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The Art of Smoke

Technology has changed the nature of barbecue. But deep in the heart of Texas, a few true artists still cling to the old ways. We go in search of greater Houston's greatest pits.

There are three men sitting on a bench in front of Dozier's Grocery on FM 359 in rural Fulshear. I pause on the wood-plank front porch to read the handwritten notes on the bulletin board. A pickup truck honks as it passes by. The three men look up and wave.

Inside, there is a small collection of convenience store items up front and a huge meat market in the back. I order barbecue ribs, sausage and brisket, which I take to one of the eight homemade cedar-legged picnic tables in the back. On the walls above the tables, there are ribbons and photos from the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo barbecue contest as well as a couple of thank-you notes from the White House.

The ribs are as good as I have ever had. They are tender, but instead of the wet consistency common to ribs in East Texas barbecue joints, this meat has a drier, crispier texture, full of flavor. The brisket is so smoky I can detect the aroma before I pick up the meat. Barbecue lovers often judge smoke penetration by the depth of the pink ribbon (called a smoke ring) that appears on the edges of barbecued meat. At Dozier's the ring isn't pink, it's dark red, and instead of the usual quarter inch, it goes a good half inch deep in places. The brisket falls apart beautifully at each bite.

Sweat equity: Drexler's Eric Mathews stands the heat of the kitchen to prepare some of the best 'cue in the city.
Sweat equity: Drexler's Eric Mathews stands the heat of the kitchen to prepare some of the best 'cue in the city.
Billy Pfeffer: Dozier's pit man speak softly and carries a big fork.
Deron Neblett
Billy Pfeffer: Dozier's pit man speak softly and carries a big fork.

But the best thing about Dozier's is the sausage. Both garlic sausage and German sausage are smoked, sliced and served hot. The pork is coarsely ground and seasoned simply, in the classic Central Texas meat-market style. The German sausage is seasoned with mustard seed. Slow-smoked with pecan wood, it holds its shape when sliced, but is meltingly tender when you bite into it. It stands up well to barbecue sauce, but I think it tastes even better without it.

Many of Texas's most legendary barbecue establishments started out as butcher shops. The meat markets built smokers on which they would turn leftovers and scraps into smoked meats and sausages. The butchers, who were often German or Czech immigrants, were following the traditions of German meat smoking and probably had no idea what people were talking about when they called the smoked sausage and pork "barbecue." But they knew they sold a lot of it. Soon enough, the newcomers were calling it barbecue, too.

Out behind Dozier's, I see a long, low steel cylinder smoker with several doors as well as a big steel Oyler-brand smoker, and a chamber with a door and a lot of hangers inside. I ask a man who is forking blackened beef briskets into a pile what gets smoked in which contraption. He tells me the chamber is for bacon, and the Oyler is for brisket. He doesn't seem to understand the rest of my questions. I run into Dozier's owner Scott Evans, who tells me that the man's name is Billy Pfeffer, who comes from a German family. Pfeffer is 52 now, and he has been smoking meat at Dozier's since he was 18. Scott Evans and his brother, Smedley, bought the grocery from the Dozier brothers in 1985, and Pfeffer came along with the store. Pfeffer is a man of few words. He prefers to let his barbecue do the talking. And what his sausage and brisket and ribs say, bite after bite, is simple: Billy Pfeffer is an artist.


In shopping centers all over Houston, barbecue restaurants are decorated to look like old country stores. In these urban barbecues, employees load meat onto the racks of gas-fired rotisserie ovens, push a button and go home. The automated oven does the rest. An igniter lights a couple of hickory or oak logs in the wood chamber and keeps them smoldering while a thermostatically controlled gas burner cooks the meat at the desired temperature. An electronic damper traps the smoke inside and reduces emissions to a minimum.

These high-tech gas-fired ovens are designed to replicate the flavor of old-fashioned barbecue pits, and in some cases, they do an adequate job. Ribs and sausage have a high enough ratio of surface area to volume for these ovens to give them a smoky flavor. But the virtual barbecue pits just don't put out enough smoke for heavier cuts like brisket or pork shoulder. And even the quality of the ribs and sausage pales in comparison to the taste of meat cooked with nothing but smoke.

But there is a real need for these high-tech barbecue units. Pollution problems have made old-fashioned pits difficult to build in big cities. Clean-air programs regulate their emissions, shopping center leases forbid their odors, and neighborhood groups oppose them as a nuisance. So high-tech barbecue is becoming the norm. The old country store was made obsolete by Wal-Mart just as the old-fashioned barbecue pit was made obsolete by the high-tech barbecue oven.

As Marshall McLuhan observed, we never appreciate the existing technology until it is replaced by something new. "Most people, as I indicated, still cling to what I call the rearview-mirror view of their world," McLuhan told Playboy magazine in 1969. "Because we are benumbed by any new technology -- which in turn creates a totally new environment -- we tend to make the old environment more visible; we do so by turning it into an art form and by attaching ourselves to the objects and atmosphere that characterized it."

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