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Barbecue in Black and White

Carving the racism out of Texas barbecue mythology

As I learned at the barbecue symposium, the epitome of Deep South barbecue is pork, slow-smoked to stringy mush. In the black East Texas style, this original Southern cooking tradition is preserved, but with the substitution of beef, which was cheaper and more plentiful here.

"Need no teef to eat my beef" is a favorite slogan of black Texas barbecue men. If the beef isn't falling apart, then it simply isn't done enough. Black East Texas barbecue has its own aesthetic. If you're judging it by the standards of white barbecue, then you don't get it. Put some of that falling-apart brisket on a bun with barbecue sauce, pickles and onions and think of it as Texas's answer to a Carolina pulled-pork sandwich. Suddenly, you'll understand.

Except for my friends and me, everybody at Burns Bar BQ is black. And everybody seems to be having a good time. The cars in the parking lot remain long after the sandwiches are eaten, and there's a basketball game shaping up on asphalt nearby.

Customer J.W. Peters and Roy Burns chew the fat on a Saturday afternoon.
WPA Collection, Library of Congress
Customer J.W. Peters and Roy Burns chew the fat on a Saturday afternoon.
Look for William Little’s trailer on Highway 3 near 27th Street in Dickinson.
Daniel Kramer
Look for William Little’s trailer on Highway 3 near 27th Street in Dickinson.

A plume of rising oak smoke, liberally scented with spicy meat, has long been the beacon of black celebrations in East Texas. "We ate barbecue at every wedding, funeral and family reunion I can remember," says Garry Reese, a local black writer who grew up in Conroe. "My uncles would stay up all night cooking the meat."

Of course, whites also held huge barbecues in Texas. Barbecues attended by thousands of people, for which whole herds of cattle were slaughtered, marked major occasions of all varieties. But the open-pit cooking style used at these events, and the traditions of barbecue as a focus for civic gathering, came to Texas with the cotton culture. And the people doing the cooking, in the Old South and in East Texas, were black.

"My grandfather Emmett Turner had a pit in the backyard, and I mean a hole in the ground," remembers Bill Bridges, a 77-year-old food writer and photographer from Palestine, when I ask him to describe old-fashioned white barbecues in East Texas. "This would have been around 1930. He used to barbecue a quarter of beef; he wouldn't bother with anything smaller. We'd go to the butcher shop and poke around until he picked one. Then he'd pick up a colored guy named 'Lijah who actually did the work. Grandpa would sit in the shade and drink beer all day and tell 'Lijah what to do: 'Time to turn it over, 'Lijah. Time to mop it.' Grandpa would invite people over and they'd all sit out there and watch it cook. It's hard, sweaty work, and people got blacks to do the work even if they were going to supervise."

When the facts as you understand them don't fit into the existing meta-narrative, you write a counternarrative, a different version of history, Neil Foley told me. Based on oral traditions and other evidence, African-Americans can present a convincing counternarrative of Texas barbecue history.

"After the cotton was all picked, the slaves on the ranches were given meat, whole steers and pigs to barbecue. It was a big party at the end of the harvest," says black cook-off competitor Louis Archendaux.

In fact, barbecue seems to have been just as common on Texas cotton plantations as it was in the rest of the South. "De sarvants had lots ob picnics an ole Marse ud gibe us meat fer barbecue," former Texas slave Winger Vanhook of Waco told an interviewer for The Slave Narratives. This series of interviews with more than 2,300 former slaves, conducted in the late 1930s by writers working for the Works Progress Administration, contains several references to black barbecue by former Texas slaves and their offspring.

Steve Williams, a slave in Goliad County, described life after being driven away from the plantation. "So we jes' scatters 'round, here and yonder, not knowin' zactly what to do. Some of us works on one farm and some on another for a little co'n or some clothes or food. Finally I works 'round 'til I comes to San Angelo, Texas and I cooks barbecue (at a barbecue stand) for a long time 'til I jes' finally breaks down."

Barbecue sellers and outdoor food vendors of all varieties began to thin out in Texas, as in the rest of the country, when state and county sanitary regulations were introduced around 1910. The German and Czech butchers, on the other hand, smoked meat in brick enclosures and were already subject to whatever regulations various Texas counties chose to enforce.

In the 1920s, a Beaumont barbecuer named Joe Burney taught Houston blacks how to construct cinder-block pits that would pass inspection, old-time Houston barbecue man Harry Green told me. During the era of segregation, these black barbecue restaurants in black neighborhoods were quite successful. The Fifth Ward alone supported six famous black barbecue joints.

But with desegregation, African-Americans began to desert the old neighborhoods, and by the early 1970s black-owned barbecue joints started closing their doors. Today, few of the once famous black barbecue restaurants in Houston still exist. Many black barbecuers either gave up or went back to the tradition of running a roadside stand, either on an irregular basis or in a trailer duly licensed by the health department.

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