A "closed" sign on a barbecue joint door is just an invitation to talk to the folks running the fried pie kitchen next door. An offer of catfish at another shack famous for (but sold out of) spicy brisket is only an excuse to explore the religious roots of African-American barbecue in America.
Barbecue Crossroads: Notes and Recipes From a Southern Odyssey
Robb Walsh, photographs by O. Rufus Lovett
University of Texas Press, 282pp., $45 (hard)
So goes Houston-based, three time James Beard Award winning author Robb Walsh's journey across the South - from Texas to the Carolinas - exploring the roots and heart of this essential American cuisine. Barbecue Crossroads is cleverly served as a three-meat combo, equal parts history lesson, road trip memoir, and cookbook, with slick dollops of photographer O. Rufus Lovett's intimate shots glazing every corner of the plate.
If your heart, like mine, beats strongest for Texas barbecue, you might think Walsh and Lovett would have been wise to stop their trek on their first day, before Interstate 30's escalating exit numbers reset themselves to "1" halfway through Texarkana. Fear not, prideful brisket-eater: for even while the duo are deep in the overgrown and under-appreciated country roads of Tennessee, waiting patiently for a grumpy pit boss to prep his first meals of the day for them, Walsh's mind wanders back home for a treatise on some of the oldest examples of market store BBQ joints. There's talk of Smitty's in Lockhart and Martin's in Bryan before the day-dream-turned-history-lesson returns to the meal in hand at a convenience store in the Volunteer State. That trend holds throughout the book, as nearly every aspect of Southern barbecue history that Walsh details is related back to Texas. Whether you take that pattern to mean that the other barbecue states revolve around the shining Lone Star or you see these writings as proof that Texas and Southern barbecue have more in common than we often admit is up to the reader.
Between recipes for Whole Hog Barbecue and Sweet Potato Pie, Walsh laments the slow death of America's original barbecue culture. Once common, massive communal servings of piles of piping hot pork and beef pulled straight from in-ground open pits growling with the heat of real wood have nearly all been relegated to textbook chapters in our country's rural history. The present-day demands of hungry urban diners have pressured even some of the most legendary BBQ restaurants throughout the South to replace their original pits with faster gas ovens. Meanwhile, rising meat and wood prices have created a new economy that runs completely counter to the very origins of BBQ itself.
Still, it is clear that all is not lost for fans of the cuisine. Even in the face of what the author paints as a bleak fate, Walsh and Lovett's loving treatment of the people behind the pits and counters from Austin to the Atlantic Coast make it clear that this true folk food is still alive. Recent trends in our own city demonstrate the resurgence in popularity of slow-cooked, wood-smoked meats - even if new purveyors are challenging older establishments for mouths and minds. Walsh himself, co-founder of Foodways Texas, even musters up some optimism by ending the book with his own internet-based solution to the dwindling numbers of community barbecues.
Regardless of your regional loyalties, Barbecue Crossroads is a must have book for anyone with a passion for pit crafted meats.
Both author Robb Walsh and photographer O. Rufus Lovett will be featured speakers, signing copies of their book at this weekend's Foodways Texas Symposium, Our Barbecue, Ourselves.
Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.