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 briskets 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 Texas—some 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?
Taking a look at Texas barbecue history may be the easiest way to understand it. The Caddo Indians cooked venison and other game over wood fires in Texas 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. Mexican barbacoa, meat sealed in maguey leaves and buried in hot coals, has been seen along the Rio Grande Valley for a couple hundred years.
The Southern version of pit barbecue migrated to Texas in several stages beginning in the early 1800s. Black slaves recount cooking barbecue to celebrate the harvest on Texas cotton plantations before the Civil War. And Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the freeing of the slaves in Texas has been celebrated with barbecue since 1865.
The Southern version of barbecue begat the first big civic barbecues, which fed hundreds and sometimes thousands of people. These began to be held around the state in the early 1800s. Whole sheep, goats, pigs and steers were cut into pieces and cooked over oak or hickory coals while being continuously basted. The standard cooking time was 24 hours. This tradition lives on in such events as the XIT Annual Reunion in Dalhart, Texas, where tens of thousands of people gather year after year to attend the "world's largest free barbecue."
After the Civil War, beef became the most common meat in Texas. While the ultimate in Southern barbecue was cooking a whole hog, cooking a whole steer was the ultimate in Texas barbecue. Barbecued beef cuts remain the most common in Texas barbecue, although pork, mutton and other meats remain popular.
European meat smoking was brought to Central Texas by German and Czech butchers during an era of intense Germanic 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 cotton pickers first mistook their smoked pork loin and sausages for barbecue in the late 1800s.
It was the black and Hispanic cotton pickers who began the tradition of eating that German smoked meat on a piece of butcher paper with nothing but crackers or pickles they could find on store shelves as accompaniments.
During the Progressive Era in the early 1900s, sanitation
regulations changed the way barbecue could be cooked for public consumption.
The earthen pits of Southern barbecue were abandoned in favor of enclosed
smokers modeled after those used by the German butchers in their meat
Southern barbecue is a proud thoroughbred whose bloodlines are easily traced. Texas barbecue is a feisty mutt with a whole lot of crazy relatives. Open up a few of the oral histories on this site
and meet the family—you’ll see what we mean.
– Robb Walsh
Robb Walsh is a writer, SFA member, and bbq lover. You can see more of his work at RobbWalsh.com.
This introduction was adapted from Robb
Walsh’s book Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook © 2002.
Used with permission of Chronicle Books LLC, San Francisco. Visit ChronicleBooks.com.