The week before last I found myself in Texas at the very epicenter of the barbecue world. So I took advantage of that opportunity by undertaking a five-day food pilgrimage. I’ve got to tell you about it, but lest you worry that you will be indulging in mere food porn, I will close by drawing out some theologico-cultural lessons that I learned from the experience.
My wife had done some consulting with Wilson Hill Academy, an online classical Christian school, helping them get regional accreditation, which they did. So they invited her to their annual gathering in New Braunfels, Texas. I came along for the ride and had absolutely no responsibilities. Seeing how close we were to Lockhart, Texas, the Mecca of Texas-style BBQ, pretty much where it all began, and with the help of a booklet from Texas Monthly giving its Top Fifty list, I hatched my scheme.
You might ask, doesn’t this project partake of the sin of gluttony? Maybe, but to keep myself from overdoing it, I resolved to limit my orders to 8 oz. of brisket and 1 rib at each of the places I would visit, which also would give me a basis of comparison. Though I admit to the risk of sensuality. (Some of the photos show more food, but that includes food for more than one person, all of it being wrapped together.) Didn’t you get tired of eating the same meal for five days straight? Not a chance. The food was that different in the various ways it was prepared. Isn’t this venture rather unhealthy? Maybe, but it actually conforms well to my low-carb regimen.
So I set forth, accompanied by my wife when she could get away, on my BBQ odyssey.
First stop, Smitty’s Market in Lockhart, Texas, the oldest and, arguably, the purest BBQ joint of them all. Though it had its frontier predecessors, BBQ as we know it started in food stores in the late 19th and early 20th century, which added back rooms with wood-burning ovens to smoke the meat that hadn’t sold.
To this day, traditional Texas BBQ follows those conventions: you go into a separate cooking area to buy the meat; the meat is sold by the pound and wrapped in butcher paper; you go back into a market-space area to buy your drinks and sides separately where you can eat on picnic tables.
Lockhart, a small town of 14,000 or so, has no fewer than three iconic BBQ places. I had already eaten at Kreuz’s Market and at Black’s, but I wanted to try Smitty’s, which was at the original location, with the original pits, that dated back over 100 years.
Smitty’s embodies the most hard-core traditionalism. No rubs. No sauce. No plates. No forks. No credit cards. As for the cooking, there were two fires built inside the building, on the floor. (See it here.) The smoke and flames were pulled into the base of these ancient brick cookers, I thought maybe by fans but it was more likely just the draw of the ventilation system. But having the heat source completely outside like that must have meant that the meat was cooked at exceedingly low heat. And it resulted in the normally tough-cut of brisket becoming extraordinarily tender and juicy. Same with the spare rib. Smitty’s was a primal experience, taking me to the essence of BBQ.
The next day I went back to Lockhart to go to Kreuz Market. I had eaten there before, but I wanted them to get their stamp on my Texas Monthly booklet. (Eat at all 50 and you win a Yeti cooler. You also get prizes if you eat at the five oldest, the newest, the top 10 briskets, etc.) The family that ran the original BBQ site that is now Smitty’s had a quarrel. One brother wanted to move to a larger location, while the sister wanted to keep things as they had always been. So the business split in two: Kreuz Market (pronounced “krize”) is now in a large red barn-looking building, with much more seating, though the market structure of buy-by-the-pound wrapped in butcher paper continues. I believe the old business was called “Kreuz,” but the sister christened the old site “Smitty’s.”
The brother evidently made some other changes, such as the BBQ pits having enclosed fire. Kreuz also was so liberal as to allow forks. Also credit cards.
The brisket was not quite so tender as it was at Smitty’s, but it had a deep, dark, smoky taste that I loved. The new ovens must have made it possible to give the meat a smokier flavor, though they must cook hotter. But taste-wise, Kreuz was superb.
The next day, my wife joining me, we drove to Luling, Texas, home of City Market BBQ. This is another market-style joint in an old building, but this represents another stage of refinement. The meat was tender, like at Smitty’s, and wonderfully flavorful like at Kreuz’s (though not so smoky), but now rubs and sauces have been invented!
