“I started out there in the parking lot hauling watermelons and I decided it was kind of hard work. So, I came into the barbecue business and started cleaning out, cleaning tables and then ended up running the place…I started to manage when I got out of the service in ’69. And Mr. Ellis just said, “OK, it’s yours to manage. So take care of it.” – Joe Capello
Born in 1947, Joe Capello started to work for the Ellis family at City Market in Luling when he was twelve years old. He has managed the restaurant since 1969, overseeing the post-oak-smoked brisket and sausage Mr. Howard Ellis learned to make at Kreuz Market in Lockhart. Known today for its Watermelon Thump festival that creates lines around the block for City Market, Luling has changed around Joe, but City Market has remained much the same—from the recipe for the barbecue sauce to the absence of forks in the restaurant.
NOTE: What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Joe Capello
Produced in association with the American Studies Department at The University of Texas at Austin and the Central Texas Barbecue Association.
Gavin Benke: All right. Hi, this is Gavin Benke on July 9, 2007. We are in Luling, Texas at City Market interviewing Mr. Joseph Capello. Mr. Joseph Capello, for the record, could you please give your birthday and then we’ll get started.
Joe Capello: April 4, 1947.
OK, excellent. The first couple questions we wanted to ask were about your own involvement in barbecue. And then we’ll start from there and then move on to Luling and the City Market in general. So, if you could, start out by telling us how you first became involved in barbecuing.
Let’s see. Started out there in the parking lot hauling watermelons and I decided it was kind of hard work. So, I came into the barbecue business and started cleaning out, cleaning tables and then ended up running the place.
Do you use a certain type of wood?
Yeah, we use post oak. And it’s a—we prefer that—post oak to mesquite, because it doesn’t burn as a hot as mesquite. Mesquite burns real hot. So, so, post oak has more consist—it’s more consistent with post oak.
OK. And then is there a special way you all season the meat?
No, we just use salt and pepper and that’s it. We got—we season it over night. So, maybe that’s part of the secret.
OK. And I know City Market’s known for meat that’s so tender that you don’t need a fork to eat it. Is that—do you get that by cooking, cooking it for a long time or seasoning it a certain way?
No, that a, that has nothing to do with the seasoning, that’s just the way you cook it. You got to, you just got to know when to, to you know, when to move it away from the fire. See, what you do is you start it out on the, on the hot part of the pit, which is the front of the pit. And then once, from there you move to the back of the pit and just let it sit there and that’s how it, that’s how it becomes tender.
OK. And you make the sausage here yourselves?
We make our own sausage. Well, the sausage is kind of tricky because of a, you know, it’s kind of like a guessing game. You got a formula for it, but the meat’s always changing on you so you just have to look at the meat and decide, “Well, is this cut too fat or too lean?” And then, from there, you just decide what your formula’s going be. But it’s really, it’s a, it’s kind of hard to be consistent on the sausage because your cuts of meat are always changing. But usually we get it pretty close, so.
Thank you. And then if we could talk about the sides for a minute. Do you all make your own sides here?
We cook our own beans, but, uh, we order our potato salad. We don’t make our own potato salad. So—
All right. And then with the sauce, do you have a secret recipe for the sauce? Or how is that made?
Yeah, the sauce, that belongs to, uh, Thelma Ellis, and that, uh, that was my boss man’s mother. She’s the one that had the recipe and, uh, I don’t know where she got it from, but it goes back fifty years. That’s how long we’ve been in business and that’s how long we’ve had it. So, everybody’s crazy about the sauce. I don’t know what—it’s just something about putting the sauce on your sausage. It just gives it a certain taste to it. So, we sell a lot of sauce.
And you mention that it’s a recipe that goes back fifty years or so. Have all the recipes and the seasonings and the way the sausage is made—does all that go back or has it changed over the years?
It’s still the same recipes. We haven’t changed anything.
All right. Great. So, you mentioned that you start cooking really early. Is there a specific time you all start cooking your meats?
Oh, we usually start about five in the morning during the week and Saturdays we start about three-thirty, four o’clock.
OK, I guess talking about Luling and other places, you also mentioned that you were from Lockhart and that, that the Ellis family was originally from Lockhart and learned how to barbecue from Kreuz Market there. What’s—does Luling City Market, I’m sorry, City Market in Luling have—how does it still remain connected to Lockhart?
How are we connected to Lockhart? [Pauses] I guess the only connect I can see is that we’re [Pauses]—they been around longer than have, but we’re mentioned when they talk about barbecue, we’re mentioned in, uh, how can I say this? [Pauses] I guess I can—we’re in the same class as they are. They talk about Lockhart and Elgin and Taylor and they also mention Luling. So, I think we’ve come a long way.
