When I sit down in front of a plate of barbecue, I often ask myself, “How did this get here?” Meaning, what were the techniques, traditions, beliefs, personalities, rituals, superstitions and hardships that resulted in this barbecue coming into being?
This may come off as rather dramatic and unnecessary – it’s just food fer chrissakes – and indeed on many occasions I just want to eat my food and not think about the existential roots of its being. But for most of us, food incorporates some essence of emotion and memory, and the act of placing food on taste buds begins an involuntary fusillade of electric sparks among nerve endings and brain cells resulting in an intellectual and emotional response.
This can happen with any food (and drink too). And yet barbecue is particularly suited to this type of response. There’s a primal quality to the application of fire and smoke to meat for the purpose of cooking it. I’m not going to wax poetic about channeling my inner caveman when making and eating barbecue, but I will say that I think there is some type of ingrained emotional response to the smell of burning wood and cooking meat, to the feel of the heat of the fire, the sight of sparks and flames, and the pop and hiss of fat dripping on embers.
Nothing gets my mind wandering and my mouth watering more than walking into a barbecue joint and being engulfed in the smell of burning wood. And after seeing and tasting the barbecue, I inevitably make certain conclusions and assumptions about the barbecue – the character of the barbecue, if you will – and sometimes even about the character of the people who make it.
On one end of the spectrum is what I call generic or characterless barbecue (others may call it soulless barbecue). There’s a lot of characterless barbecue in Texas. It’s made in electric ovens, with liquid smoke, and presided over by interchangeable “pitmasters.” Regrettably, many of these “barbecue” joints are doing a brisk business. I guess sometimes we just want food that satisfies our hunger and physically nourishes us at a reasonable price. Sometimes restaurants that provide this type of food just happen to call it “barbecue.”
On the other end of the spectrum is barbecue with character and soul, usually made by people with character and soul. It’s hard to make barbecue (and people, really) with character and soul. In my experience, there are a couple of ways to go about it.
One way – the most obvious way – is to commit your life and career to perfecting the art and craft of smoked meat. This doesn’t mean some kind of rigid adherence to recipes in a book. It means spending your life thinking about how to make great barbecue – all the techniques, traditions, tips, tricks and secrets. For relatively new and celebrated Texas barbecue joints like Franklin Barbecue and Snow’s BBQ, the commitment to perfection is manifested and every steaming, quivering brisket that gets pulled out of the smoker.
Aaron Franklin, barely 30 years old, is often described as an “overnight success.” In just the last couple of years, Franklin Barbecue is recognized as one of the best barbecue joints in the United States. But anyone who knows Aaron knows he has spent most of his life thinking about how to make barbecue with character and soul.
Similarly, Snow’s BBQ in Lexington burst on the scene five years ago when it was named Texas Monthly’s top barbecue joint in Texas. But again, this was no overnight success. The pitmaster, Tootsie Tomanetz, has spent much of her 70 years on earth as a pitmaster at various barbecue joints throughout Central Texas. Sitting at one of the picnic tables at Snow’s with a pile of moist, soulful brisket in front of you, watching Miss Tootsie working the smokers a few feet away, and knowing her story, you begin to piece together the answer to the question, “How did this get here?”
Another way to make barbecue with character and soul is to combine a commitment to great barbecue with decades-old tradition. Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas is the epitome of this type of barbecue. Third-generation owner Wayne Mueller makes staggeringly consistent barbecue six days a week using 50-year-old brick smokers and techniques perfected by his father Bobby and grandfather Louie. Sitting in the dining room of Louie Mueller, surrounded by walls caked with decades of smoke, Wayne speaks with awe and admiration about the traditions and commitment established by his father and grandfather. This is barbecue infused with multiple generations of character and soul.
Recently, during a visit to my hometown of Beaumont, I discovered that an old barbecue joint there, Patillo’s Bar-B-Q, had just reopened one of their original locations closed by Hurricane Ike. Patillo’s is the first barbecue joint I ever visited and the current 4th-generation owners make some of the most characterful East Texas-style barbecue anywhere. This year, Patillo’s Bar-B-Q will be 100 years old.
The barbecue at Patillo’s is different from the barbecue you get just about anywhere else in Texas. The sliced brisket is served as thin strips and smothered in a watery and peppery “sauce” laden with bits of beef and fat. The classic East Texas “juicy links” (also called “homemade links” or “spicy links”) literally burst with orange-colored fat and chunks of garlic and ground-up beef trimmings. As far as I can remember, this is the same barbecue that has been served here for decades. The barbecue here is personal and unique. It has character and soul. Not everyone will “get” the style of barbecue served at Patillo’s. But for someone who grew up in Southeast Texas, and who is always asking the question “How did this get here?” it’s some of the best barbecue anywhere.