Barbecue Books

Food Editor Virginia B. Wood reviews two recent barbecue books in honor of the Southern Foodways Alliance Taste of Texas Barbecue Field Trip

In the early stages of planning the Taste of Texas Barbecue Field Trip, I was completely unaware that two prominent Texas food writers would publish cookbooks on the all-American subject of barbecue in the spring of 2002. For the record, I've worked with both of these writers. Dallas Morning News restaurant critic Dotty Griffith was one of the first editors to publish my early self-syndicated newspaper column on Texas foods when she was that paper's food editor. Houston Press restaurant critic Robb Walsh invited me to contribute restaurant reviews to The Austin Chronicle when he was the food editor here. Objectively reviewing the work of people you know is a difficult task, but one I was willing to tackle, considering the quality of both books. And, as luck would have it, both books have been out long enough at this point that I'm simply adding my voice to the chorus of kudos they've received elsewhere.

In Celebrating Barbecue: The Ultimate Guide to America's Four Regional Styles of Cue (Simon & Schuster, $24) author Dotty Griffith sets herself a truly daunting task: to define in detail, and recipes, the four major styles of barbecue in the United States. Barbecue is such an enormous subject -- and a contentious one in the bargain -- that it's difficult to imagine any one book could possibly cover every regional nuance and permutation to everyone's satisfaction. While regional purists and culinary historians might quibble about some points, Griffith does an admirable job. Her thesis is that there are four major barbecue styles, found primarily in the Carolinas, Memphis, Kansas City, and Texas. She devotes sections to each style, discussing the various preferred meats, the types of woods used for fuel, the definitive seasonings, and traditional accompaniments. In addition to the meat of the matter, there are the rubs, sauces, marinades, and mops used to enhance it. Griffith also includes side dishes, appetizers, and desserts to complement each style. She provides complete menus for anyone who wants to re-create an entire regional barbecue, plus a directory of barbecue joints, regional cook-offs, and pitmakers for aficionados. The concise and approachable recipes are augmented with enough anecdotes, history, and regional lore to make Celebrating Barbecue an interesting read as well as an inspiration to fire up the barbecue pit.

Transplanted Yankee Robb Walsh has devoted himself to the serious study of Texas barbecue since his arrival here many years ago, writing about it in a variety of publications. All that exhaustive (and delicious) research serves him well in The Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook: Recipes and Recollections From the Pit Bosses (Chronicle Books, $18.95). The book, designed by Austinite DJ Stout of graphics firm Pentagram, looks great. The evocative collection of new and historic photographs rendered in sepia tone and smoky black and white do such a good job of creating the illusion of smoke, you'll swear that you can smell a brisket cooking as you read. Stout's excellent design provides the perfect framework for the fascinating history, lore, and appetite-stimulating recipes Walsh has put together.

Right off the top, Walsh acknowledges that while it's not likely folks are ever going to agree on what Texas barbecue is, a consideration of history and the "evolution of the modern barbecue pit explains a lot about our various styles." He then traces a path from Caddo Indians to Spanish shepherds, from Confederate cotton planters and their slave families to cowboys and cattle ranchers, through the German/Czech meat market owners, right up to the oil boom and the modified oilfield equipment that has become a recognized portable standard of barbecue cookery. Along the way, there were open pits, sturdy brick smokers, and metal rotisserie cookers, each with its hardcore devotees. What emerges from Walsh's research is a picture of four distinct Texas barbecue regions: the Deep South African-American barbecue of East Texas, the open-pit barbecue of the West Texas cattle range, the Central Texas German/Czech meat markets, and the Hispanic barbacoa of South Texas. Legends of Texas Barbecue is the story of the folks in all four areas who produce the meats for which Texas is justifiably famous.

Obviously recognizing a fellow traveler, the accomplished pit bosses in each area shared their secrets and authentic recipes with Walsh. As he did in a couple of previous books, Walsh experiences the passion his subjects feel about their cooking and captures it perfectly for the reader. They showed him their best, and he has generously shared it us: everything from Vencil Mare's Bohunk Sausage to Stubb's Hot Pork Rub, Sonny Bryan's Rib Sandwiches to Jim Goode's "Plugged" Brisket. Walsh also includes some of his own lip-smacking concoctions, such as the truly divine leftover revivals of BBQ Pork & Garlicky Guacamole Sandwiches and Achiote H-Bombs made with pork tenderloin. There's a section that demystifies the cooking of Texas barbacoa, Texas cow head barbecue, and a sprinkling of tasty side dish recipes throughout. The book finishes up with a calendar of Texas barbecue competitions and listings of popular joints in the Central Texas barbecue belt, 10 old meat markets and grocery stores famous for their smoked meats, 10 reliable city joints, and several more he deems worth of road trips. The party's sold out for the SFA Taste of Texas Barbecue Field Trip, but Robb's book is the next best thing to being there yourself.

  • More of the Story

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    What is it about Texas and barbecue? Chronicle Food Editor Virginia B. Wood knows, and she knows we know, but the Southern Foodways Alliance is about to find out on their Taste of Texas Field Trip. Plus, "The Barbecue Song"!?
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