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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.

The succulent East Texas brisket is coated with dry rub for 24 hours and smoked until tender. Then it's held in a covered roasting pan in the oven where it continues to slow-cook. Howard Rivers's fork-sliding ribs are perfectly cooked then held in an ice chest to steam themselves soft. A spicy barbecue sauce adds a tangy touch. If the homemade mashed potato salad, creamy cole slaw and soft-as-butter beans taste like they came from a church hall potluck supper, that's because they practically did. I just wish they would buy better sausage. They use the kind that tastes like bologna.


The screen door slams behind me, and it takes a minute for my eyes to adjust to the darkness inside. I can smell barbecue, but the scene that emerges doesn't make sense. At John's Country Store in Egypt, just north of Wharton, there are antique 7Up signs on the walls and patent medicines on the shelves. There are a few tables with red checkered tablecloths up front, so I sit down. A man named Bubba Hodges comes by and takes my order. The choice is pretty easy. All they have is brisket and sausage. There are no sides. I order a brisket sandwich.

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.
There's the rub: Pfeffer seasons the meat at Dozier's.
Deron Neblett
There's the rub: Pfeffer seasons the meat at Dozier's.

While my order is being prepared, I wander around. There is a very old saloon adjoining the store; in it, I notice a safe with the inscription "Northington Land Cattle Company, 1867." The barbecue pits are in a middle room, and in the back of the store, there is another room with a pool table and a jukebox. This room has no glass or screens on the windows, just big wooden shutters hinged at the top and propped open with two-by-fours. Outside, a brown horse with a black mane is grazing in the bright summer sun. Flies buzz around the crude homemade wooden booths.

John's Country Store not only sells antiques, it is an antique. It was called G.H. Northington Sr. Mercantile Store when it first opened in 1900. Over the years, a feed store, meat market and saloon were added to the original structure, creating the little commercial strip of Egypt that you see today. From the turn of the century until the late 1950s, when cotton picking was mechanized, thousands of cotton pickers strained the capacities of farming towns like this one southwest of Houston. After the pickers were paid their day's wages, they headed for the nearest store or meat market and bought ready-to-eat barbecued meats. The brisket at John's Country Store is very flavorful and very tender. The smokiness is accented with an interesting blend of seasonings. Hodges tells me the brisket is coated with dry rub for 24 hours, then smoked for about five hours on a fabricated steel smoker with a blend of half mesquite and half pecan. During this time, it's basted with a mop sauce that is seasoned with onions, lemons and spices. Then it's wrapped in aluminum foil with the onions and lemons from the mop sauce and cooked on the smoker for several more hours. This old country recipe has been used here for more years than anybody can count.

In 1978 the store came into the ownership of a G.H. Northington descendant, John Northington, who changed the name to John's Country Store, where he sells beer, barbecue and antiques. A band plays in the back sometimes, and corporations rent the place out for company barbecues.

It's just a relic now, but once upon a time, Northington's was the center of all commerce in these parts. There is an antique desk with a strange dummy of a woman sitting at it. Hodges told me it was the likeness of the paymaster, a woman named Miss Ivory. "That's where all the wages were given out on this plantation for over a hundred years."


"My heart is in barbecue," says Harry Green, an elderly black man and one of Houston's most famous barbecue operators. "I was a barbecue man for 46 years. I can walk into a kitchen, cut a piece of meat and tell you how long and how fast you cooked it. I know you think I'm bullshitting you, but that's the honest truth."

Harry Green was schooled in the East Texas barbecue tradition. The settlers of East Texas weren't cattle ranchers; they were pig farmers. They had come from Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana, and they knew how to butcher pigs and cure pork. They built smokehouses where hams and bacon were cured, and they understood the nuances of cold smoking and barbecuing better than most modern cooks ever will.

Harry Green is retired now, but he once had three barbecue joints in Houston. Green's Bar-B-Q on Almeda still bears his name. "In 1953 I moved into a vacant drugstore on Dowling Street [now the location of Drexler's Bar-B-Q] and built a brick barbecue pit there," he tells me.

Green traces his lineage as a barbecue man back through Houston's greatest practitioners of the art. "I learned from Joe Burney; he had Burney's Barbecue and Avalon Barbecue in the 2700 block of Dowling. Joe Burney learned from Matt Garner. Matt was the oldest around here. He came from Beaumont, must have been in the 1920s. He had Matt's Barbecue on West Dallas, which later moved to West Gray. The barbecue was much better in the old days."

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