Sir David: ‘Please pass the chicken and biscuits’

Varick Chittenden

Word of the death of former Congressman David O’Brien Martin this past November was received back here in the north country with both sadness and praise. As both a loyal son of the region and a dedicated military man, at his passing he was particularly celebrated for his successes in Washington as the driving force behind creating Fort Drum as we know it today.

A decorated combat Marine veteran of Vietnam himself, David Martin truly appreciated the military. Early in his life in Congress, he seized the opportunity to lobby higher-ups — including President Reagan — who were looking to station a whole new division of Army troops. That was no easy task, since the north country was not the first choice of the Department of Defense and other posts around the country were working hard to be selected, too. A natural politician, he began a well-orchestrated campaign of community and government leaders at every level to persuade the Army differently. Obviously, it worked and the reactivated 10th Mountain Division has since put our region on the map. The billions of dollars and the tens of thousands of soldiers and their families in the years since have transformed both the economic and cultural landscape of our region. It all started with the enthusiastic leadership of this man.

Mr. Martin’s career in Washington had other notable accomplishments as well. In his obituaries, he was credited with sponsoring legislation to establish a medical clinic for area veterans, to block winter navigation on the St. Lawrence River, to curb acid rain in the Adirondacks and to help solve the fluctuations of water levels on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence. He fought cuts in federal aid to our local schools, worked with dairy farmers and helped leaders in Clinton County when the Air Force base was closed and plans to redevelop it for local benefit began.

For a young politician with a huge, sprawling rural district, these were certainly great successes. There was one of his earlier legislative achievements, however, that wasn’t mentioned that I happen to think has had an even greater social impact for all of the north country — all of New York State even — and that was his championing of a community tradition so strong in America that it goes back, at least, to the First Thanksgiving. Before Congress, Mr. Martin served in the New York State Assembly from St. Lawrence County for only four years, from 1977 to 1980. It was during that time that the issue of “covered dish suppers” became a hot topic in the state.

Since 1957, one little noted regulation of the New York State Sanitary Code stated that, as “temporary food establishments”: “All organizations, to include the grange, political and civic clubs, or religious organizations, may not hold functions wherein members prepare and bring food to a particular location to be shared by other members of the organization or the public at large, unless a permit is obtained from the Department of Health [DOH].” Requests for permits must be submitted at least 21 days in advance of the event and an inspection by department representatives was required. While on the books, the regulation was not regularly enforced except for emergency situations and, for community groups all over the state, serving homemade food for their own group or to raise funds from the public was a common practice.

In 1979, a well-meaning and energetic DOH commissioner and his staff announced their intentions to put the law into effect. What followed in public action and in the legislature’s reactions was remarkable. The covered dish supper is an important social tradition especially in rural communities This custom was being infringed upon by unaccustomed paperwork and intimidating inspections; its continued existence was being threatened by forces outside the community who couldn’t — or didn’t seem to — realize its importance to local people.

After the announced intentions of the DOH were more widely known and a few permits denied until inspections could be undertaken, Assemblyman Martin fought back. He had grown up with covered dish suppers and had attended many while campaigning for office. With the encouragement of a few other legislators from rural districts, he introduced a bill to exempt local rural groups from having to obtain permits and otherwise comply with the indicated sections of the 28-page code. The response from around the state to Mr. Martin’s proposed bill was immediate. His mail showed enthusiastic support for the legislation and almost unanimous opposition to, even outrage about, the regulations.

At the time, besides my own love for good food at pancake breakfasts and bullhead feeds, I was impressed how community members rose up in defense of their traditions. Martin’s office graciously let me study his files; there was a stack at least six inches thick of documents on this subject. The letters from fire chiefs, scout leaders, ministers and church leaders were amazing, powerful testimonials to the significance of their community traditions. One woman from Mechanicville wrote: “I have not heard of anyone getting sick at a church supper and I have been going to them for 75 years and still going strong. Church suppers are clean, wholesome food and the best food ever cooked and all cooked with great care.” Editorials in newspapers across the state lambasted the sudden demands by the DOH for new equipment in church kitchens and fine-tooth-comb inspections of food preparation and consumption.

One editorial elevated the Assemblyman to the title of “Sir David,” in a satirical mythical battle against the giant Dragon of Big Government. The correspondence among legislative committee chairmen and the transcripts of hearings revealed much of the political infighting and vote trading that went on within both houses of the legislature. Eventually, only the hotel and restaurant owners association and 11 legislators from New York City vehemently supported the department.

After considerable debate in the legislature, Mr. Martin’s bill to exempt was passed overwhelmingly by both houses. Gov. Hugh Carey, supporting the decision of his appointed health commissioner, vetoed the bill. A subsequent rare attempt to override the veto failed, but not before the DOH decided to “enforce” the regulation by keeping its options open. In the next few months of 1979, the DOH, working with Assemblyman Martin’s office, developed a policy which for all intents and purposes relieved community groups of most of the demanding expectations of the general regulations.

Every few years, the issue comes up again. The code is occasionally updated and newer DOH commissioners and inspectors still require permits and inspections. It’s always a political hot potato. We all know the need for protecting public health; but many of us still appreciate the tradition of gathering for food and socialization in our communities. It’s a balancing act that still needs champions like Mr. Martin.

Varick Chittenden is senior folklorist and director of special projects for Traditional Arts in Upstate New York and Professor Emeritus of Humanities at SUNY Canton. A version of this column previously appeared in Voices: A Journal of New York Folklore. Reprinted with permission of the New York Folklore Society.