Barbecue in Black and White

Carving the racism out of Texas barbecue mythology

"In East Texas, white barbecue is served in restaurants. You get nigger barbecue from a stand by the side of the road -- usually about the size of an outhouse, with a hand-lettered sign," Bill Bridges told me on the phone from Palestine. "In the old days, white barbecue was brisket, the same as it is now. Black barbecue was hot links and the stranger parts of the animals."

Bridges is a very likable and knowledgeable guy, and he doesn't consider himself a racist. But he was born in 1925 and can't break certain lifelong habits. Although his use of the N-word is deplorable, ironically he is one of the few white Texans I've talked to who understand the key role blacks have played in Texas barbecue history.

"Nigger barbecue isn't a derogatory term in East Texas," Bridges says when I ask him about his use of the word. "It's like calling Brazil nuts 'nigger toes.' If anything, the term is used with affection."

William Little offers up one of his masterpieces.
Daniel Kramer
William Little offers up one of his masterpieces.

Smoke billows from a camper-trailer parked in a vacant lot on the side of the road. I've been hearing about this particular trailer, and the barbecued brisket sandwiches that get handed through its little window, for quite some time now. I park my car, walk up to the window and stick my head inside. There I see William Little watching television.

Little ambles over and opens the steel doors of a smoker that has been improbably welded right into the trailer's frame. When the sweet-smelling smoke abates, I see foil-wrapped packages and charred hunks of meat waiting to be sliced. The doors of the smoker open into the camper's kitchen, which has a multicompartment sink, counter space and a refrigerator. The firebox is fed from the outside. The back of the pickup truck that pulls the trailer is loaded with oak and pecan logs. William Little has been working out of this trailer six days a week for the last 15 years.

I first tasted Little's brisket when I begged someone who was going to Dickinson to bring me back a sandwich. I had heard Little had some of the best brisket in the Houston area, and I wasn't disappointed. The meat was incredibly smoky and very tender, and the sandwich was loaded with a huge amount of it. Barbecue sauce had been drizzled on the bun, and the whole thing was topped with raw onions and dill pickles. It was one of the best brisket sandwiches I'd ever had.

I had no idea if the man was black, white or Hispanic when I first heard about his brisket sandwich. Nobody bothered to mention his race, or even his name. They only told me about the barbecue and where to find the trailer.

Little's trailer is usually on the side of Highway 3 at 27th Street in Dickinson. If he isn't there, then he's probably off at an event, like the rodeo in Pasadena. "Did you ever think of entering the Houston rodeo cook-off?" I ask him.

"Nah, I can't afford it," he says, but he doubts he would win anyway. "Black people know how to cook brisket, but the rules for judging are not really about how it tastes. It's all about how pretty it looks. I've eaten brisket cooked by a team that won, and it was nothin' special," Little says as he hands the coveted sandwich and a package of ribs through the little window.

I take a huge bite leaning over the trunk of my car. "Damn, that's some smoky brisket!" I mumble to myself. Black East Texas barbecue doesn't need any help from affirmative action, I reflect as I wipe the sauce off my chin. An unbiased opinion and a map drawn on a napkin will do just fine.

For the best black East Texas barbecue within an hour of downtown, see "A Dozen Brisket Sandwiches."

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