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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.

Which means that old-fashioned barbecue hasn't disappeared. It's just turned into an art form.


In the old days, a barbecue pit was a hole in the ground. Hot coals were placed in the hole, and squirrels or mutton or venison cuts were suspended above it. From this simplest of beginnings, four different styles of Texas barbecue have evolved: cowboy, meat market, East Texas and Mexican barbacoa. Each has its own style, and each is associated with a major immigrant group. The Central Texas meat markets were owned by Germans and Czechs. The West Texas cowboys were mostly Anglos. And the East Texas style is associated with Southern blacks.

The barbacoa tradition began in cattle ranches along the border where Mexican ranch hands were given part of their pay in less desirable cuts such as the head. The ranch hands cooked cows' heads, wrapped in maguey leaves or canvas, buried in pits. From this tradition we get barbacoa and lengua (tongue) tacos. Nowadays, the head is usually cooked in a baño maria in a conventional oven. Although it started out as a barbecue style, barbacoa isn't really barbecue anymore.

Cowboy, or open-pit, barbecue is the style that most resembles that original hole in the ground. This style was once practiced all over the state. Huge trench pits were dug for all kinds of major civic celebrations. "Great American Barbecue," reads a broadside from an 1860 political rally thrown by the American Party in Austin. "All citizens of the state are invited to attend." Among the featured speakers was the Honorable Sam Houston. When the soldiers were welcomed home from World War I, town officials ordered barbecue pits dug in city parks. Ranchers would donate cattle and sheep, and the meat would be cooked in the open trench pits for up to 24 hours. The meat was cut into two- to three-pound pieces, which were handled with pitchforks. Marinades were mixed in buckets and applied with mops. The invite-the-whole-state barbecue tradition continued as late as 1941, when Governor W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel was inaugurated and the grounds of the capitol building in Austin were trenched for pits.

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.
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.

Every now and then, it's worth the effort to experience barbecue as it used to be. And you don't have to go very far. Within an hour's drive of downtown Houston, you can go back to the roots of every one of the state's unique barbecue styles.

The old grocery stores in the farm country are just beyond the city's western edge. You can find fabulous East Texas barbecue in Huntsville or on the east side of Houston. There are plenty of Mexicans making barbacoa here, too. (Try a barbacoa taco at La Bamba Meat Market on Washington Avenue; see the Pressreview, "The Mother Flavor," June 29.) And Pizzitola's Bar-B-Cue on Shepherd cooks direct-heat, cowboy-style barbecue on the oldest pit in the city.

You'll be eating high-tech barbecue for the rest of your life. If you want to appreciate barbecue the art form, you better do it now -- before it disappears.


Howard Rivers lifts the lid of the steel barbecue pit and sticks a huge fork into a slab of ribs.

"How do you know when they're done?" I ask.

"When the fork slides through easy," he says.

The barbecue pit is mounted on a trailer, but both tires are flat. The pit evidently isn't going anywhere. Neither is Howard Rivers. Sitting around, shooting the breeze with the boys on the front porch of the New Zion Missionary Baptist Church Barbecue in Huntsville looks like a fine way to spend the afternoon. The scene reminds me more of a barbecue in my backyard than the hustle and bustle of a restaurant. Except that there isn't any beer. But I pull up a chair anyway and join a conversation about this year's pecan harvest. Barbecue may not be a religion in Texas, but the two institutions are closely associated.

Consider this story told to a reporter by William "Uncle Billy" Biggs of Uvalde County in 1941: "Why, we used to have camp meetings that lasted three of four weeks. Everybody would come and camp and listen to every sermon that preacher preached, for no telling when the preacher would get back this way. I remember one big camp meeting they had there one time. They sent for a preacher from back in East Texas somewhere, and they got up money enough to carry the meeting for three weeks. They barbecued beef and goats and had plenty of other stuff to last for three weeks, but at the end of that time, the joiners were still coming in. My wife's father wanted to keep it going another week.He used his own money and killed his own meat for the barbecue."

No barbecue, no religion. Now that's a golden rule. The barbecue-style Texas camp meeting is still going strong here at New Zion Missionary Baptist. Sitting down with the congregation in the funky little church hall is an experience every true barbecue believer should have at least once. Like a pilgrimage to Mecca.

The barbecue began in 1981 when Sister Ward organized a dinner in the church hall as a fund-raiser. It was such a success that they did it again a week later, and pretty soon it became a permanent thing every Wednesday through Saturday. The down-home cooking and good-hearted volunteers make this a wonderful scene. It may not be enough to convert you, but I would gladly sit through a three-hour sermon if I knew this kind of homemade barbecue was waiting at the end.

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