It’s a Matter of Taste

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In the lands discovered by Lemuel Gulliver, the Lilliputians and the Blefuscudians went to war over which end of a soft-boiled egg to crack at breakfast time. Americans haven’t reached that level of passion over food quite yet, but standoffs over barbecue or barbeque or bar-b-q—even the spelling is in question—can produce disputes that fall just short of blows.

No one knows for sure how the word barbecue originated. Most likely it came from the Caribbean where the Taino people of the Antilles used the term barbracot for a frame of green wood used to hold meat for cooking. The literal translation was “sacred fire pit,” so perhaps that explains why barbecue takes on the aura of a quasi-religion for some.

Then again, maybe the word comes from the reports of the French, who told of natives in the Caribbean islands cooking whole pigs barbe à queue, “from beard to tail.” And how about this unlikely tale? Roadhouses offering liquor, beer and pool, put up signs that read “Bar, Beer & Cues.” From there it is a short jump to BB&Cue, then BBQ.

Once you figure out how to spell it, you have to address what it is. In Dixie, the pig reigns supreme. From the Tidewater, south to the Okefenokee and west to the Big Muddy, barbecue is whole hog, pork shoulder and ribs, spare and baby back. It is cooked low and slow over hickory or oak and flavored with the smoke of pecan, apple or peach. The premier association for barbecue contests in the southeast, called Memphis in May, recognizes only pork, no beef, no chicken, no mutton.

Because pork is a relatively bland meat, the sauce takes on great importance in Southern barbecue. Rather than battle it out over cooking methods, Southerners wrangle over sauce. North Carolina-style sauce is a thin, tart, sometimes peppery concoction made almost sour by liberal doses of vinegar. Made right, like the reddish sauce at the Fresh Air Bar-B-Que just south of Jackson, Georgia, it adds the sharp bite of vinegar to enliven the pulled pork that customers have been piling on slices of light bread since 1927.

Along the South Carolina coast, the choice is a yellow mustard-based sauce, and in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, most of Kentucky (in Western Kentucky barbecue is mutton with mustard) and East Louisiana, one finds sweet ketchup-based sauces, hot spicy sauces, and mixes of everything in between. Every pit master has a secret, or not so secret, ingredient. Cheerwine, a soft drink bottler in Salisbury, North Carolina, sponsors a competition barbecue team in Memphis in May contests, and their product, a cherry-flavored cola sold in the southeastern United States since 1917, is prominent in their barbecue sauce.

Another distinctive branch of American barbecue is Kansas City style. The Kansas City Barbecue Society sanctions contests all over the country and cooks pork and beef, ribs and chicken with all manner of sauces to match the varying tastes of different regions of the country. KCBS runs more than three hundred barbecue cooking contests each year, so their take on barbecue has many adherents.

And then there is Texas. Actually this should read, “There is Texas, and then there is everybody else,” because as every true son or daughter of the Lone Star will attest, Texas barbecue, no matter how you spell it, is the tops.

But what Texas barbecue? It depends on who you ask. In Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook: Recipes and Recollections from the Pit Bosses, author Robb Walsh likens Southern barbecue to a thoroughbred with easily traced bloodlines, while, “Texas barbecue is a feisty-mutt with a whole lot of crazy relatives. Southern barbecue has remained largely unchanged over time. Texas barbecue is constantly evolving.”

Walsh holds that the long horizons of the Lone Star State from Texarkana to El Paso and from Brownsville to Texline encompass four distinctively different barbecue styles and as many offshoot variations as there are pit bosses. The East Texas tradition is Southern, with African-Texans cooking pork with a variety of different sauces and sometimes, in a distinctively Texas variation, with no sauce at all.

Central Texas has long been the epicenter of the smoked meats and sausages that came to the prairie with the German and Eastern European immigrants who first came to Texas in the days of the Republic. A recent Texas Monthly barbecue survey placed four of its five top-rated barbecue places in an area within one hundred miles or so of Austin’s capitol dome, places devoted to the German-Texas meat market legacy of basic smoked meats with deep red smoke rings and the taste of smoke in every bite. Sauce? Who needs sauce?

The Tejanos (Mexican-Texan) influence of barbacoa is strong along the border and is moving northward with the Hispanic population. Pork, beef, lamb, mutton, goat, and cabrito (kid goat) traditionally were cooked in the ground, wrapped in maguey leaves and buried with the coals. Barbacoa de cabeza, one of the most famous applications of this cooking method, is a cow’s head wrapped and cooked long and slow. Aluminum foil or canvas bags are replacing the maguey leaves and the holes in the dirt have given way to the health department’s requirements and become more traditional pits, but the barbacoa style of cookery is finding more and more adherents all over Texas each year.