The sauce was a revelation, unlike any I had had before, employing both vinegar (as in other Texas styles), plus mustard (as in southeastern styles), plus sweetness (as in Kansas City styles), plus spices all its own. As for how good it was, I will defer to another food critic:
Now THAT is a sauce. I can definitely say that this is the best sauce I’ve ever had. I know, I have promised I won’t proclaim a definitive winner in any category, but so what. This sauce is THE BOMB. I want to bathe in it. I want to eat it on everything, for every meal, forever. This sauce needs to be sold nationally. It needs to be elected President (would definitely do better than Obama). It needs its own tumblr site where it is just poured on things.
Next stop: Baker Boys BBQ in Gonzalez (“birthplace of Texas liberty”). This is a newcomer to the Texas Monthly list, started by a father and son team who made a name for themselves on the competitive BBQ circuit. Barbecue as sport.
The Baker Boys don’t use the traditional pits. There was no wood piled up in back. They use vaulted smokers with oak charcoal.
And I soon had other reasons for concern. They had plates! You didn’t have to order the meat by the pound! They had unique sides like a potato casserole with cheese and onion and a jalepeno-stuffed chicken leg. What’s that stuff doing on a BBQ menu?
Liberalism! Blasphemy! Decadent departures from tradition! Modernist technology!
This was no sophisticated millennial gathering place, but a sheet metal building with a blue collar clientele. And they weren’t so far gone as to have table service, the food being served cafeteria style, a mere nod to the iconic market approach. But I was still indignant and skeptical.
And, yet, when I tasted the actual food, I was dumbfounded. The meat was as tender as butter! And wonderfully smoky and flavorful! Even more tender than Smitty’s and even smokier than Kreuz’s. Also the sides were outstanding.
I suppose more modern ovens can give the pitmaster more exact control of the temperature and other factors. The trick to cooking brisket, filled as it with tough connective tissue, is to slowly bring the meat to the optimum temperature, whereupon it just dissolves. But get the temperature any higher and the meat dries out, and, at worst, becomes stringy. The Baker Boys nailed it perfectly!
The final place we visited, my wife coming along again, was Hays County BBQ in San Marcos, Texas. This was another newer establishment. It was in a shiny new building that was made to look like Kreuz Market. Now BBQ had become a convention.
It too violated tradition in the previous ways mentioned, but it added another innovation: It was open at night! Traditionally, BBQ is meant to be eaten during daylight, having its roots in the meals that workers and ranchers ate on their lunch breaks. So all of the previously-mentioned places closed at 6:00 p.m. Hays County, though, was open until 11:00 p.m.! It had big screens on the wall, drink specials, ironic faux-antiques on the walls, and catered to a younger crowd.
But certain BBQ conventions were retained. You ordered by the pound and the food was placed on butcher paper, as in the traditional markets, but everything was then put on individual trays, so it was like having a plate.
If the Baker Boys gave us modernist BBQ, I reasoned, Hays County was postmodernist BBQ.
But was the food ever good! This time it was the spare rib that dissolved. It turns out that Hays County also followed the convention that the meat should be tender, smoky, and delicious.
Here are my final ratings:
Best atmosphere: Smitty’s
Best all-around: Kreuz Market
Best sauce: City Market
Best brisket: Baker Boy’s
Best rib: Hays County
Yes, as in children’s organized sports, everyone won a prize.
But here is what I learned, with applications beyond BBQ:
(1) Traditionalism is good. The best of what a food—or a culture, or a nation, or a religion—has to offer, its very essence, can be found by exploring their historical origins, their founding principles as carried forward by their traditions.
(2) Traditions can develop without obliterating the tradition. Elements can be added that are in harmony with the tradition and that can even become part of the tradition. And traditions-for-tradition’s sake, rather than for the sake of the original principles, have little value.
(3) Traditions can be retained even in a contemporary context. You don’t have to simply replicate the original context or bring back the culture that the traditions grew out of or fixate on an old practice and just never change. If you find that essence, which the tradition conveys, it is possible to bring that forward to a new audience and in new ways. This can include using new technology and new enhancements that do not replace but rather bring out what is most precious in the tradition.
I would add that, at every one of these BBQ joints, I gave thanks to God, who called and gave the pitmasters their culinary gifts, who endowed us with a sense of taste, and who created a world in which it is possible to experience such deliciousness.
Photos are by Gene or Jackquelyn Veith, their own work, and are released into the Public Domain