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Saturday, July 25, 2020

Louis Hughes's Firsthand Account of Antebellum Barbecues

Louis Hughes, circa 1897. From
Thirty Years a Slave from Bondage to Freedom.
Louis Hughes (1832–1913) was born enslaved near Charlottesville, Virginia. He escaped slavery during the Civil War. In 1897, Hughes published his autobiography titled Thirty Years a Slave from Bondage to Freedom: The Institution of Slavery as Seen on the Plantation and in the Home of the Planter that was prefaced with the following:
The institution of human slavery, as it existed in this country, has long been dead; and, happily for all the sacred interests which it assailed, there is for it no resurrection. It may, therefore, be asked to what purpose is the story which follows, of the experiences of one person under that dead and accursed institution? To such question, if it be asked, it may be answered that the narrator presents his story in compliance with the suggestion of friends, and in the hope that it may add something of accurate information regarding the character and influence of an institution which for two hundred years dominated the country - exercising a potent but baneful influence in the formation of its social, civil and industrial structures, and which finally plunged it into the most stupendous civil war which the world has ever known. As the enlightenment of each generation depends upon the thoughtful study of the history of those that have gone before, everything which tends to fullness and accuracy in that history is of value, even though it be not presented with the adjuncts of literary adornment, or thrilling scenic effects.
Hughes left us a remarkably detailed record of his life and experiences. He also left us the following detailed account of antebellum Independence Day Barbecues.
A feast of this kind was always given to us, by Boss, on the 4th of July. The anticipation of it acted as a stimulant through the entire year. Each one looked forward to this great day of recreation with pleasure. Even the older slaves would join in the discussion of the coming event. It mattered not what trouble or hardship the year had brought, this feast and its attendant pleasure would dissipate all gloom. Some, probably, would be punished on the morning of the 4th, but this did not matter; the men thought of the good things in store for them, and that made them forget that they had been punished. All the week previous to the great day, the slaves were in high spirits, the young girls and boys, each evening, congregating, in front of the cabins, to talk of the feast, while others would sing and dance. The older slaves were not less happy, but would only say: "Ah! God has blessed us in permitting us to see another feast day."  
The day before the 4th was a busy one. The slaves worked with all their might. The children who were large enough were engaged in bringing wood and bark to the spot where the barbecue was to take place. They worked eagerly, all day long; and, by the time the sun was setting, a huge pile of fuel was beside the trench, ready for use in the morning. At an early hour of the great day, the servants were up, and the men whom Boss had appointed to look after the killing of the hogs and sheep were quickly at their work, and, by the time they had the meat dressed and ready, most of the slaves had arrived at the center of attraction. They gathered in groups, talking, laughing, telling tales that they had from their grandfather, or relating practical jokes that they had played or seen played by others. These tales were received with peals of laughter. But however much they seemed to enjoy these stories and social interchanges, they never lost sight of the trench or the spot where the sweetmeats were to be cooked. 
The method of cooking the meat was to dig a trench in the ground about six feet long and eighteen inches deep. This trench was filled with wood and bark which was set on fire, and, when it was burned to a great bed of coals, the hog was split through the back bone, and laid on poles which had been placed across the trench. The sheep were treated in the same way, and both were turned from side to side as they cooked. During the process of roasting the cooks basted the carcasses with a preparation furnished from the great house, consisting of butter pepper, salt and vinegar, and this was continued until the meat was ready to serve. Not far from this trench were the iron ovens, where the sweetmeats were cooked. 
Three or four women were assigned to this work. Peach cobbler and apple dumpling were the two dishes that made old slaves smile for joy and the young fairly dance. The crust or pastry of the cobbler was prepared in large earthen bowls, then rolled out like any pie crust, only it was almost twice as thick. A layer of this crust was laid in the oven, then a half peck of peaches poured in, followed by a layer of sugar; then a covering of pastry was laid over all and smoothed around with a knife. The oven was then put over a bed of coals, the cover put on and coals thrown on it, and the process of baking began. Four of these ovens were usually in use at these feasts, so that enough of the pastry might be baked to supply all. The ovens were filled and refilled until there was no doubt about the quantity. The apple dumplings were made in the usual way, only larger, and served with sauce made from brown sugar. It lacked flavoring, such as cinnamon or lemon, yet it was a dish highly relished by all the slaves. 
I know that these feasts made me so excited, I could scarcely do my house duties, and I would never fail to stop and look out of the window from the dining room down into the quarters. I was eager to get through with my work and be with the feasters. About noon everything was ready to serve. The table was set in a grove near the quarters, a place set aside for these occasions. The tableware was not fine, being of tin, but it served the purpose, and did not detract from the slaves' relish for the feast. The drinks were strictly temperance drinks - buttermilk and water. Some of the nicest portions of the meat were sliced off and put on a platter to send to the great house for Boss and his family.
It was a pleasure for the slaves to do this, for Boss always enjoyed it. It was said that the slaves could barbecue meats best, and when the whites had barbecues slaves always did the cooking. When dinner was all on the table, the invitation was given for all to come; and when all were in a good way eating, Boss and the madam would go out to witness the progress of the feast, and seemed pleased to see the servants so happy. Everything was in abundance, so all could have plenty - Boss always insisted on this. The slaves had the whole day off, and could do as they liked. 
After dinner some of the women would wash, sew or iron. It was a day of harmless riot for all the slaves, and I can not express the happiness it brought them. Old and young, for months, would rejoice in the memory of the day and its festivities, and "bless" Boss for this ray of sunlight in their darkened lives.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

A Virginia Barbecue - A poem by Robert Francis Astrop. Circa 1835.

"A Virginia Barbecue"

A poem by Robert Francis Astrop from Original Poems, on a Variety of Subjects, Etc., published in 1835.

Ye who love good eating, just go to a ’Cue—
Ye’ll find and enjoy it there, I warrant you.
Who ever went there and ne’er got enough?
Who ever went there and found the meat tough?
Who ever went there and came mad away?
Who ever went there, and kept steady all day?
Who ever went there, discontent of distrest—
Who ever went there with sorrow opprest—
Who ever went there deep in love or grief—
And did not immediately find some relief?
Enjoyment here presides as the host,
And he who’s least welcome is welcome the most.
Freedom and Frolic here hold their domain,
And good sense and wit all folly restrain:
Here, age may be youth and live o’er its days,
Here, virtue is honored and wisdom finds praise,
Here, wealth and poverty, meekness and pride.
Commingle in one and sit side by side.
Formality here, and modish nonsense
Is held in contempt, and banished hence;
Contention and strife must here have an end
While each is a neighbor and each is a friend.
Republican plainness and candor preside,
And all kind of precedence here is denied.
Here sweethearts are toasted and sweet wives are lov’d;
Virtue commended and vice is reproved.
Ye ball-room revels and parties of Lou,
Give me the Barbecue—Devil take you.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Barbecue Secret Number 17 - How to Create the Perfect BBQ Bark

Barbecued brisket with a low and slow bark cooked using the hot and fast method.
Many people struggle with the appearance of their backyard barbecue. It's either way too dark, sometimes burned, or it ends up looking pale with little appetizing color. If your barbecued chicken is always too dark in color or the bark on your pork barbecue isn't as well-developed as you would like, read on. Here is a very-little known secret to making your barbecue look appetizing with the perfect color and bark.

The appetizing color and bark on barbecue is the result of several things going on during the cooking process but one of the most important things is known as the Maillard Reaction. This is where the natural sugars and proteins in meat begin to brown while cooking. There are several things that influence this reaction: sugar, protein, heat, and the pH level of the surface of the meat are a few. Sugar is often used to create a faux bark. Rather than a natural, delicious bark that is produced from only the interaction of heat, smoke and the natural sugars and proteins in the meat, the sugar on the surface caramelizes and becomes a crust. Too often, it burns and results in an unappetizing flavor and appearance.

