Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook (Chronicle Books, $18.95) by Robb Walsh is only partially a cookbook. It is also part travel log and part historical documentation. Barbecue ranks right up there with the Alamo and San Jacinto as sacred cows in Texas, but even Walsh admits that we don't have an exclusive claim to barbecue bragging rights.
It's just that Texans have a long history of slow cooking, and we're so damned good at it. According to Walsh, a former Chronicle food editor, author of several cookbooks, and current food critic for the Houston Press, about the only thing that Texans can agree on when it comes to smoked meat is that Texas barbecue is among the best.
"I started with a stereotype of what I thought Texas barbecue was," Walsh said at a recent booksigning at BookPeople. Researching the barbecue legacy for the book changed his outlook on what "Texas barbecue" means and gave it a much broader perspective.
Texas is too big to be limited to one style of barbecuing. Without drawing conclusions on which is best, the chapters of the book trace the histories of the East Texas African-American style, German meat markets, West Texas cowboy style, and the South Texas Hispanic methods. "From Austin you have access to all the different styles. Any of the four styles is an hour away," Walsh says.
The African-American style of barbecue in East Texas migrated west with the cotton plantations. Although it might have a lot in common with the Southern traditions of the Carolinas and Tennessee, it still has its own distinct style. While pork is the reigning favorite, blacks in the Piney Woods enjoy their beef brisket and hot links.
"East Texas barbecue joints tend to be proud of their side dishes," Walsh says in the book and he includes several recipes such as fried green tomatoes, Leon O'Neal's (Leon's "World's Finest" In & Out B-B-Q House on Galveston Island) turnip greens, and New Zion Missionary Baptist Church Barbecue (Huntsville) mashed potato salad.
Walsh is circumspect in declaring which places are the best, but he highly recommends trying Ruthie's Pit Bar-B-Q in Navasota and Austin's own House Park Bar-B-Que and Sam's BBQ.
German and Czech immigrants brought smoked sausage to Texas from the old country, and the locals began calling it barbecue. Some of the most legendary barbecue establishments in Texas started as meat markets. In the olden days, the butcher would grind up the day's leftovers into sausage or just throw the cut of meat on the grill of a smoker in back of the shop.
Itinerant farm workers and oil field roughnecks discovered the butcher's tasty treats, and a new industry was born. The vagabond workers had few dining choices and were happy to eat off the butcher paper and didn't seem to notice the absence of side dishes other than saltine crackers or white bread. According to Walsh, the tradition gave us such great places as Kreuz Market in Lockhart, South Side Market in Elgin, and Vencil Mares' Barbecue in Taylor.
Barbecuing the West Texas cowboy way means slow cooking on a grate over a bed of hot coals. According to Walsh, in the days before refrigeration a barbecue meant butchering a whole cow and inviting enough hungry people to eat it. President Lyndon Johnson took this style of cooking to the world, and Walter Jetton of Fort Worth was his favorite pit boss. The book includes a couple of the barbecue legend's legendary recipes, such as his beef stock sauce.
The Mexican vaqueros on the cattle ranches along the southern border gave us the word barbacoa, which eventually became "barbecue." But in the two cultures the words have entirely different meanings. Barbacoa is lamb or goat meat roasted on hot coals. Walsh takes it a step further by saying that it is also roasted cow heads. You'll find the same brisket, ribs, and sausage in South Texas barbecue joints as you will in other establishments, but the side dishes are often pure Tejano. Gonzales Food Market in Gonzales started as a grocery store, but has become a prime example of South Texas barbecue.
Once you've sampled the different styles of Texas barbecue, it is time to try it in your own back yard. Walsh's book takes the reader from the rudimentary beginnings to tried and tested professional methods. Barbecuing is the perfect excuse to spend the day out in the back yard with a cold drink handy, and this book is the perfect companion.
With art direction by former Texas Monthly graphic designer D.J. Stout, the book is as attractive as it is useful and informative. The pages are filled with historical photos from the UT Institute of Texan Cultures archives that accent the importance of a book like this for the barbecue cook and connoisseur. For the day tripper, in the back of the book is a list of 42 barbecue joints not to be missed. In the end, all of the fiery arguments come down to what you like the best.
574th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.