In 1941, when W. Lee O’Daniel (“Please pass the biscuits, Pappy”), the Fort Worth miller who brought Bob Wills to the radio and parlayed Light Crust Flour and Texas swing into a political career, was inaugurated for his second term as governor of Texas, he threw a barbecue in Austin for his supporters. The pit masters dug trenches twenty-five feet long and three feet wide in the capitol lawn and set out to feed whoever showed up for the party. And show up they did, by the thousands.

This fourth column of the Texas barbecue temple, the pit, was inherited from the Anglo dirt farmers of the piney woods and the post oak belt and the cowboys from the prairies to the high plains of the Llano Estacado. The rise of the pit, if that is not self contradictory, came with the rise of the state’s most iconic symbol, the longhorn cow.

All the early styles of Texas barbecue changed forever with the explosion of the cattle business following the Civil War and the introduction of cheap beef. With millions of cattle on the Texas plains and hungry Northerners clamoring for beef, Texans rounded up the herds of wild cattle and pushed them north to the railroad.

The first drives moved up the Shawnee Trail from Central Texas, crossed the treacherous Red River at Rock Bluff near Preston Bend in Grayson County, and took the Texas Road to Sedalia, Missouri, and towns in eastern Kansas. Two hundred and sixty thousand beeves crossed the river in 1866. As the railheads moved farther west, so did the drovers and their herds, first to the Chisholm Trail and a crossing at Red River Station in Montague County and then all the way to Doan’s Store, north of Vernon and the Western Trail.

With beef plentiful, cowboy cooks and their small-town neighbors cooked whole steers over live coals in long pits. It was direct cooking, not the indirect hot smoke method favored by the Southern style cooks, and it required a pit man who could keep his mind on his business. The beef would cook for twenty-four hours and required attention and regular swabbing with long-handled cotton mops dipped in basting liquid to produce a tender, moist, smoky result.

In time, the whole steer ceded his place over the pit to brisket, a flavorful but tough cut well suited to the long cooking time. President Lyndon Johnson’s favorite pit man, Walter Jetton, who catered America’s first state barbecue for Johnson and Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, the President of Mexico in 1964, called brisket, “a self-basting cut,” because the layer of fat attached to the beef slowly melts during cooking, keeping the beef moist.

From these four traditions, Texas barbecue branches out. Is smoked bologna barbecue? It is in Fort Worth. What Texas barbecue is not, is grilling. Call salmon steaks or lamb chops cooked on a gas grill barbecue and prepare to defend your position. But Kreuz’s in Lockhart serves up smoked beef filet mignon, and the pit man at Cooper’s in Mason can raise the counter-weighted top on the above-ground, iron-sided pit and retrieve double-cut sirloin that nears perfection.

So where does Texoma fit in the Texas barbecue mosaic? That’s hard to say. Situated  in the cross timbers that mark the dividing line between the Blackland prairie and the plains, Texoma is not quite this or that geographically, and its barbecue is not quite East Texas, not quite West Texas and carries only a few hints, as of yet, of the Central Texas German and South Texas Hispanic influences. Maybe North Central Texas needs to come up with something all its own to start its own barbecue tradition. Barbecued catfish anyone?

2 thoughts on “It’s a Matter of Taste”

  1. Almost perfect. I completely agree about the difference between grilling barbequing and smoking. Grilling is great for hot dogs and hamburgers but that aint barbeque. Myself, I am from Vidor, Texas. A small town just east of Beaumont and very near the Louisiana line. We are mostly marshland. But we have been endowed with the heritage of Texas BBQ, basting and smoking (personaly I find smoked meats too dry, but the rest of my family loves it), and ofcourse our style has been greatly influenced by the cajun flavor. We mostly do brisket, pulled pork butt, ribbs (all) and Zumos (a Beaumont brand) hot links. But there is a native critter round these parts weve been known to barbeque whole still. For us, its fresh caught gater… most folks call them aligators. Im all for you north central guys getting your own brand. Hell, next time Im out your way Ill make sure to stop in and try another taste of Texas. I just wish more people would Southeast Texas Style Barbeque. Mine is smoked long enough to get married, then I baste its ass til it trys fallin through the grill.

  2. Always enjoy an article written by Ed Sutherland. My favorite place over the years was The Rib on US 69 South of Denison owned by Bob Clark. Since ol’ Bob passed away years back the second set of owners had bought Clark’s recipes and did well after adjustments. But not quite like Bob. Business has changed hands and I don’t have an honest update on taste and quality. Jones Family Barbecue on West Morton in Denison was always good. I remember their yeast rising rolls…. My taste buds cover a wide range of flavors but I’ll stop here. No one can create a taste for a good ‘cue like Ed Sutherland. So, Ed, keep writing and I’ll keep reading and eating.

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