One of the least-known aspects of how the Maillard Reaction produces bark on barbecue is the pH level of the surface of the meat. When meat has the proper pH level for the heat and length of time it is barbecued, the bark comes out perfect every time. So, to up your game as a pitmaster, I suggest that you dump the sugar in your barbecue rub and move to ingredients that balance the pH of the surface of the meat so that a natural bark is produced to your taste. If you have to have sugar, apply it late in the cooking process so that it can caramelize without burning or turning too dark.

There are several ways to influence the pH level of the surface of meat. Here are the essentials.

  • The pH of a substance is an indication of its acidity
  • The pH of pure water is 7. That means it's pH is neutral.
  • The pH level of vinegar is between 2 and 3. 
  • Natural cocoa powder has a pH of 5.3 to 5.8. IMPORTANT NOTE - Dutch process cocoa powder is not recommended because it's not acidic enough. The way it's processed makes its pH level neutral.
  • Baking soda, also known as sodium bicarbonate, has a pH of 9.
  • When the pH of a substance is below 7, it slows the Maillard Reaction.
  • When the pH of a substance is above 7, it speeds up the Maillard Reaction.
  • Lower pH in food means it will take longer to brown.
  • Higher pH in food means it will brown faster.
So, if your barbecue is always coming out too dark or with a burned bark, use an ingredient that can slow the Maillard Reaction. If your barbecue is too pale and you want to increase the production of bark and browning, add an ingredient that speeds up the Maillard Reaction. Here is how I change the pH of the surface of meat.

Delicious appetizing Shenandoah Valley Barbecue Chicken
cooked for several hours over direct heat.
When I cook Shenandoah Valley style barbecued chicken, I barbecue it old-school style directly over hot coals. The way I control the color of the meat and prevent it from becoming too brown and dark colored is with the vinegar-based Shenandoah Valley Virginia-style barbecue sauce. I start the chicken skin side down. When it starts to get a little color, I flip it over and baste it with the vinegar-based sauce. That not only adds flavor, it also lowers the pH of the surface of the meat. Once the other side gets a little color, I flip the meat again and baste it. I continue that process for several hours until the meat is perfectly done. The color always comes out a deep, rich, appetizing brown.

When I want to lower the pH of meat without using vinegar, I add about 1/2 teaspoon of natural cocoa to enough of my rub recipe for a single brisket or pork butt. It won't change the flavor of your rub but will help slow down the production of bark.

When I cook barbecue hot and fast, I like to speed up the production of bark because I don't have 8 hours for the bark to develop. In those cases, I add something to increase the pH level of the meat such as baking soda. I add about 1/2 teaspoon to the rub recipe for one brisket or pork butt, for example. It doesn't take much baking soda, so don't worry about making a perceptible change to the flavor of your barbecue.

For more examples, read my other posts:

How to get a Low and Slow Bark on a Hot and Fast Brisket

Shenandoah Valley Barbecue Chicken

Picnic Fries

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Richmond, Virginia Police Benevolent Association Brunswick Stew Festival, 1913

Virginia Police Benevolent Association Brunswick Stew, 1913.
Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

In the sweltering heat of July 30, 1913, throngs of Virginians passed through the open gates of the State Fair Grounds in Richmond, Virginia, to attend the festivities hosted by the Police Benevolent Association. Ticket sales set a new record for the annual event in only its eighth year.

Illustration courtesy Library of Congress.
The night before, one of Virginia's most famous Brunswick stew cooks Jack Sale was directing his stew crew while they cooked 500 gallons of Virginia-style stew all night to be served to the hungry crowd the next day. Among its ingredients was 400 pounds of chicken, 100 pounds of beef, 30 pounds of Smithfield bacon, 200 dozen ears of corn, 250 quarts of butter beans, 15 bushels of tomatoes, 12 bushels of potatoes, 1 barrel of onions, 3 bushels of peppers, 2 bushels of herbs, 50 pounds of butter and 5 gallons of sherry wine. Other ingredients were added but Sale refused to share the details.

By the time the sun went down, there was not a single drop of stew left in the huge kettle. Wrestling matches, boxing matches, motorcycle races, card games and club swinging rounded out the festivities. The Times Dispatch reported, "From 11 o'clock . . . until nearly dark it was a grand frolic. Throughout the day there were no indications of disorder, and the utmost good-fellowship prevailed on all sides."

You can read much more about Virginia's Brunswick stew and its amazing history in Brunswick Stew: A Virginia Tradition available at bookstores and online booksellers.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Competition Barbecue Secrets Revealed

Photo courtesy of The Free Lance Star.
The number of barbecue competitions across the U.S. has exploded over the past few years. The Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) alone sanctions about 500 competitions. Add to that the Memphis Barbecue Network (MBN) sanctioned events along with local sanctioning board events and non-sanctioned events that are held each year and it’s easy to see that barbecue contests have become a cultural phenomenon in the U.S. The competition barbecue craze is a two-edged sword. With the good comes the bad. Here are some things that you should know about competition barbecue.

The proliferation of barbecue contests has reawakened American’s love for their oldest and most unique cuisine which is southern barbecue. In addition, barbecue contests are also a lot of fun. It’s great to get outside, fire up the barbecue pit, cook some tasty food while spending time with old friends and making new friends in the process. Even though cooking an entire KCBS or MBN contest is a tremendous amount of work, it’s also a lot of fun; especially when you hear your team’s name called at awards time.

 On the flip-side, entering and competing in a KCBS barbecue competition is an expensive and time-consuming venture. Just about any wood or charcoal powered barbecue pit can be used in the contests. However, if you are going to cook multiple contests each year you will face a variety of weather conditions that are not ideal for cooking barbecue. High winds, drenching rains, cold and extreme heat can be expected. To deal with the unpredictable conditions, you should invest in a professional-quality pit. Professional pits are expensive but you get what you pay for. Professional pits are usually insulted which helps to reduce the negative effects of unpredictable weather. Generally, they are also much heavier than your typical backyard-style pit. I’ve seen consumer-grade pits blow away in the wind meat, fire and all. That doesn’t happen to a 350 pound or heavier professional-grade pit.

You also have the cost of the food. Many competition cooks use grades of meat that are far too
expensive for the typical restaurant to serve. Compart Duroc pork runs about $200.00 plus $50.00 shipping for the minimum amount needed for a competition. Wagyu brisket runs about $200.00 to $250.00 per brisket after the cost of the meat and shipping costs. Add to that the cost of wood, charcoal, rubs, sauces, pans, utensils, fire extinguishers (which are required by sanctioning bodies), shelter (tents, trailers, RVs, hotel, etc.), gasoline for vehicles, entry fees for contests, thermometers (Thermapens run $60 to $105), time off from work and the other miscellaneous costs, it can run upwards of $2000.00 to compete in a single event. Then you have the time preparing for the contest while making injections, practicing techniques, etc. That makes competition barbecue an expensive hobby for some and profession for others.

Popup Tents Destroyed by Wind at a BBQ Competition in Virginia
A result of competition barbecue is the notion that competition barbecue is the best tasting and most delicious barbecue that you can serve. That is simply not true. Now, don’t get me wrong. Some competition barbecue is very tasty. However, some of it is average or worse. While judging, I have tasted competition barbecue that was almost perfect. It was tender, juicy, flavorful and everything one would expect from good competition barbecue. But, I have also tasted competition barbecue that is just, plain bad. I have seen ribs that were obviously dropped before being put in the box. The pine needle and leaf fragments on the bottom betrayed that fact. I have seen ribs with blood running out of them; chicken that was still cool in the center, brisket that was so tough it was literally impossible to take a bite and on one or two occasions I’ve judge pork that I had to spit out. Everyone has a bad day at the office every once in a while, and competition barbecue cooks are no exception.

