Barbecue in Black and White

Carving the racism out of Texas barbecue mythology

"So in early-20th-century Texas," he continued, "Texas started to consciously reshape its history." The melancholy Confederate symbolism was swept away in favor of the mythology of the cowboy.

Of course, Anglo Texans didn't actually invent the cattle culture, as some American history texts claim. "What did Moses Austin from Connecticut know about cattle?" Foley chuckled. "There was already a thriving cattle culture in northern Mexico before the Anglos ever got here…But there's nothing new or unusual about this sort of thing; it's been going on forever. You expropriate the cultural material of the people you subjugate and then repackage it as part of your own culture."

And so it was with barbecue. Mexican barbacoa was probably common in South and West Texas before open-pit barbecue arrived. Foley believes that whites and Mexicans have struck a Faustian bargain in Texas: Mexican-Texans play the role of the colorful minority, and in exchange, Anglos acknowledge that much of the state's heritage is actually Mexican. But blacks were an inconvenient reminder of cotton and slavery and poverty. So they were left out of the story.

UT professor Neil Foley is the author of White Scourge.
John Anderson
UT professor Neil Foley is the author of White Scourge.
Roy Burns sold barbecue on the side of the road before starting his restaurant.
Daniel Kramer
Roy Burns sold barbecue on the side of the road before starting his restaurant.

"Once the myth becomes accepted history," Foley told me, "nobody questions it anymore. College-educated people from all over the country still see Texas as the wild West. There's a reason for that. Tourists come to Texas to see San Antonio and the Alamo. There are no African-Americans in the Alamo scene."

Texas was settled by brave Anglo pioneers and rugged cowboys, our history books told us. So Texas barbecue must have been invented by Anglos, too. Lacking any specific details, many creation stories emerged. In the proposal for The Chuck Wagon Cookbook of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Ranch, author Jane Sherrod Singer wrote:

"In the cattle raising country of Texas, each owner of a ranch brands his calves with his own insignia, a Texas-kind of heraldry. Legend says that in the early days, a cattle owner, a Mr. Bernarby Quinn, used a branding iron with his initials B.Q., with a straight line under the B. He also served the best steaks for five-hundred miles around. Thus the Bar-B-Q is synonymous with excellent cook-out foods."

The Bar-B-Q ranch story is also recounted in Jane Butel's 1982 cookbook, Finger Lickin' Rib Stickin' Great Tastin' Barbecue. Only in Butel's version, the rancher is named Bernard Quayle. But no one seriously believes this tall tale anymore. Now we dubiously thank German butchers for inventing Texas barbecue.

"The ultimate roots of barbecue can be traced back to the Stone Age…its more immediate Texas origins date from one hundred or so years ago, when meat markets cooked and smoked their surplus stock…," said Texas Monthly in May 1997. Gourmet magazine's Jane and Michael Stern also have credited "East European immigrants" for definitive Texas barbecue.

I called the author of the New York Times article about the best barbecue in the Lone Star State to ask him how he had picked his winners. Steven Raichlen, author of many books on the subject of barbecue, said he had visited a few black places but that the white-owned barbecue joints he'd chosen were classic examples of the Texas style.

"When you're in Florence," he said, "you go see the Michelangelos."

It's a Saturday-afternoon carnival at Burns Bar BQ on De Priest Street in the Acres Homes neighborhood. There's music coming from a jam box out front and more music coming from the cars in the parking lot.

"What's good today?" my companion asks a woman in gray sweats climbing into her car with a pile of Styrofoam containers.

"This time I got ribs," she giggles. "But this is my second trip. It's all good, and they really pile it on!"

Outside the front door, a guy in a black Oakland Raiders shirt and matching hat is standing at a card table, selling CDs at three for $18. There are lots of Marvin Gaye, Temptations and Stevie Wonder albums, along with a little rap. Inside, 20 customers are waiting in line.

I find Roy Burns, the patriarch of Burns Bar BQ, sitting in a plastic chair in the back. Burns, 65, grew up in Midway, Texas. He's been selling barbecue for more than 20 years. "I used to set up a smoker on the side of the road, but my arthritis got to me," he says. So he settled down and opened a restaurant and brought in some family members to help. He has been at this location for the last 12 years.

We eat at a picnic table under a canvas tent in front of the restaurant. The ribs are well done, but the meat holds together under a sweet and subtle glaze of sauce and smoke. They are among the best ribs I've tasted. The brisket falls apart on the way to your mouth; it's as soft and wet as pot roast.

"That's the difference between white and black barbecue," Houston artist Bert Long once told me. "White people don't cook it as long. And they doctor it up with marinades. Blacks cook everything to death." At Goode Co., every piece of meat is served in a perfect slice, he said. In the black East Texas style, they don't mind serving you a messy pile of meat debris.

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