Q: Bubba, can you get to the bottom of this?
What’s the deal with the swastikas in the floor tiles at Ernst Café in New Orleans? Was that just a cool design a thousand years ago when the place was built, or was the original owner a nut?
A: Hey, friend. You’re not the first one to wonder this. In fact, every so often I get asked about the design on the Jefferson County Courthouse in Birmingham, or even what’s going on with that vegetarian barbecue sauce on the shelves at some Asian supermarkets.
I should clear that up: people don’t just come up to me to talk about barbecue sauces. I mean, if they did, we could talk about how good barbecue doesn’t need sauce to begin with. Ever been to Lockhart? Everybody from your Bubbe in Biloxi to Aaron Franklin in Austin knows that a good brisket stands alone.
Well, let me walk that back a little. Some of the best Shabbos dinners of my life have been punctuated with briskets kissed with the goodness of a packet or two of Lipton onion soup mix in the pot. And I once dated a girl from Georgia who swore that her family’s version, bathed in Coca-Cola, was the best. But neither of those are barbecue sauce.
Anyway, what were we talking about? Oh yeah. That can of AGV brand barbecue sauce with the swastika on the label (no joke, Google it).
Some good-natured people can get their challah in a twist about this kind of thing, and while it can be weird to be sitting at Ernst Café and look down to a bunch of those weird geometric shapes all over the floor, there’s a really easy answer: wrong swastika.
The ones in the tile at Ernst are actually ‘reverse’ or ‘counter-clockwise’ swastikas. The top legs are pointed in the opposite direction of the ones from the World War II era.
Turns out, the swastika is a symbol going back thousands of years, to illustrate everything from a bird in flight to being a centerpiece in peaceful religious rituals.
That building at Ernst Café dates back to the early 1850s and at one time housed C. Schneider and A.R. Wise Grocers. When the building was sold to the three Ernst brothers in 1902, the thinking is that among the improvements, the floor was laid with this design as a token of ‘good luck.’ This was of course decades before the symbol was twisted into one of hate. In fact, Ernst Café gets asked about it so often, they even mention it on their website so as to dispel any ideas otherwise.
And nobody wants a side of hate with their Ernster, dressed, and extra napkins, please. So enjoy your lunch without any angst at Ernst.
As for the symbols dating back to 1931 on the east entrance at the Jefferson County Courthouse: same. Actually they mirror each other, so on one side they’re the reverse swastika, and on the other, wellllll. In any case, they were likely put there to represent values like fairness and equality.
AGV barbecue sauce is in the same boat. Except I’m thinking they probably mean for the symbol to represent “great quality barbecue sauce if you seriously messed up and actually need barbecue sauce.”