You should also know that competition barbecue ingredients and techniques used to produce it often are far outside the realm of the American tradition of cooking southern barbecue. One of those ingredients is something called “phosphates.” Phosphates increase the moisture holding capacity of meat in a way that allows water to move in between protein molecules and stay there during the cooking process. Phosphates are used by the majority of competition cooks. The ingredient is necessary simply because so many other cooks use them. If a cook doesn’t use them, they are often at a disadvantage to the cooks that do use them. Regardless of any benefits phosphates may provide, there is growing concern over their safety.  Some experts believe that over consumption of phosphates may lead to osteoporosis, damaged blood vessels and impaired kidney function. I’m not an expert on the subject, so do your own research on it.

Phosphates are usually introduced with the use of injections. Injections are not used in traditional
southern barbecue. Neither are computer-controlled barbecue pits. Nowadays, it’s not unusual to see a professional “pitmaster” at a contest plug in his barbecue pit, add some pellets to the hopper, press a few buttons to set the temperature, put meat in the pit and then walk away. So much for the art of tending a fire, I guess. Compare that to the pitmaster at your local barbecue restaurant who gets up well before the sun, starts a fire, tends it all night and much of the day. That is the southern barbecue tradition.

Competition barbecue is often braised as much as it is barbecued. Braising is a cooking method whereby meat is cooked in a covered container while simmering in a small amount of liquid. Most competition barbecue cooks place ribs in the pit for about two hours until the ribs acquire the color they are looking for. After that, they wrap the ribs in foil that contains a little butter or margarine, honey, brown sugar and other ingredients. The butter or margarine and honey make a braising liquid. The ribs are then braised for about another two hours until they are tender.

The same is true of chicken, pork and brisket. Competition chicken is usually braised in butter or margarine. Pork is braised in apple juice or marinade. Brisket is braised in beef broth (often containing phosphates) or a mixture containing things like beer, Worcestershire sauce, beef broth and barbecue sauce. The original way of cooking southern barbecue does not include braising. In fact, braising is a crutch. Ask any chef worth her salt and she will tell you that the easiest way to preserve moisture in a cut of meat while tenderizing it is to braise it. But, braising is not barbecuing.

Another thing about competition barbecue that you may find surprising includes the fact that many competition barbecue cooks don’t cook entire pork butts or briskets to perfection. There are only a few muscles in a pork butt that are truly competition worthy. Most people have heard of the “money muscle” on a pork butt and competition barbecue cooks' love of it. It’s actually part of the pig’s neck muscle. It is delicious and flavorful when well cooked. Then you have what is called “the tubes.” These are two or three muscles just behind the money muscle. They are surrounded by layers of fat that protect them while they cook. They too are tender and juicy. The third most popular part of the pork butt is called the “horn” meat. This is the muscle on the bone end of the butt. Lastly, we have the “butt bacon.” Butt bacon is the thin, long strands of meat on the bottom of the butt. They are surrounded by fat which needs to be gently scrapped way before the meat is served to barbecue judges.

Because most meat on the pork butt will not be turned in to the judges, many competition cooks only cook pork butts until the money muscle is tender. Because the money muscle cooks quicker than the leaner parts of the pork butt, those leaner parts are often still tough by the time the pork butts are removed from the pit. Basically, competition cooks ignore the parts of the butt they won’t be turning in and concentrate only on the few parts they will turn in. That’s certainly not something your local restaurateur can get away with doing. Restaurant owners have to cook the entire pork butt because they have to sell all of it. It is also not uncommon for part of a competition brisket to be perfectly tender while other parts remain tough. All the competition barbecue cook needs to cook to perfection is the portion from which comes six slices for the judges.

Competition barbecue requires copious amounts of sugar. North Carolina’s vinegar sauce loaded with salt and red pepper would fail miserably at a barbecue contest; so would Virginia’s tangy sauces. Competition barbecue judges love sugar on barbecue. Brown sugar, turbinado sugar, agave nectar, honey and corn syrup are generously doused on competition barbecue. In fact, many barbecue judges agree that proper competition barbecue is simply too rich to enjoy for an entire meal. One or two bites is enough.

The next three things you must know about competition barbecue concerns the sauces, rubs and the judges. Few competition barbecue cooks create their own sauces and rubs. Check out the major barbecue supply businesses. They sell a plethora of commercial sauces and rubs. People like Myron Mixon, Chris Lilly, Melissa Cookston, Bill Arnold and Heath Riles have created rubs and sauces that are used by competition barbecue cooks. I’ve seen people turn in commercial sauces that they didn’t make at barbecue sauce competitions and win with them. I’ll let you be judge on whether that is something to brag about or not.

Lastly, you may be surprised to know that competition barbecue isn’t always judged according to the
rules. From personal experience, I have seen KCBS judges deviate from the published rules of judging. KCBS rules call for judging barbecue based upon appearance, taste and tenderness. The scale is 2 to 9. 1 is given only if an entry is disqualified (called a DQ). When a judge gives an entry a 2, it means the entry is inedible. Fortunately, in my experience at least, it is extremely rare for any entry to get a 2. Most judges understand very well what a score of 2 – 6 means which is inedible to bad to poor to below average to average. A score of 7 is above average, a score of 8 is very good and a score of 9 is excellent.

All that being said, KCBS rules require the judge to judge the appearance of the meat that is in the turn-in box in terms of how appetizing the barbecue looks. However, some judges score based upon how the turn-in box itself looks. They look for how symmetric the meat looks, is the garnish neatly placed in the box?, are any of the slices of the meat slightly out of place?, etc. They look at the box like it’s a work of art rather than looking at the barbecue that’s in the box. Honestly, the Sistine Chapel is beautiful to look at but I’ve never wanted to eat it. The same is true of an artistic barbecue turn-in box. The meat can be perfectly arranged and the garnish placed in the box impeccably but if the meat doesn’t look appetizing, I have to score accordingly. Conversely, if the meat isn't arranged well or the garnish is poorly placed but the meat looks delicious, the judge must score based upon the appearance of the meat and ignore the garnish or sloppy arrangement of the box's contents and give a high score for the meat. The only consideration a KCBS judge needs to give the garnish is whether or not it's legal. KCBS judges judge barbecue not boxes or garnish, which is optional in KCBS contests. Therefore, it is a non-factor unless it is illegal to use such as is the case with red-tip lettuce.

Most KCBS judges that I know do a great job. However, every once in a while, there is one discovered that needs some additional training. On rare occasions I have witnessed judges trying to judge meat that isn’t in the box. For example, if a brisket entry doesn’t include burnt ends a judge might take a point away because of their absence. Or, a judge might take a point away because there is no white meat with the chicken entry. I think such notions might have come from the TV show “BBQ Pitmasters.” Often the famous, celebrity judges on that show will make a comment like, “I want to see white and dark meat in that box!” Or, “If the pitmaster doesn’t put burnt ends in the box, he must not know what he is doing.” And, even cooks on that show have said things like, “I’m gonna put chopped, sliced and pulled meat in my box to show the judges what I can do!” All of that may be well and good for a TV show, but that kind of criteria for judging is not in keeping with KCBS rules. To the KCBS’s credit, I have also witnessed cases where the KCBS representative has removed a judge from judging because of inappropriate comments about how they judge barbecue. The KCBS continue to take steps to prevent that poor and improper judging practices among certified KCBS judges and that's proof that they take the art and craft of competition barbecue very seriously, as they should.

Lastly, the most important rule of competition barbecue is to have fun. That's a rule that's easy for everyone to observe.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The First White House Barbecue

If you search the Internet, you will find several claims for which president was the first to host a barbecue at the White House. Most claim Lyndon Johnson was the first White House barbecue host. A few others claim Dwight D. Eisenhower hosted the first White House barbecue and a few others claim that it was Thomas Jefferson who first fired up a barbecue pit on the lawn of the "pleasant country residence," as Jefferson called it. However, history doesn’t support any of those claims. 

In 1791, George Washington selected the site for the White House in Washington, D.C.  Within just a few months, the cornerstone was laid in 1792 and Irish-born architect James Hoban was chosen to design the building. President John Adams and his wife, Abigail, moved into the unfinished house eight years later in 1800. The Aquia Creek sandstone used to construct the White House came from Government Island, Virginia. 

