LEGENDS OF TEXAS BARBECUE COOKBOOK
Recipes and Recollections from the Pit Bosses
By Robb Walsh
Chronicle Books LLC
Copyright © 2002 Robb Walsh.
All rights reserved.
The pitmaster squints into the smoke as he opens the giant steel door. From your place in line, you watch him fork and flip the juicy, black beef clods and sizzling pork loins. Your heart beats faster as he opens a steel door to reveal a dozen sausage rings hissing and spitting in the thick white cloud. Slowly, the sweet cloud of oak smoke makes its way to you, carrying with it the aroma of peppery beef, bacon-crisp pork, and juicy garlic sausage. Your mouth starts watering. You swallow hard. Your stomach rears back and lets out a growl. You're in a frenzy by the time you get to the head of the line, where the hot meats are being sliced and weighed. You order twice as much as you can eat. You carry it away on a sheet of butcher paper, with an extra sheet tucked underneath for a plate.
Welcome to Texas barbecue.
We love to eat it. We love to make it. And we love to argue about it. We have competing theories on the etymology, the definition of the word, and on those characteristics that make it uniquely Texan. We don't agree on the kind of wood, the need for sauce, the cut of meat, or which part of the state does it best. And we all have our favorite pit bosses. But we all agree that non-Texans don't understand it.
Traditional barbecue definitions don't make sense here. "Barbecue is always served with a distinctive sauce," say some. Not in Texassome of our most famous barbecue joints serve no sauce at all. "Barbecue means slow cooking over the low heat of a wood or charcoal fire," say others. Sorry. Some of the best smoked meat in the Lone Star State is cooked at 600°F.
So what is Texas barbecue exactly?
If we can't quite agree on what it is, at least we can agree on where it came from. A look at the history of barbecue and the evolution of the modern barbecue pit explains a lot about our various styles.
If you include roasting meat on an open fire in your definition of barbecue, then the earliest Texans to barbecue were the Caddo Indians, who cooked venison and other game here ten thousand years ago. They were followed by the Spanish shepherds, who spit-roasted kid goat and lamb al pastor ("shepherd style") on the South Texas plains, starting in the 1600s.
The old Southern version of pit barbecue, meat cooked on a grate of sticks over hot coals in a hole in the ground, migrated to Texas from the South in several stages beginning in the early 1800s. Settlers used this open pit method to cook squirrels and venison. Mexican barbacoa, meat sealed in maguey leaves and buried in hot coals, has also been seen along the Rio Grande Valley for at least a hundred years.
Old World meat smoking was brought to Central Texas by German and Czech butchers during an era of intense European migration that began in the 1830s and reached its height around 1890. The German meat markets sold fresh meats and smoked their leftovers in enclosed smokers, as they had done in the Old Country. They were probably astonished when migrant farm workers began the tradition of eating that smoked meat on the spot. The old meat markets are now considered by some to be quintessential Texas barbecue joints, despite the fact that German smoked meats and sausages aren't really American barbecue.
When Texas entered the Union as a slave state in the 1850s, cotton planters from the Carolinas, Alabama, and Mississippi came to take advantage of the cheap land prices. Each plantation founder brought as many as a hundred slave families with him. When the slaves were freed in 1865, the African-American barbecue of East Texas became a style of its own.
According to Eats: A Folk History of Texas Foods, the first big civic barbecues began to be held around the state in the early 1800s. Pits were typically 25 feet long and 3 feet across. Whole sheep, goats, pigs, and Steer's were cut into pieces and cooked over oak or hickory coals while being continuously basted. The standard cooking time was twenty-four hours.
After the Civil War, beef became the meat most characteristic of Texas barbecue. In the days before refrigeration, barbecuing beef meant getting enough people together to make killing a whole steer worthwhile. When that happened it was quite a party. While the ultimate in Southern barbecue was cooking a whole hog, cooking a whole steer was the ultimate in Texas barbecue.
Because you could feed so many people with a whole steer, Texas barbecues started out bigand then they got bigger. Texans being Texans, barbecues became competitions, and each barbecue became an effort to outdo all others. This tradition lives on in such events as the XIT Annual Reunion in Dalhart, where tens of thousands of people gather year after year to attend the "world's largest free barbecue."
Big public barbecues were held for all kinds of reasons throughout Texas history. In fact, no civic celebration was complete without one.
1853 Stafford gave away free barbecue to the public to celebrate becoming a stop on the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos, and Colorado Railway.
1860 Sam Houston spoke at the "Great American Barbecue," a political rally thrown by the American Party in Austin. All citizens of the state were invited to attend and eat for free.
1891 The citizens of Whitney, a town with a declining population, held a barbecue to promote the benefits of citizenship. They gave away 3,500 pounds of barbecue.
1926 Edgar Byram Davis closed what was probably the biggest oil deal in the state up to that time. He got $12 million (half of it in cash) for his Luling oil holdings, and to celebrate he held a free barbecue. Attendance estimates run as high as thirty-five thousand.
1941 At his inauguration celebration, Governor W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel set up pits on the grounds of the capitol building in Austin and gave away barbecue to all corners.
