19th centuries. I am going to do all I can to discover as much as I can about those folks and publish their stories.

There was a time before marketing consultants and lazy authors molded our opinions of where the "great regions of American barbecue" are located. In those days and without any organized marketing, Virginia was nationally famous for its barbecue. Over the course of time, I intend to show that Virginia's old time barbecue cooks rivaled men like Henry Perry of Kansas City and were cooking excellent barbecue many decades before Henry opened his barbecue stand in 1908. In fact, Henry Perry was just ten years old when George Bannister advertised his barbecued Charles City bacon.

And, to those who think you can't barbecue fish, all I can say is Native Americans in Virginia were doing it  for hundreds of years before the first Europeans arrived in Jamestown in 1607. In 1705 Robert Beverly wrote about Native American cooking in The History and Present State of Virginia "They have two ways of Broyling, viz. one by laying the Meat itself upon the Coals, the other by laying it upon Sticks rais'd upon Forks at some distance above the live Coals, which heats more gently, and drys up the Gravy; this they, and we also from them, call Barbacueing."

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