Prime candidates for the first president to host a barbecue at the "president's palace" include the first five presidents: George Washington, 1789-1797, John Adams, 1797-1801, Thomas Jefferson, 1801-1809, James Madison, 1809-1817, and James Monroe, 1817-1825. Four of these five presidents were Virginians. Of course, the political barbecue was born in Virginia and all Virginian politicians of that era hosted barbecues as a part of their political campaigns. However, even though John Adams was not a Virginian, he was no stranger to barbecues.

Of course, George Washington was an avid Virginia-style barbecue enthusiast. There are numerous records of his barbecue adventures. He often hosted barbecues and attended barbecues held by others. His parents celebrated their marriage with several Virginia barbecues and he even fed his soldiers with Virginia-style barbecue at the end of the Revolutionary War. When the cornerstone of the Capitol building was laid, George Washington presided over the event that was celebrated with a Virginia barbecue. A 500-pound ox was barbecued old Virginia-style and was served to an eager crowd. Though it is possible that a barbecue was held during the laying of the White House cornerstone, there is no record of it. Further, George Washington never lived in the White House, therefore he is not the first president to host a barbecue there.
Government Island Rock 
A section of large sandstone at the
public quarry of
Government Island, Virginia.

John Adams was the first president to live in the White House. Even though he was from Massachusetts, he was known to have attended barbecues from time to time. He, like his Virginian colleagues, came to understand how effective barbecues could be in reaching rural populations. In 1769, Adams attended a barbecue at Dorchester Heights in Boston hosted by the Sons of Liberty. He wrote in his diary that barbecues, “tinge the Minds of the People, they impregnate them with the sentiments of Liberty. They render the People fond of their Leaders in the Cause, and averse and bitter against all opposers.” Even so, there is no record that John Adams ever hosted a barbecue anywhere including at the White House.

Thomas Jefferson was the second president to reside in the White House. Being a Virginian, Jefferson was very familiar with barbecues. He had at least one spring on his property at Monticello that was a popular place to host them. Even so, there is no record of Jefferson ever hosting a barbecue at the White House. The following account from the July 26, 1808, Enquirer is of a barbecue to which Jefferson was invited but didn’t attend choosing instead to stay at the White House where, apparently, no barbecue was being hosted.

“The citizens of Albemarle County convened in Charlottesville to celebrate the 4th of July. The Declaration of American Independence was read to a large assembly in the Courthouse. At three o'clock the company animated by the presence of many of the most accomplished ladies in the vicinity, sat down to a handsome barbecue provided by Mr. Elijah Garth. After dinner, on the retiring of the ladies, the gentlemen drank toasts to July fourth, the People, the Constitution, America ‘the world’s best hope,’ George Washington, the Patriots of ’76 and to Virginia saying ‘In the war of the revolution she led the van. In the dark period of the reign of terror, she fanned the decaying flame, and cheered the drooping sons of freedom. She will never tarnish the luster of her fame.’”

By 1820, Jefferson had abandoned barbecue events all together. In an 1820 letter written by Elizabeth House Trist to Nicholas P. Trist she wrote, “Mr. Jefferson had an invitation to a barbecue near Charlottesville which he declined as he had long given up attending these festivals.”

James Madison (the father of the U.S. Constitution) was an avid lover of Virginia barbecues. There are numerous records of the events hosted by him and his wife, Dolly. Some of Madison’s old Virginia barbecues were private events and others were official dinners with hundreds of guests in attendance including foreign leaders and dignitaries. At the official barbecues, male servants would dress in colorful clothing with shiny brass buttons and clean aprons, and women servants would dress in impressive and colorful dresses. Dolly Madison’s niece, Mary Cutts, wrote of barbecues at Montpelier (Madison’s plantation in Orange, Virginia):
“Barbecues were then at their height of popularity. To see the sumptuous board spread under the forest oaks, the growth of centuries, animals roasted whole, everything that a luxurious country could produce, wines, and the well filled punch bowl, to say nothing of the invigorating mountain air, was enough to fill the heart . . . with joy! . . . At these feasts the woods were alive with guests, carriages, horses, servants and children—for all went—often more than a hundred guests. All happy at the prospect of a meeting, which was a scene of pleasure and hilarity. The laugh with hearty good will, the jest, after the crops, ‘farmer’s topics’ and politics had been discussed. If not too late, these meetings were terminated by a dance.”
Recently, archaeologists discovered a barbecue pit on the south lawn of Montpelier that was in use during Madison’s lifetime. Remains included several fragments of animal bones including those from pigs. In spite of Madison’s obvious fondness for Virginia barbecues, there is no record of him hosting one at the White House. It appears that the closest to a barbecue held at the White House during Madison’s tenure as president was during the War of 1812 when the British set fire to the President’s House in 1814.

James Monroe lived in the White House between the years 1817 and 1825. He too was a Virginian and many records describe old Virginia barbecues that he attended or hosted. However, there are no records that he hosted a barbecue at the White House. 

The Political Barbecue by Henry Robinson, 1834.
Surprisingly, history records that the first president to host a barbecue at the White House was Andrew Jackson. I discovered this fact when reading the transcript of an address made by Kentucky Congressman John Kincaid in August 1829. In that address, Kincaid mentioned “the barbecue at the White House on the 4th of July.”

Andrew Jackson was the president between March 4, 1829 and March 3, 1837. Therefore, history records that he was the first president to host a barbecue at the White House.

President Jackson had a long history with barbecues. The city of Fredericksburg, Virginia, rolled out the red carpet when President Andrew Jackson visited to reside over the laying of the original Mary Washington, Mother of George Washington, monument cornerstone in 1833. Music filled the air as military processions, parades, dignitaries and crowds of admirers filled the streets. The occasion drew more people to Fredericksburg than Lafayette's visit to the town in 1824. The event was celebrated with a barbecue "in the old-fashioned Virginia style . . . prepared under an ample awning, in the beautiful grounds of Hazel Hill." Five hundred attendees partook of the Virginia-style barbecued beef.

Andrew Jackson has always been a controversial figure. Some love him. Some hate him. As President Jackson was travelling to Fredericksburg to attend the barbecue, the first recorded instance of physical assault on an American president occurred. Lieutenant R. B. Randolph had been severely reprimanded for misconduct. Encountering the President on a road between Quantico and Fredericksburg, the lieutenant decided to administer some personal retribution because of the court martial.  As the discussion between Randolph and the President became heated, he grabbed President Jackson’s nose and violently wrung it before fleeing away. No doubt this assault by a young man against a man in his seventies was painful. As the Bible tells us, “the wringing of the nose bringeth forth blood,” and reports of the assault describe it as “reckless and brutal” even though President Jackson played down the event.

An 1834 political cartoon titled "The Political Barbecue" satirized the controversy surrounding
Jackson's withdrawal of federal funds from the Second Bank of the United States. In the cartoon Jackson is depicted as being barbecued like a hog on the fires of public opinion. Martin Van Buren (depicted almost like a rodent) scampers away with a hoard of Treasury Notes. The barbecue cooks are depictions of five vocal critics of Jackson's bank policy—Senators Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, William B. Preston, Bank president Nicholas Biddle, and an unidentified fifth man.

Controversy aside, perhaps Jackson’s most significant contributions to the history of barbecue in the United States were the barbecue trees planted during his presidency. An old newspaper account tells us,
The "Barbecue Trees" can be seen in the lower left corner
of this 1860 pencil drawing of the U.S. Capitol.
“South of the Washington Elm are the Barbecue Trees planted during Jackson’s Administration by James Maher, a Jolly Irishman who owed his appointment as superintendent of the Capitol Grounds to the President’s personal friendship. These trees are relics of two circular groves intended for barbecue celebrations one for Democrats the other for Whigs.”
Images of the “barbecue trees” were captured by an artist in 1860. The pencil drawing shows two oval groves just outside the Capitol building.