Do you feel that Luling has had to work a little bit harder to make a name for itself in terms of barbecue or has it, being this close to Lockhart, has it helped things out a little bit?
Yeah, I think what helps Lockhart a lot is that they’re closer to Austin and we’re more, uh, just kind of, like, out of their reach. But over the years we’ve gotten a lot of more trade out of Austin and so, I feel that they’ll, they, the people from Austin will drive a few more miles to, uh, get our barbecue. So we feel pretty good about that.
Luling, is certainly known for watermelon, and then there’s the big Watermelon Thump every year. Could you talk about how City Market is involved in the Watermelon Thump?
That’s a—[Laughs]. Watermelon Thump, that’s something that we are glad when it’s over with. It’s, it’s really a lot of preparation for that one day, and, uh, and we get people from all over. And, uh, and I kind of sometimes feel that, are people really coming for the Watermelon Thump or are they coming for City Market barbecue? And, uh, and it just goes hand-in-hand with the watermelon. People come in the get the watermelon and get the barbecue at the same time.
When I stopped at a farmer’s market a few weeks ago here someone told me that that Watermelon Thump was coming up that the line would just be down the block and around the block. Is that usually the case when it’s the Watermelon Thump?
Yes, it’s, uh, once we open at seven that morning, and at six thirty, seven we still have a line all day long and it’s just a lot of people to serve.
There’s sort of a lot of City Market that hasn’t changed over the years. The building, you guys have been here since the sixties, and the recipes haven’t changed, and a lot the employees have been here for a long time. What about the actual pits themselves? Is it the same pit that’s been used continuously or did you update the way in which you all—the actual pits?
The actual pits that we started off with are now used for – for keeping things warm. We no longer cook in them, but we have built newer pits where most of the cooking’s done now. We’ve just outgrown the pits that were originally built.
They were too small? They couldn’t handle all the volume, basically?
They’re just too small.
And that’s—was that about the time when, uh, when City Market moved to this location to, I guess, accommodate more people?
No. That was, uh, probably, the mid-eighties. After that, we started—business started increasing and we had to build newer pits to keep up with the volume.
And did you all build the pits yourselves or is there someone who built the pits for you all?
No, we had somebody build the pits for us. It’s, uh, they’re what we call portable pits. If you have to move them, you can actually just pick them up and move them out of the building. They’re not surrounded by brick or anything.
OK. That sounds good. I guess could we also ask about the sign out front that said “Bar E” right above City Market. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
OK, the Ellis’s have always been in the cattle business. And we used to slaughter our own meat when we first started. And the name of the ranch was Bar E. So they incorporated and used that name as the corporation, doing business as City Market.
All right. Next we could talk about other aspects to City Market—is one the no forks. Has that always been the case or have there ever been forks used to eat the meat here?
No. The no forks, I don’t know why, but it’s always been just knives. Actually, when we started out, we used to have knives that were chained to the tables. But we had to do away with that, and we just started using plastic knives.
Why were the knives chained to the tables and why did you guys have to stop doing that?
Well, the knives were chained to the tables to keep customers from walking off with them, probably. But why we had to get rid of them, I really don’t know. I think it’s just the convenience of using throwaway knives and not having to worry about anybody cutting themselves with the knives because they were pretty sharp. So that way, we’re on the safe side, using the plastic knives. That’s the only thing I can think of.
And then, I see people walking here back with butcher paper. And I guess that’s always been the case is you’ve always served with butcher paper?
It’s always been butcher paper. There was a time when for some reason there was a shortage of the butcher paper. And we actually used paper plates, but it didn’t last too long, maybe four or five months. Until they got the supply back online for whatever it was.
And then in terms of what to serve it with. You guys obviously have the sides. But in terms of drinks, what would you say is the best to drink with barbecue? Or what do your customers seem to prefer?
Our customers prefer Big Red. It’s, uh, I would say strawberry flavored. And why they like that with barbecue, I don’t know. But we sell a lot of Big Red. And you come in here on a typical day and almost everybody has a bottle of Big Red on the table with their food.
Eric Covey: OK, and you said you’ve worked here since 1964. When did you become the manager of the market?
I started to manage when I got out of the service in ’69. And he [Mr. Ellis] just said, “OK, it’s yours to manage. So take care of it.”
From your perspective how [have] things in Luling changed since you first came to City Market?
Actually, Luling hasn’t changed much, but gotten smaller instead of larger because when I started, kind of, the oil boom was going on. And when that dried up, a lot of the companies moved out. So, when the companies went, the people went with them. So the population actually has gone down since then.
And what about this little downtown strip that City Market’s on. Has that always kind of been like it is now? Or has it been busier with more tenants and businesses?
Yes, it used to be real busy. But like I say, when the oil companies started leaving, the department stores start closing down. And now it’s just thrift shops in there, antique shops.
To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.