Lone Star BBQ is a melting pot: Eastern European immigrants (German and Czech primarily, but some Poles thrown into the mix as well [the oldest Polish settlement in the U.S. was in Panna Maria, Texas…home of their exquisite kosciusko mustard, by the way]) bringing their traditions of butchering, sausage-making, and smoke preservation (and their masonry pit cookers), blended with the seasoning and cooking ways of the Mexican vaquero cattle ranch workers, the methods of the Afro-American field and farm workers, an influx of pioneers from all over the country (but mainly from the South), combined with a large number of livestock. Beef primarily, raised in all regions of the state, but also lots of pigs and poultry in east Texas, goats and sheep in west Texas, and wild game from all over the state. Throw in a good supply of different regional smoky hard woods, fresh produce and piquant spices, lots of patience, love, and skill, and they all meet and meld in the middle, in Central Texas.
Texas barbecue generally uses no mops, sops, glops, bastes, or glazes, and is rub-centric; usually, the simpler the flavor profile of the rub recipe, the better. Of course there are those in the state that don’t adhere to the unspoken codes or the regional requisites, but they don’t have to do so under the cover of darkness or out of sight. That’s the beauty of barbecuing in Texas, which has more distinct regional styles than anywhere else in the country; anyone is free to cook barbecue any damn way they want to, and however they cook it, you know it’ll be better than anywhere else.
The non-Texan “experts” will try to tell you that Texas barbecue centers on beef brisket, that it’s cooked quickly over high heat, and that it’s chewy. Nothing could be farther from the truth. While it is true that Black’s Barbecue in Lockhart started the whole brisket craze, it’s cooked slowly there, and it sure as hell isn’t “chewy”. Real Texas barbecue is normally cooked for long periods of time over relatively low heat with lots of smoke. It’s beef (brisket, shoulder clod, and ribs), pork (ribs, shoulders, tenderloins, and hams), mutton, goat, game, poultry, and sausages, simply but robustly seasoned, and it’s delicious and savory, and as tender as a baby’s butt when it’s done the Lone Star way. If a pit boss is cooking an expensive cut he might raise the temp a smidgen, and decrease the cooking time; but that’s an exception only used with select, tender cuts of meat, and barbecuing grew out of finding something to do with tough cuts the housewives wouldn’t buy.
Traditional Texas barbecue is principally cooked in a pit smoker, made of brick (with sides about waist-high), and heavy, counterweighted steel lids covering a long, narrow chamber with expanded-wire grates to hold the meats. On one end is the fire, either contained within a depression in a concrete floor, in a steel fire box with ventilation holes, or just built right inside the open end of the brick chamber. On the other end is a vertical smoke stack, with flue damping controls to speed up or slow down the heat of the fire, or control the amount of smoke surrounding the meats in the chamber. This method has been duplicated in a steel version, usually made from a salvaged steel tank of some sort…and with the advent of catering and BBQ competitions, that tank system has been mounted on wheels for portability. Pit designers in Texas have the reputation for making some of the largest, classiest, and most creative pit trailers in the world, and are credited with coming up with the original concept.
The wood used is determined largely by geographical location: in Central Texas it’s post oak and live oak, with some pecan thrown in for sweetness. In West & South Texas it’s mesquite (and a little oak). In East Texas it’s hickory, pecan, and oak. Today, with the advent of modern transportation, you can get any kind of wood you like delivered to your front door, but the geographical imperatives remain deep in the pit masters’ hearts.
Central Texas is the gateway to the most-worshipped temples of BBQ in the U.S. (Centex being the epicenter of taste when it comes to the highest and most refined art of BBQ cookery). Central Texas is the Cradle of Barbecue Civilization. Every reverent national BBQ tour pilgrim has Cooper’s, Kreuz’s, Louie Mueller’s, Smitty’s, and now Snow’s on their short list of places to eat before they die. But the truly enlightened barbecue zealot knows that the list has to also include time-honored gems like Inman’s in Marble Falls, the Taylor Café in Taylor, Sam’s in Austin, Gonzales Food Market in Gonzales, City Market in Luling, or Novosad’s in Halletsville. Everyone has their own list of favorites, but most of the time that list will focus squarely on the middle of Texas, with Austin as its epicenter.
The classic Centex BBQ joint, an offshoot of the Bohemian-style meat market, has just recently begun to offer plates and utensils...and sauce…and even side dishes! Up until recently you went through the screen door to the meat carver’s counter, told him in respectful tones what you wanted and how much, he’d pull it off of the expanded wire grate in a cloud of rich aromatic smoke, stroke the carving blade on the sharpening steel a few times, and start slicing. He’d cut until you said stop. Your selections were loaded onto a piece of brown butcher paper, weighed and paid for, and you sat down at a communal table with some white bread or saltine crackers, and that was it. Wheat bread?...forget it. No utensils, no sides, no sauce. To want any salt and pepper was considered an insult to the pitmaster’s seasoning prowess, and to request sauce was an abomination! Add a Shiner or Lone Star beer, a Big Red or an RC Cola, a pickled jalapeño or two, and you had all that you needed to transport you straight to the gates of BBQ heaven.