To read more, see Virginia Barbecue: A History available in bookstores and online now.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A Georgia Barbecue in the 1870s

John Herring's account of a barbecue in Georgia sometime in the 1870s is a fascinating look into the history of southern barbecue. John Lewis Herring was born on December 8, 1866, in Albany, Georgia. He was the son of William Jasper Herring and Rebecca Paul Herring. In 1886, he married Martha Susan Greene. They had 10 children. Herring was the editor of the Tifton Gazette newspaper for 26 years. In 1912, Herring briefly left the Gazette under the management of his sons to work as an associate editor with the Savannah Morning News. While in Savannah, he began writing a series of articles titled "Saturday Night Sketches" which describe life in the Wiregrass area of Georgia during the last half of the 19th century. The articles were published in the Gazette for several years. In 1918, they were published in Herring’s book titled Saturday Night Sketches; Stories of Old Wiregrass Georgia. Herring died in 1923. This account of a Georgia barbecue in the 1870s is from the chapter of Herring’s book titled “Fourth of July in the Olden Time.”

Herring makes it clear that Brunswick stew was not widely served at Georgia barbecues until after the Reconstruction era. In the book Brunswick Stew: A Virginia Tradition, I show in great detail with documented sources that Brunswick stew was most certainly born in Brunswick County, Virginia, not Brunswick, Georgia, as is claimed by some today. Herring also points out that by the early 1900s, southern barbecue had changed. I document and describe the changes to southern barbecue after the end of the Civil War and some of the causes in the book Virginia Barbecue: A History. Stating, "barbecue in those days was seasoned in the cooking," Herring was referring to the emerging use of barbecue sauces served on the side and the use of rubs to season the meat before placing it on the pit. In the 1870s, unseasoned animal carcasses were placed  on a grill set over a pit dug in the ground filled with hot coals. The only seasoning put on the meat came from the vinegar-based basting mixture that was applied as it cooked. By the early 20th century, barbecue with sauce served on the side was becoming a common offering. At any rate, the account of the old time barbecue is well worth the read.

"Oh, Lordy, Ma; Jack Kilcrease has drunk seventeen cups o' coffee, and now it's all gone."  The plaintive wail of the bereaved caused some of the eaters nearby to turn their heads and look, but their attention was brief. Four or five deep, they stood by long lines of tables, the men outside, the women inside, with hands full of barbecued meat and cornbread, jaws working, and pocket-knives cutting from time to time liberal portions to supply the vacancy the expanded swallows created. 
The one feature of the festival of forty years ago in which time has wrought little change is the barbecue. There is a difference in detail now, but the essentials are about the same as half a century gone. 
Then there was not much of a display of Old Glory, for too many men were alive to whom the flag brought unpleasant memories; but the speech was pretty much the same; the barbecue almost the same — only the people were different.  
The beeves, the hogs, the goats and the sheep had been killed the day before, and brought in by the contributors during the afternoon. In the long pits fires of oak wood, hauled from a distant grove, had been burning all day; now a bed of embers glowed their length.  
Nearby there was a burning heap of oak logs, to replace the coals from time to time.
On spits of oak laid across the pits, the meat rested — usually a quarter of beef cut in half; a hog, sheep or goat split lengthwise. Under this, all night the fires were kept going, the meat being turned occasionally as it slowly cooked. It was this deliberate, gradually broiling process, that gave the barbecue its flavor. From time to time the chief cook's first assistant passed up one side and down the other of the pits, and with a mop on a short handle basted the roasting meat from a bucket containing salt, pepper, and various seasoning condiments. For barbecue in those days was seasoned in the cooking.  
All night long the cooks kept their vigil, for constant supervision was the price of well-cooked meats, and on the cook the success of the day depended.  Many were the yarns told — principally personal recollections of the war just passed, for usually it was veterans who were supervising the cooking — during the night around the fire. When morning came, the cooks were gaunt-faced and egg-eyed, but their task was not done, for the meat must be cooked up to the hour the tables were placed, and then the fire withdrawn just in time to allow the meat to cool enough to cut. 
About nine o'clock the crowd began to arrive. They came in buggies, a few in two-horse wagons, but a great many in horse-carts, the man on the horse, the family balanced In the cart over the axle; still others on horseback, but a great many, hundreds in fact, on foot, for little was thought of a ten-mile walk in those days.  
After each newcomer had made a round of inspection of the barbecue pits, each expressing his opinion of how it ought to be done, they gathered under the shade of the pines, to swap gossip and neighborhood news, trade horses, or crack jokes. 
There was a lemonade stand with its hard-worked force, for ice had been hauled many miles, at great expense, and the weak compound was swallowed more for the cooling "kick" than for any ingredients it was supposed to contain. Of watermelons there were none, for they did not ripen so early then.  
Near the stand were many boys, with long breeches and watering mouths, gazing on what they had not the money to buy. They had been the rounds of the pits. Inhaling the savory odor of the cooking meats until hunger drove away even the smart from bare feet that had incautiously stepped on live coals. Only too close by was the grocery, where stronger liquors were sold, and where later in the day a row started which afterwards bereaved two families.  
A small platform had been built, covered with brush and floored with borrowed plank. Here the orator of the day held forth. The Fourth of July speech then was much the speech of to-day. The tail feathers of the eagle were yanked until the bird of freedom screamed, and the adherents of the more or less famous politician applauded according to their devotion or enthusiasm, liquid or mental, while the urchins looking on and understanding not, wished he would quit, so dinner could come. The babies cried, the young folks courted, a group nearby laughed at a joke, sundry matrons swapped confidences and dipped snuff — all within plain hearing of the speaker, who heroically stuck to the job.  
Everything must end, and at last the speaking was over. Up from the pits, tubs and cedar piggins [small wooden pails] of the meat were carried and distributed along the tables, these innocent of even paper covering. There was no Brunswick stew in those days; no pickles, nor trimmings, but the cue was there in abundance for every man to eat his fill, and for many of the provident to carry off a supply against the day to come.  
The housewives had brought great stacks of pone cornbread — there was no baker's bread to be had — and this was cut and distributed with the meats. Then the wives brought forward trunks and baskets and from these what looked like an inexhaustible supply of good things to eat, and added them to the cue on the tables. Many could not miss, even for a meal, the cup of coffee, and to supply them, pots had been set on the coals near the pits until their contents boiled. It was when he diminished the supply in sight that a thirsty citizen provoked the boy to protest.  
Those people did not know much of the delicacies, but they brought to the meal appetites of plow hands and the digestions of rail-splitters. It was no small task to feed them but the men in charge knew what to provide for, and at last they were fed. Then hot-foot for the well, and crowd and push for the water that after all is the only perfect quencher of thirst.  
After dinner, the speaker gone, the platform gave place to the fiddlers, the straw-beaters, the caller and the dancing couples. Despite the July heat, despite the perspiration that made rags of the home-laundered shirts and collars and caused the color to "run" in many a beloved calico dress, until the shades of evening drove them home, the dancing went on, ever-changing individuals, but the same thing in form. There we leave them, the old folks hitching up for the homeward journey, the young folks still stepping lively to the jingling tune of the "Arkansaw [sic] Traveler," or one of his many kindred, or: 
"Johnny, get your hair cut, hair cut, hair cut,
Johnny, get your hair cut, shave and shine,
Johnny, get your hair cut, hair cut, hair cut;
Johnny, get your hair cut, just like mine." 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

The Modern Myth of the Word "Barbecue"

One of the biggest myths surrounding barbecue is the meaning and origin of the word "barbecue." The myth is repeated so often that people have started believing it. The myth is even propagated by a very famous TV personality who hosts his own popular cooking show (Alton Brown; Good Eats). He once said, "The word "barbecue" derives from a very old Caribbean word, "barbacoa," meaning to cook on green sticks directly over a smoldering fire."

