Raking the Coals
The problem with doing a sidebar on a book by one of your colleagues is that there are certain questions you can't ask for the sake of office civility. While sitting down with Houston Press food writer Robb Walsh, for example, I wisely steered clear of questions about his criminal history, his unusual foot fetish or the unfortunate circumstances surrounding his excommunication from the Catholic Church. And as for Whitewater -- well, let's just say that if Ken Starr had thought to haul Walsh in front of the grand jury, it would have been an open-and-shut case, and leave it at that.
So the two of us confined our conversation to his book, Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook. Most books that survey barbecuing in the United States tend to emphasize what makes each region distinct. As a result, Texas barbecue is usually reduced to discussion of beef and the German meat markets. But according to Walsh, this gives short shrift to the diversity of the state. "People get the impression we don't do anything else," he says.
"When we started, I had the same misperceptions everyone else did," Walsh says. But closer scrutiny showed that Texas is a unique cultural hub. "Texas is like ground zero for the cultural ties found in this part of the world," he says.
East Texas barbecue is heavily influenced by Southern blacks and tends to have a lot of sauce. The western part of the state is the home of cowboy barbecue, the kind of place you put meat directly on coals. The south is heavily influenced by Mexico, where you find such specialties as barbacoa, a.k.a. cooked cow's head. The strip running down the center of the state where these three regions meet is known as the shatter zone, the place where you can find all sorts of interesting mixes of styles.
Even the German butchers that New York food writers like to single out owe a lot to black and Hispanic workers. The sausage sold in these shops probably came to be considered barbecue only because that's what the itinerant workers who bought it said it was.
Though it's called a cookbook, Walsh's book is as much about history as it is about recipes. He provides plenty of archival photographs -- from LBJ at the first barbecue state dinner to a backyard cookout in Houston.
Walsh also profiles legendary pit bosses and looks at influences from such unlikely sources as oil fields. Oil barons converted equipment such as barrels and piping into smokers and barbecue rigs. During the oil bust of the '80s, some companies found that they could make more money selling these contraptions. (The days of cooking meat in a hole in the ground disappeared after strict sanitation laws went into effect, but one wonders how used oil drums got by.)
All in all, Walsh shows that the history of Texas barbecuing is as varied as his own checkered past. But loyal readers will have to look elsewhere for that tell-all.
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