1964 President Lyndon Johnson hosted the president-elect of Mexico at a state dinner at the LBJ Ranch in Johnson City. Catered by Walter Jetton, this dinner for 250 is reported to be America's first official barbecue state dinner.
1991 The XIT ranch's annual reunion in Dalhart, cooked eleven thousand pounds of beef in pits dug with backhoes. The meat was served to twenty thousand guests.
The Barbecue Barons
WALTER JETTON OF FORT WORTH WAS THE LAST OF the open pit barbecuers and probably the single most influential pit boss in Texas barbecue history. In the 1950s, Jetton held the record for barbecue catering, having fed twelve thousand people at one event. He also enjoyed considerable prestige as LBJ's favorite caterer. In 1965, Pocket Books published his LBJ Barbecue Cookbook.
Walter Jetton was a traditionalist and a purist. He dug pits in the ground, burned hardwood down to hot coals, and cooked meat directly over the coals for eighteen to twenty-four hours. Jetton dismissed modern barbecue equipment as claptrap. Unfortunately, cooking in a hole in the ground is frowned on by health inspectors these days.
County health departments regulate the use of barbecue pits in food service operations in Texas. The regulations, and how strictly they are enforced, have varied widely from county to county since the laws first hit the books during the health and sanitation crusades of the Progressive Era, in the early 1900s.
The brick smokers of German-belt meat markets offered a design model for other barbecue restaurants. Built over a hundred years ago, some of these pits still provide us with insights into how to set up a barbecue. Some barbecue joints, such as Green's in Houston and Novosad's in Halletsville, built cleverly designed pits with the cooking chamber indoors and the firebox outdoors.
Some cookbook authors have assumed that the pits in Texas barbecue restaurants were designed to replicate the slow cooking over hot coals common in traditional pit barbecue. But that isn't always true. The heat of Kreuz's old smoker has been measured at temperatures as high as 600°F. When Texas barbecue moved from the hole in the ground to the restaurant kitchen, the smoking process was speeded up.
Some pretty fantastic etymologies for the word "barbecue" have been advanced over the years. Two cookbooks I've seen recount a tale about a wealthy Texas rancher who fed all his friends whole sheep, hogs, and cattle roasted over open pits. In one cookbook his name is Bernard Quayle, in the other it is Barnaby Quinn, but in both versions the branding iron of the ranch has his initials B. Q. with a straight line underneath. Texas ranches are named for their brands, and a straight line is called a bar. Thus, the "bar B.Q." became synonymous with fine eatingor so the story goes.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the English word "barbecue" derives from the Spanish word barbacoa, which is in turn a variation of babracot, a word that comes to us from the Haitian Taino dialect of the Arawak-Carib language. The Taino word babracot was a noun that actually meant the framework of green sticks that formed the grill.
The Caribbean style of slow smoking on a grate over coals was brought to the Carolinas by African slaves in the 1600s and became the basis for the Southern style of barbecue. Advocates of open pit barbecue once argued that this was the only true barbecue style. Nowadays, however, German-style meat smoked in an enclosed pit, Mexican cabrito al pastor roasted by an open fire, and ribs grilled over direct heat all fall within somebody's definition of Texas barbecue.
All Texans agree, however, that hamburgers and hot dogs are not barbecue.
IN 1949, A HOUSTON MACHINIST named Leonard O'Neill won a tiny restaurant near Lenox Street in Houston in a game of craps. He renamed it the Lenox Barbecue, and by the 1960s the restaurant was catering for thousands of guests at a time, and O'Neill found himself competing head to head with the legendary Walter Jetton. In 1967, Ann Valentine, food editor of the Houston Post, wrote an article about the two mega-caterers titled "The Barbecue Barons."
Unlike Jetton, O'Neill prepared food at a restaurant, where he had to abide by the sanitary codes. But ordinary brick barbecue smokers couldn't accommodate jobs the size of those the Lenox Barbecue was being asked to do. So the former machinist introduced barbecue to the age of mechanization.
O'Neill bought an enormous bread-rising oven from the Rainbow Bread bakery. The oven had a rotating mechanism inside that moved the dough through a timed cycle. O'Neill converted this machinery into a mechanized wood smoke rotisserie that could cook three thousand pounds of meat at one time.
Today, O'Neill's Lenox Barbecue on Harrisburg Street in Houston is run by Erik Mrok, whose father was a friend of O'Neill's. The restaurant uses three rotisserie ovens of a type patented in 1967 by Herbert Oyler of Mesquite. Oyler, a barbecue restaurant owner from Mesquite, also started by tinkering with a barbecue rotisserie made from a bread-rising oven. Whether he was working independently, in competition, or in cooperation with O'Neill is not known.
Oyler's invention is a steel barbecue pit with a rotisserie inside. It has an electric carousel but no heating elements. It is fueled exclusively with wood burned in a remote firebox. The advantage of the rotisserie is that the meat gets basted with dripping fat, but it is cooked with wood smoke. It isn't exactly...
Excerpted from LEGENDS OF TEXAS BARBECUE COOKBOOK by Robb Walsh. Copyright © 2002 by Robb Walsh. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.