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Texas BBQ Predates the Civil War

The tradition of open-pit barbecues in Texas is older than you think.

The all-you-eat barbecue was nine dollars for adults and half that for children. We carried our plates to a table inside the air-conditioned dance hall and sat down to eat while a guitar-and-accordion duo serenaded us. A band called The Lazy Farmers played polkas and waltzes in a pavilion outside while we waited in line for our food. Later on, a German singing society called the Houston Sängerbund was scheduled to perform.

Dessert was a selection of homemade cakes, pies, cobblers, brownies and the like for 50 cents a slice. My five-year-old put a dollar on the cake wheel and won a strawberry cake with cream cheese icing on her first try. Of course, she immediately wanted to do it again. (Try explaining the evils of gambling to a five-year-old with a strawberry cake in her hands.) The kids wanted to hang around for the auction so we could bid on the exotic chickens that were up for sale, but we went home shortly after lunch.

The Millheim Father's Day Barbecue is a fund-raiser for the preservation of the dance hall. There are similar community barbecue fund-raisers in the other old German dance halls in Austin County as well as a few volunteer fire departments and churches. But the barbecue crews are so short on volunteers, they have combined forces. The crew that cooked the barbecue at Millheim includes volunteers from the Peters, Cat Springs, and Industry barbecues. The same crew will rotate to all six community barbecues this year.

The meat is turned by placing an empty metal basket on top of a loaded one and flipping both.
photo by Eric Sauseda
The meat is turned by placing an empty metal basket on top of a loaded one and flipping both.
The Grawunder boys make the barbecue "gravy." (From right:) James Grawunder has been cooking here for 58 years, his nephew Tom and sons Ray and James Jr. help out.
photo by Eric Sauseda
The Grawunder boys make the barbecue "gravy." (From right:) James Grawunder has been cooking here for 58 years, his nephew Tom and sons Ray and James Jr. help out.

While community barbecues are plentiful, the old Southern barbecue tradition in the Brazos Valley may not last much longer. If you want to see and taste barbecue as it once was, you'd better do it soon. Check the "Community Barbecue Calendar" on the Web site ZenBBQ.com, where I've gathered information on upcoming community barbecues and information on how to volunteer.

Out by the cooking kettles where the barbecue sauce and beans were being transferred to serving pans, I asked head honcho James Grawunder if I could come and peel onions next year. "Sure you can — but you better not show up in those 'city pants,'" he said loudly while pointing at my shorts. The crew members, attired in blue jeans and boots to protect themselves from the hot coals, got a laugh out of that. They were mostly country boys from the local fire departments and county highway department, but there were black and Hispanic volunteers and a couple of younger guys in the group, and I didn't get the impression new blood wouldn't be welcome.

"We are always looking for new volunteers," Joseph Jez told me. The bearded Jez does his part to keep the tradition of community barbecue alive – he's the head of the volunteer crew at the Annual Mother's Day Barbecue in Peters, and he also helps out at the Annual Fridek Grotto celebration at St. Mary's, the Czech Catholic Church in Sealy.

There used to be a lot more community barbecues in Austin County, he said, but many of the old halls and lodges and fraternal organizations are closed now. "If we don't get more young people involved," Jez said, "the tradition is going to die out."

robb@robbwalsh.com

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11 comments
turtletxn
turtletxn

Really enjoyed the article. Great job.

Hermes
Hermes

We used to have an open pit made from an old iron bed headboard and frame. Corrugated tin was used to close off the sides. Hog wire provided the cooking surface. It was always the center of activity at family reunions in Sweet Home, TX. Loved the article. Plan to rig up an open pit on our next visit to the country.

EddievonTrier
EddievonTrier

So, it sounds like 'real BBQ' is closer to the stuff I did on my Weber grill in Chicago, than those smoked meats I find all over the place down here. Is that right?

Tomball girl
Tomball girl

I grew up in Tomball when, in the summer, almost every local church and fire department had a Sunday bar-b-que....and my dad filled in the remaining Sundays with his brisket cooked 14 hours....and as many "split chickens" as he could cook to fill in the spaces. The best bar-b-que we bought was made in the pit behind the only store in "old Washington" (Washington on the Brazos). Every bar-b-que joint I try is judged on those standards. My new pet peave are places that served decent brisket, but no packages of white bread--any Texas knows a pile of brisket is enjoyed a piece at the time on a piece of white bread with pickles and onions, and hopefully a vinegar-based sauce. Oh, for the good old days.....

James H
James H

Awesome article! Really enjoy reading about Texas barbecue.

Paul
Paul

I'm getting hungry and I'm only on page 2 ....

Potful
Potful

Another great piece of food history by Robb Walsh. Thanks!

John
John

Great article. When did City Market start using Southern Pride and what meats do they use it for?

Geezy
Geezy

I'm rather young but grew up in a small town/community of about 2500 people, but this article brings alot of great memories. My father started teaching me how to tend a fire when I was 8- in his words "if a man can't tend a fire, well he ain't shit". A few years later I'd move to helping my Uncle Art tend to the big brick pits at the VFW for fundraisers and communal gatherings. The most important thing about these gathers isn't rather what it's for, but who is ultimately doing the cooking. Word eventually get's out that someone like Gut, Tuna, etc. will be doing the cooking, you'll get the entire town to come out. It's just tradition. About 2 years ago I had a cousin who is a well respected community member have a stroke, so a fundraiser was thrown. Much like what you witnessed, we used 3 brick pits about 20 ft long with the long steel grates and a long slit in the back for coals to get thrown in as needed. All the while, a 6 foot hole had been dugout behind the cooking shed and a small cabrito was laid in the ground and cooked the old way. We cooked 56 briskets that night, 100 links of sausage, 40 pounds of beans and reminisced. All in all takes about 14 hours to cook everything, beats the shit out of your body, but is worth every minute. Kudos to a damn good article here sir.

TOLDYA
TOLDYA

Great article !!!

 
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