Barbecue in Black and White

Carving the racism out of Texas barbecue mythology

Racial controversy is part of the culture of Southern food, and the SFA has never shied away from it. In fact, the association's 2004 symposium will be devoted entirely to racial issues in Southern cooking. After all, promoting diversity and multicultural understanding is part of the group's charter.

Which is why the SFA's June 2002 "Taste of Texas Barbecue Trip" ran into problems. The idea was to bring food writers, scholars and barbecue lovers from across the country to the Lone Star State for a barbecue tour. But SFA officials were dismayed to discover that all of the barbecue spots selected by a committee of Texans were white-owned.

The SFA asked for a list with more diversity. The Texas barbecue experts insisted that the state's most emblematic barbecue was produced by Czech and German meat markets. When officials insisted that any SFA program about barbecue in the American South must be multiracial, one Texan on the committee accused the SFA of "inserting a racial agenda" where one didn't belong. In a compromise, a few black- and Hispanic-owned barbecue joints eventually were added to the tour.

Black farmworkers and cowboys were regulars in the back of the old Kreuz Market.
Courtesy of Nina Sells
Black farmworkers and cowboys were regulars in the back of the old Kreuz Market.
Black and Hispanic cotton pickers made Texas barbecue a big business.
WPA Collection, Library of Congress
Black and Hispanic cotton pickers made Texas barbecue a big business.

But the conflict put the widely held assertion that Texas barbecue is a white tradition under the microscope. And considered in the larger context of racial issues discussed at the Ole Miss symposium, the matter raises some troubling questions.

"The Bessinger controversy has given barbecue a starkly political dimension…," wrote The New York Times' black culture and politics reporter, Brent Staples, in September 2002. "The pulled pork sandwich you eat is now taken as an index of where you stand, on the flag, the Civil War and on Maurice Bessinger…"

Last summer, in a piece called "Stalking Barbecue in the Lone Star State," The New York Times picked the top four barbecue joints in Texas: Kreuz Market, Louie Mueller's, Cooper's and The Salt Lick. All of them are white-owned. A barbecue survey that excluded black establishments anywhere else in the South would have drawn angry charges of racism from writers such as Staples.

So why is Texas barbecue different?

The counter runs the length of the long hall beside the meat market, the wood stained black by a century of smoke. Knives are chained to the wall at intervals, and enthusiastic eaters have worn wells into the wood wherever the knives will reach.

This 103-year-old meat market on the courthouse square in Lockhart is probably the most famous barbecue joint in Texas. For most of its history, it was called Kreuz Market. The business was purchased in 1935 by Edgar Schmidt, who kept the original name. But his son, Rick Schmidt, moved the business to a new location down the road. His sister, Nina Sells (née Schmidt), owns the building and now calls the barbecue joint Smitty's Meat Market.

"Which one is Smitty?" I ask, showing Sells a black-and-white photo of two white men in aprons sitting in the meat market.

"That's him," she says, pointing to her dad, Edgar Schmidt.

"And who is this?" I wonder, pointing to a photo of a laughing black man in butcher's whites standing behind a huge pile of meat.

"That's Dummy Wright making sausage," she says.

"Dummy?" I ask.

Houston "Dummy" Wright was pit boss and sausage maker at Kreuz Market for decades, I'm told. Evidently, Edgar ran the meat market up front, and Dummy tended the sausage-making and smoking out back.

When I started writing the Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook, I thought Texas barbecue was invented by German butchers in meat markets like this one. But there were a few problems with that theory. For one thing, "barbecue" isn't a German word or a German concept. So how did wurst and smoked meats like Kassler Rippchen suddenly turn into Texas barbecue?

Several old-time pit bosses tipped me off. It was the black and Hispanic cotton pickers who once roamed the state who started calling German smoked meat barbecue, they said. So I combed through archives in Texas libraries and museums looking for material about cotton pickers and barbecue.

What I found instead were narratives in which former slaves talked about cooking barbecue on Texas cotton plantations before the Civil War, and turn-of-the-century photos of blacks cooking barbecue in earthen pits.

It wasn't what I was looking for. In fact, it ruined my whole neatly organized book outline. If blacks were cooking barbecue on cotton plantations in Texas in the mid-1800s, then how could I write that German butchers invented Texas barbecue half a century later?

And how did it happen that we forgot blacks used to cook barbecue in Texas in the first place?

According to University of Texas history professor Neil Foley, "African-Americans have been completely erased from the meta-narrative of Texas history." Foley is the author of White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture. I was intrigued by a couple of paragraphs in the book's introduction about the way Texas reinvented its history after the Civil War, so I called Foley to see if he could help me understand the strange disparities in Texas barbecue history.

"You want to hang your mythological hat on something you can be proud of," Foley said. "The image of the rest of the South was cotton, the Confederate flag, overalls and mules. But Texas had something no other Southern state had: the Alamo. Texans were the men who won the West, the men who defeated the Mexicans.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help