Though it may be true in our times that "barbacoa" refers to cooking over smoldering coals, few, if any, use green sticks as a grill nowadays. Alton Brown may be confusing what we call "barbacoa," or "barbecue," today, with how 16th-century Native Americans prepared meat that was resting on green sticks. However, the word "barbacoa" had a very different meaning in those days. Originally, the word "barbacoa" had nothing to do specifically with cooking. The word "barbacoa" started as a noun. Only after European mangling of the word in the 17th century did it become a verb referring to cooking.

Deceased Native American Bodies
Resting on Hurdles a.k.a. Barbacoas.
Circa 1900.
History teaches us that the word "barbacoa" referred to “The Haitian name for a framework of sticks set upon posts"; no more, no less. From the 16th through 17th centuries, a barbacoa, a.k.a. barbecue, was nothing more than what English writers referred to as an American Indian hurdle and most often it had nothing to do with cooking over a fire.

Native American hurdles were used for many different purposes. Corn cribs, dinner tables, beds, chairs, food dehydrators, bridges and even above ground graves were all made with hurdles or what we would call a wooden barbecue grill. Those kinds of non-cooking uses of the word "barbacoa" or "barbecue" represent the vast majority of the word's appearances in old writings. Overall, very few of the 16th through 17th century references to "barbacoa" or "barbecue" refer to food being cooked over fire. For example, in 1699, William Dampier used the word "barbecue" to refer to beds and chairs.

16th and 17th century Europeans didn't always have words to describe what they witnessed in the New World. Therefore, they often adopted Native American words. That's how we get our words succotash, opossum, raccoon, hominy and barbecue.
Powhatan Indian Bed made using a Hurdle

Our English word "barbecue" comes from the Spanish word "barbacoa."  17th-century Taino people in Haiti used to call wooden hurdles "barabacoa." The Spanish adopted the word from the Taino Indians changing it to "barbacoa." The English, like so many other New World words, adopted the word "barbacoa" from the Spanish but Anglicized it into "barbecue."

Different Native American tribes used their own words to refer to hurdles. In parts of the New World explored by the French, Native tribes called their hurdles "boucan." Native Americans in Guyana called their hurdles "barbacot." The Island Carribs, neighbors to the Taino in Haiti, called their hurdles "aribel." Powhatan Indians called their hurdles "petaosawin" (pronounced “petō-saw-ween”). However, the word "barbecue" is the one that English speakers adopted.

French speakers adopted "boucan" from the Tupi Indian word "mukem" (possibly "bukem"). Spanish speakers adopted "barbacoa" from the Taino word "barabacoa." By the 1630's, the English word "barbycu" was adopted by English speakers. Virginia Barbecue: A History  documents that the first use of an Anglicized version of the word "barbecue" used as a verb in English literature occurred in 1648. That is thirteen years earlier than The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and just about every other barbecue history book in existence. Those sources wrongly claim that the first use of the word "barbecue" in English literature was in 1661. The first use in English literature of the word "barbecue" as a noun occurred in 1657. Again, that is earlier than the OED and all other barbecue history books that I have ever read claim except for Virginia Barbecue: A History.

Virginia Powhatan Indian-style Hurdle.
So, you may be wondering, when did the word "barbecue" acquire its modern meanings? That happened in Virginia in the 17th century. Sometime in the late 1500s or early 1600s, English speakers started using words they learned from Spanish writings about the New World. And, why wouldn't they? Englishmen of that era were interested in making money from the New World. Therefore, they used the terminology that the Spanish had already established in the 1500s.

For example, Powhatan Indians in Virginia grew tobacco. However, they called it "apook." When English colonists started growing tobacco in Virginia using techniques they learned from Powhatan Indians (not the Taino in Haiti who taught the Spanish how to grow tobacco) they called it "tobacco" when marketing it for sale rather than "apook." They did that because that's what people who previously bought it from the Spanish called it. The adoption of the word "tobacco" doesn't mean that tobacco was "invented" in Haiti by the Taino and spread to the North American colonies. It just means that the same plant was grown by Natives in Taino and Powhatans in Virginia but the commerce of the day dictated what Europeans called it. If the English were the first to go to market with tobacco we very may well be calling it an Anglicized version of "apook" today.

The English adoption of New World Spanish words in that era was often driven by business requirements. After all, what European hooked on Spanish tobacco would want to switch over to something called "apook"? No one would and the English knew that. In the case of the word "barbecue," it became well known among the English as a New World word so they accepted it too; not because they learned to use a barbecue from people in the Caribbean but because that was the already accepted New World word for the device.

So, after toying with the words roasting, carbonadoing and barbecadoing, early Virginian colonists finally started calling the wooden Powhatan grills "barbecues." From there, Virginians started calling events where barbecued meats were served a "barbecue"; the act of cooking on a barbecue they called "barbecuing"; and the meat so cooked was "barbecued" and called "barbecue." That's how and where the modern usages of the word barbecue were born. James Hammond Trumbull, a renowned 19th century American scholar and philologist, plainly stated that the word barbecue is a “Virginian word” due to the fact that it was first used in the British North American colonies in Virginia and was transformed into the word we know today.

Drying Meat on a Hurdle. Circa 1900.
A similar myth to this one claims that barbecue the food and cooking technique originated in the Caribbean and was imported into North Carolina where it spread to the rest of the South. That tired, old myth is engrained in so many poorly researched barbecue TV shows and magazine articles that it is a tough one to dislodge. However, just because it is often repeated doesn't make it true. I will tackle that myth in my next "Barbecue Myths" post.

Read more in Virginia Barbecue: A History.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Delicious Virginia-style Barbecue Brisket Recipe

Virginians have been barbecuing beef since at least 1645. That's no less than 35 years before the first Spanish colony was established in Texas.
If Texans think they are the only ones who know how to expertly barbecue beef, as Yoda would say, "No, there is another."
Here is an authentic, Virginia-style barbecued brisket recipe that's easy to barbecue at home and delicious.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Texas Barbecue Myths – Part 2 of 2

