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In the long ago before McDonald’s and Starbucks, and when going out to eat was a special occasion, Texas had barbecue. Still does.
Talk to Wayne Mueller, the third-generation owner of Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, and he says, yes, the subject comes up with some frequency. Someone will walk into Mueller’s, one of the iconic names in Texas barbecue, and tell Mueller that no, the restaurant that his grandfather opened in 1949 isn’t making barbecue the way it should be made. They even—shudder—say North Carolina’s barbecue is made the right way.
“We’ve tried to regionalize barbecue, but barbecue is really local,” Mueller says. “It’s as individual as the people cooking it. Everyone grew up with their favorite, and that’s the barbecue that they’ll defend forever, whatever happens.”
The point, of course, is that if a customer questions Mueller’s barbecue integrity, which has more than 60 years to its credit, then the idea of Texas barbecue remains as complicated as ever. The controversy, hard feelings and arguments that have endured for decades still endure—how long should the brisket cook, what’s the best wood to use, what are the proper side dishes.
In this, Mueller and the other big names are just some of many. What counts, what really counts, are the hundreds and hundreds of ordinary, regular, everyday places where the only fame and glory come from keeping the doors open in a world where it’s getting harder and harder to make it as a small, family-owned restaurant.
“It’s all about the smoke by the side of the road,” says Elizabeth Engelhardt, the lead author for Republic of Barbecue (2009, University of Texas Press), a book of essays that offers perhaps the best look at the modern Texas barbecue scene.
“When we started this, we went into it without any preconceived definitions,” says Engelhardt, an associate professor in the department of American studies at The University of Texas. “We didn’t have a sense: ‘This is pure barbecue.’ We wanted to find what barbecue is.”
Long Ago, Texas Had Barbecue
Talk to Texans of a certain age, and many of them share the same story. In the long ago before McDonald’s and Starbucks, and when going out to eat was a special occasion, Texas had barbecue.
Edna Lynn Porter, who teaches at the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Austin and has run several restaurants during her cooking career, remembers car trips from her home in Corpus Christi to the Hill Country. Those trips always meant barbecue and stopping in Lockhart at Kreuz Market. She can still describe the way her father crumbled saltines to sop up the sausage fat.
“It was the brown paper and the butcher knives chained to the table,” Porter says. “The sausage, that if you pierced the casing and drained it, there must have been a quarter of a cup of fat, easy.”
The Hill Country, then and now, is the center of Texas barbecue. There is barbecue in East Texas (pork, even), and Fort Worth and Houston have their barbecue aficionados. But the Hill Country, says longtime Fort Worth food writer Amy Culbertson, who grew up in Lampasas, is the Texas Barbecue Ring. Draw a circle, with Austin in the center, and it’s all there along and near U.S. Highways 183 and 290 at generations-old places like Louie Mueller, Southside Market & Barbeque (Elgin), Kreuz, Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que (Llano and New Braunfels), Inman’s Kitchen Bar-B-Q and Catering (Llano) and The Salt Lick (in Driftwood and Round Rock and at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport).
In this, a consensus has emerged about what defines Texas barbecue—though, of course, because this is Texas, it’s a consensus more by default than agreement, and there is still plenty of room for loud and lively discussion.
Texas barbecue means beef, and usually brisket. It means smoked brisket, and usually for a long time over low heat. Sauce is something for fancy French cooking; and it’s not unusual, still, to see barbecue sold by the pound, a practice that dates to its meat-market origins in the 19th century. The pit master, whose knowledge is handed down from generation to generation, is all knowing and all seeing.
“Are there other places and other ways to do barbecue?” Porter asks. “Yes, I’m sure there are. But that’s all I’m going to say about that.”
150 Years of Barbecue
Mueller’s is part of that tradition. Barbecue can be traced to Texas’ German immigrants, who brought their smoking and butchering culture with them when they arrived in the middle of the 19th century. And what did they butcher? Cattle, of which Texas already had millions. And how did they cook it? Over coals from native wood like oak, which was also plentiful. This is why Texas barbecue is so different from the pork-and-sauce style common elsewhere in the U.S. Pigs were not a major product here—so Memphis-style pork ribs aren’t common—and sugar or molasses, necessary for the sweet sauce common in places like the Carolinas, weren’t readily available. The early pit masters made do with what they had.
“The nice thing about Texas barbecue, as opposed to so many other Texas foods, is that its origins are more easily traceable,” Culbertson says. “The history is much clearer, and there is less competition among the various stories.”
The first barbecue joints were meat markets, says Engelhardt, where the beef was smoked in the back and sold over the counter. And if anyone has ever wondered why grocery store-style white bread is a traditional part of Texas barbecue, the reason lies in those meat market origins. The first customers bought their barbecue at the market and then went next door to the general store to buy their sides. The general store sold saltines, and later white bread, so that’s what customers bought to eat with their brisket. Engelhardt says this may also explain why peach cobbler, made with canned peaches, is the traditional barbecue dessert. General stores in the 19th century sold canned peaches, so people made canned peach cobbler.
Over time, barbecue styles evolved, and the arguments about the best way to do barbecue started. Go to places like Cooper’s in Llano, and what Culbertson calls a cowboy style developed. The cooking temperature is hotter, the wood is mesquite instead of oak, and the brisket cooks for less than the usual 15 to 18 hours. Brisket, though still the mainstay, has been joined by other cuts—the shoulder clod (part of the chuck) at Kreuz as well as ribs and chicken. And technology, says Engelhardt, brought changes, too. The brick barbecue pit, seen today as a traditional requirement for quality barbecue, was cutting edge 100 years ago when people were barbecuing over an open fire—and was frowned on then as much as gas and electric pits are today.
One thing that hasn’t changed is barbecue’s immense popularity. Yes, culinary styles have changed, and we’re trying to eat less meat and reduce fat consumption. And the restaurant business is far different today than it was just a decade ago, with fewer family-owned restaurants, which are the backbone of the barbecue business. Meanwhile, higher real estate prices in Texas’ biggest cities have mostly forced the family-owned barbecue joint out of urban areas. Judging by The Dallas Morning News’ top 100 restaurants, it’s easier to find sushi (six restaurants) in Dallas than barbecue (only three).
Barbecue still sells—even in a world where watching fat and cholesterol has become as much a part of our lives as watching television. Mueller’s made a couple of concessions to changing dietary habits in the 1990s, adding leaner cuts of beef and chicken. But brisket remains its biggest seller, with some 2,000 pounds a week. Meanwhile, the Pappas Bar-B-Q chain has 17 barbecue restaurants in the state and sells some 4,000 pounds a week from each location, says Pappas corporate chef Mark Mason. Some of the restaurants sell as much as 1,000 pounds a day.
“It’s like Texas is its own little country when it comes to barbecue,” says Mason, who helps oversee a surprisingly traditional pit operation—wood-smoked brisket cooked for 15 to 18 hours. “Beef is still king, and you don’t see anything like you do in Memphis with pork. It’s the pride Texans take in their barbecue. ”
Which anyone can see whenever they walk into a place like Louie Mueller—or any of the other hundreds of places in Texas that make up the Republic of Barbecue.
Jeff Siegel is a Dallas-based writer.