This is part 2 of the post Texas Barbecue Myths. For Texas Barbecue Myths – Part 1Click Here.
Myth #5 – Texas-style Barbecue must be Cooked Low and Slow
If you do an Internet search on Texas-style barbecue brisket recipes, you’d think that Texans have nothing to do all day and night but tend a barbecue smoker. Numerous recipes tell the reader that the “proper” way to barbecue a brisket is to do so at low-and-slow temperatures for upwards of 12 to 18 hours. The truth of the matter is, some of the most famous barbecue restaurants in Texas take no more than 5 hours to barbecue a brisket. In fact, some very famous restaurants there “barbecue” their briskets with temperatures as high as 600 degrees. Aaron Franklin of Franklin’s Barbecue in Austin has given several temperatures for barbecuing brisket over the years but all of them are in the 275- to 326-degree range.
The glorious barbecue smoker at Smitty's Barbecue
that greets you when you come through the back door.
If you think about it, it is kind of ridiculous to take 12 hours to cook a 10-pound cut of beef especially when you consider the fact that an entire hog or side of beef can be perfectly barbecued in 8 hours. If you are cooking 25 briskets, perhaps the extra time is needed. If you are cooking one at a time like we do at home, perhaps we should rethink what “low and slow” actually means in terms of cooking barbecue. Some of the greats in Texas certainly have.
Myth #6 – Brisket is the Hardest Cut to Barbecue
People who believe that brisket is the toughest cut of meat to barbecue have never tried to barbecue venison, beef round (a Virginia thing), beef shoulder (also a Virginia thing) or a whole hog (also a Virginia thing). The famous Texas barbecue cook Walter Jetton didn’t believe that brisket was the hardest meat to barbecue. In fact, he used to recommend the cut to people without experience cooking barbecue because, according to Jetton, “it’s a self-basting cut.” (from Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook)
Brisket being served at Kreuz Market.
In my opinion, one of the reasons people fail so often when barbecuing brisket is the plethora of ridiculous instructions found on the Internet. When someone instructs you to barbecue a 10 pound brisket for 12 hours at 200 degrees, it should raise a big, red flag. That sounds more like a beef jerky recipe to me than a barbecue recipe. It’s not the cut of meat that makes it so difficult, it’s all of the bad barbecue cooking methods floating around.
Not only is brisket not the hardest meat to barbecue, it’s also not the tastiest. Though a well barbecued brisket is delicious (think John Lewis Barbecue in Charleston), so is well barbecued pork, chicken, round roast and chuck. I think that many Texas barbecue restaurant owners, deep down inside, know that. That’s why so many are now resorting to cooking prime grade brisket. At least one famous Texas barbecue restaurant, Killen’s Barbecue in Houston, cooks Wagyu brisket that they sell for $30.00 per pound while claiming that they make no profit from it at all. If you have to resort to the highest price grade of meat for barbecue (where the tradition is to turn low quality cuts into a delicacy) to make the barbecue delicious, perhaps that cut of meat isn’t so great tasting to begin with.
Myth #7 – Texas Barbecue is the Best Barbecue in the World
How many times have you read a review of barbecue in Texas and it included some kind of outrageous statement such as, “Texas barbecue is the best in the world!” When I read things like that I think one of two things: either the writer is actually a salesperson masquerading as a writer or the person writing the review hasn’t eaten much barbecue in their life. The truth is, you can find very tasty and exceptional barbecue in Texas. However, you can find very tasty and exceptional barbecue in Kansas City, Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky and a slew of other places. To claim that Texas barbecue is the best in the world is a far-fetched fantasy. To be correct, I’d say that some Texas barbecue is among the best in the world. But, I’d say the same about South Carolina and Virginia. That’s a fact-based statement that recognizes the succulent barbecue in those states while leaving room for other places like Texas to also have delicious barbecue. It’s truth, not salesmanship or myth.
The Truth About Texas Barbecue. What’s Really Unique about It?
The truth about Texas barbecue is that there are very few things about it that are unique. Like some Californians, some Texans cook “barbecue” by burying it in holes after wrapping it in burlap. Like Californians, some Texans also claim to be able to barbecue steaks (west Texas barbecue). Texans barbecue brisket much like people in Kansas City barbecue it. The barbecue sauces in Texas aren’t much different from the sauces you find all around the South. Serving barbecue with only a vinegary hot sauce on the side as they do at Kreuz isn’t confined to Texas. It’s done in North Carolina, too and is probably more of a “North Carolina thing” than a “Texas thing.” Rubs made with only salt and pepper are old hat in Virginia. King’s Barbecue in Petersburg has been in business for 70 years. They serve delicious Virginia-style barbecued beef (not briskets) that they season with a rub made with only salt and pepper. Texans cook their barbecue using white oak (called post oak in Texas and in Virginia for as long as I can remember) just like many southerners. There is even a district in my county in Virginia named Post Oak. My Mother's family is from an area named White Oak.

It’s also a centuries old tradition in the South to eat barbecue with your fingers. That’s not just a “Texas thing” and was a “Virginia thing” and a “North Carolina thing” for well over 200 years before it ever became a “Texas thing.” Barbecue served on butcher paper has also been done outside of Texas for a long time. Barbecue restaurants and stands in Kansas City have been serving barbecue on or wrapped in butcher paper at least as far back as the late 19th century when the Father of Kansas City barbecue Henry Perry opened his barbecue stand.
Texas lacks its own barbecue stew. Virginia has Brunswick stew. South Carolina has barbecue hash. Texas lacks a defining barbecue sauce flavor profile. Eastern North Carolina has its undiluted vinegar with salt and peppers. Virginia has its spiced sauces of the central region and the tangy sauces with a hint of mustard in the southside. Texas lacks a true brisket burnt ends tradition like that found in Kansas City. When I visit Texas, I miss barbecue sandwiches with coleslaw on them. The lack of these things is not necessarily a bad thing; it’s a Texas thing.
One of the most unique things about Texas barbecue is a popular magazine that devotes reams of paper, gallons of ink and uncountable numbers of electrons producing lavish and glowing praise on barbecue found in the state or at least in one part of Texas. Texas is a huge state but it only has four barbecue styles found in four regions: Eastern Texas with its southern-style barbecue, Central Texas with its butcher shop-style barbecue, South Texas with its Mexican-style barbacoa, and the cowboy ‘que of West Texas. However, all of the styles of barbecue found in Texas are mostly ignored by the “press” except central Texas-style barbecue. One wonders why there is a noticeable lack of pride in the other styles. I have some ideas about it but they are for another post.
Pork "steaks" at Snow's Barbecue.
Some in Texas like to cut pork butts into three sections before barbecuing them. They call them “pork steaks” (Snow’s in Lexington does this). When I tried them, though tasty, they weren’t exactly pull tender. Though the sauce served at The Salt Lick is tangy reflecting its Alabama roots, many Texas-style barbecue sauces lack a pronounced tanginess. In North Carolina, some there use what’s pretty much undiluted vinegar. In Virginia, we like to tame the vinegar just a little with “spicy condiments” such as Worcestershire, mustard or tomato sauce. Many Texas-style barbecue sauce makers tame the vinegar so much it’s hard to tell it’s there. Perhaps, it isn’t.
Another unique feature that you can find in some Texas barbecue restaurants is the barbecue pit with an open fire at the end. The first time I walked through the backdoor at Smitty’s Barbecue in Lockhart, I was amazed, thrilled and mildly shocked to see an open fire at my feet situated at the end of a barbecue pit with no fence, walls or other safety barrier to prevent someone from stumbling into it. I don’t know of any other state that would allow such a thing due to safety regulations. Even so, to me, the pits at Smitty’s barbecue are nothing less than national treasures and shrines to barbecue history. That’s a true Texas barbecue thing.
I’m all for enjoying Texas-style barbecue. When it’s done right, it is delicious. However, I refuse to close my eyes and blindly accept the Texas barbecue myths that are so blatantly spread nowadays by slick writers and over-enthusiastic TV hosts. As they say, "Everything is bigger in Texas" and that includes their barbecue myths.
Texas Barbecue Myths – Part 1Click here.

Texas Barbecue Myths – Part 1 of 2

This is part 1 of the 2 part post Texas Barbecue Myths.

For Texas Barbecue Myths – Part 2Click Here.
I often hear people say something like, “I like my brisket Texas-style seasoned only with salt and pepper, cooked low and slow and served without sauce because my barbecue has nothing to hide.” Though the message is conveyed with relatively few words, it’s an encyclopedia of innuendo, backhanded insults and, frankly, ignorance of barbecue as it exists in Texas. Such a statement goes to show just how far today’s shallow, barbecue themed TV shows and drive-by magazine articles have dumbed down people’s knowledge of barbecue.
Though there is more information about barbecue available nowadays than ever in the history of the world, thanks to the Internet, TV, magazines, books and newspapers, some of the popularized portions of that “knowledge” are nothing more than half-truths and downright falsehoods. The worst part is the fact that too many writers with amplified outlets lazily take turns regurgitating faulty information and echoing each other’s errors ad nauseam. Sadly, the old adage, “A lie travels around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes” is still true; so is the old adage, “If you repeatedly tell a lie, people will come to believe it.” All of the false information about barbecue available today is a witness to the truth of those old sayings.

So, what’s the truth about Texas barbecue? Is barbecue only seasoned with salt and pepper uniquely Texan? Is sauced barbecue shunned in Texas? Is barbecue supposed to be wrapped in butcher paper? Is brisket really a difficult cut of meat to barbecue? Doesn’t everyone “who knows what they are doing” barbecue a brisket for 12 to 18 hours? What about barbecued sausage? Let’s turn off the echo chamber of monkey-see-monkey-do writers and examine the facts.
Myth #1 - Texas-Style Barbecue is Seasoned Only with Salt and Black Pepper
Black's Barbecue Rub.
I know of only one place in Texas that MIGHT season its barbecue with only salt and black pepper. The majority use additional ingredients including sugar. Kreuz (pronounced Krītes) Market in Lockhart uses salt, pepper and cayenne. The same is true of the rub at the Salt Lick in Driftwood. Black’s Barbecue in Lockhart uses additional ingredients in their rub including what looks like red pepper flakes (much like a Virginia-style rub).

However, beyond the rub, Texans add other things to season their barbecue through the use of mops, spritzes and bastes. The people at Snow’s barbecue in Lexington season their barbecue with salt and pepper; some claim that they have also spotted some red pepper flakes. They add other seasonings to the barbecue when they baste it. Snow’s pit masters mop their barbecue as it cooks with a liquid that includes seasonings such as Worcestershire sauce, citrus juice, onions, oil and vinegar. There is much fanfare over Aaron Franklin’s claim that he only seasons his briskets with salt and pepper. But then, he spritzes the briskets as they cook with an amber colored liquid that is yet to be revealed. Unless
The pot of mop in the background
with Tootsie Tomanetz at Snow's
there is some secret liquid salt and pepper in Texas, something more is being used to season the barbecue. John Lewis grew up in El Paso and honed his Texas barbecue cooking skills at Franklin Barbecue in Austin for 2 ½ years. He flat out stated, “I’ve never cooked a brisket in my life whether it be at La Barbecue, at Franklin Barbecue or on the competition circuit with just salt and pepper.” Mopping and spritzing adds seasonings and flavor to the barbecue and the use of a seasoning liquid during the cooking process invalidates the claim that “only salt and black pepper” is used to season the barbecue cooked “Texas-style.”
Myth #2 - Texas Barbecue Doesn’t Need Sauce
The famous sign that greets
customers at Kreuz Market.
Apparently, everyone, except Texans, knows that Texas-style barbecue shouldn’t be served with sauce. Writing about barbecue in Texas in 1937, a reporter for a Dallas newspaper wrote, "Good
Sauce for sale at Black's Barbecue.
barbecue requires much sauce." He went on to describe the Texas-style barbecue sauce that was made with vinegar, hot water, melted butter, sometimes rendered beef suet, salt, black pepper, red pepper, tomato ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, onions and thickened with flour. The writer concluded, "It is useless to ask a Texan for a barbecue sauce recipe in small amounts." That hasn’t changed to this day. If you’ve ever been to Texas and eaten at a barbecue restaurant there, you know that Texans love their barbecue sauces. The stuff is on display at barbecue restaurants there like precious jewels. In fact, I know of NO barbecue restaurant in Texas that doesn’t serve sauce with its barbecue. That’s right, there is NO restaurant in Texas that doesn’t serve sauce with its barbecue; NONE.
Barbecue Sauce for sale at
Iron Works BBQ in Austin.
Apparently, we have Kreuz Market to thank for the Texas no-barbecue-sauce myth. Kreuz Market has a sign hanging in the restaurant with the words “NO BARBECUE SAUCE (NOTHING TO HIDE).” That sign has a lot to do with the myth that Texas barbecue isn’t eaten with sauce on it. Even so, Kreuz Market does serve sauce with its barbecue. I’ve had their barbecue topped with it. The way they skirt the issue is by calling the sauce in the bottles on their tables hot sauce. However, the sauce is meant to be put on their barbecue which makes it a barbecue sauce regardless of what they choose to call it. Further, the families behind Smitty’s and Kreuz Market (both in Lockhart) opened a restaurant near Austin. Squeeze bottles full of barbecue sauce are prominent features on the tables. At the famed “Cathedral of Smoke,” Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas, they serve a sauce that’s made with such ingredients as tomato ketchup, high
Barbecue served at Kreuz Market with
sauce bottle in upper right corner.
fructose corn syrup, MSG, sugar and molasses. Interestingly, black pepper and salt are the last two items listed in the ingredients indicating that the quantity of those two is the smallest. Two interesting omissions are jalapeno and cumin. Aren’t they unique Texas ingredients? John Mueller, protégé of the famous Louie Mueller, has been known to dress his pork ribs using a sweet sauce made with Italian dressing and Karo syrup. That’s real Texas barbecue; or is it Italian barbecue being cooked in Texas? When I was served barbecue at The Salt Lick in Driftwood, Texas, it came with barbecue sauce drizzled over it.
Barbecue slathered with sauce served by
The Salt Lick in Driftwood, TX.
Regarding the “nothing to hide” remark about barbecue sauce, apparently, according to people who hold to that philosophy, every barbecue restaurant in Texas has something to hide. However, in truth, serving barbecue sauce on the side is a long-held tradition in the United States that goes back to at least the earliest years of the 19th century.
Barbecue served with sauce on the side rather than on the barbecue is not merely a “Texas thing.” Many places in the United States serve barbecue with sauce on the side and have done so for a long time.

Actually, barbecue sauce isn’t a bad thing. Barbecue sauce can complement the flavor of barbecue in several ways. It can intensify the flavor of the meat, introduce a counterpoint flavor (vinegar countering the richness of the meat, for example), and, as every competition barbecue cook knows, sauce can enhance barbecue’s appearance.
Barbecue Sauce served at Smitty's
Barbecue in Lockhart.
Some variations of southern barbecue have sauce mixed into the meat, other styles call for it to be served on the side. I’m all for it and so are Texans. If you want to cook “real” Texas-style barbecue, fill up that sauce bottle and serve it with the barbecue. Otherwise, your “Texas” brisket is a poser. In Virginia, many old-time barbecue restaurants not only serve delicious barbecue with the sauce on the side, they don’t even put a barbecue rub on the meat before barbecuing it. That makes it a “Virginia thing,” doesn’t it? So, let’s put this Texas no-sauce myth to bed for good.
Myth #3 – Texas-style Barbecued Sausage
The smoke roaster at Snow's Barbecue.
Texas-style horizontal barbecue smokers may cook what we call today good barbecue, but they are relatively new devices that only started showing up in Texas around the 1950s. Cooking meat in them is more of a roast-smoking technique than a traditional southern barbecuing technique. The Texas horizontal cookers are a major contributor of the origin of the custom of calling a smoke roaster a barbecue smoker. As a result, central Texas-style barbecue is not a traditional southern-style of barbecue.

"Barbecued" sausage at Franklin
Barbecue in Austin.
Traditional southern barbecue isn’t cooked with indirect heat or in a “smokehouse.” Traditional southern barbecue is cooked while being suspended directly over a pit filled with hot coals (not flames). A smokehouse is used to smoke Virginia ham and bacon. Smoked meat in Virginia is a very different thing than barbecued meat. That’s why old school barbecue joints in Virginia and North Carolina advertise their “pit cooked” barbecue rather than their “smoked barbecue.”
Like backyard “barbecuers,” Texans claim to be able to barbecue sausages. We can’t do that in Virginia. Neither can North Carolinians. We can smoke roast them, braise them or grill them, but not barbecue them. Hot dogs are sausages and they can’t be barbecued any more than Texas hot links can be barbecued. Texans smoke roast their sausages and some there use temperatures above 400 degrees Fahrenheit to do so and they call those sausages “barbecue” just like some New Yorkers call their grilled hot dogs “barbecue.“
Myth #4 – Texas-style Barbecued Brisket Must be Wrapped in Butcher Paper

Barbecue at Snow's Barbecue
wrapped in foil.
Someone please tell Tootsie Tomanetz that Texas-style brisket must be wrapped in butcher paper while barbecuing it. Ms. Tomanetz is the pit master at Snow’s Barbecue in Lexington. She is an expert who has cooked barbecue in Texas for 50 years. Snow’s barbecue was named the best barbecue in Texas back in 2008 and still today routinely shows up in top-5 and top-10 lists of Texas barbecue restaurants. Ms. Tomanetz wraps her award-winning brisket in aluminum foil while it cooks. The people at Black’s Barbecue do the same thing. There is a reason why
aluminum foil is known as “the Texas crutch” and butcher paper isn’t. Both are crutches but foil is the crutch of choice in Texas just as it is everywhere else in the country. 
For Texas Barbecue Myths – Part 2Click Here.