Barbecue in Black and White
Cowgirls are taking turns climbing onto the stage and turning around to display their denim-clad derrieres to the audience. It's the Miss Blue Jeans Contest at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo barbecue cook-off. When a woman wiggles provocatively, the men wave their cowboy hats in the air and roar in approval. The women are all white. And so are the hundred or so guys standing in front of the stage. The cowboy next to me is wearing a colorful necklace of plastic Confederate flags. The atmosphere of a typical cook-off has been described as a redneck Mardi Gras. It's easy to see why.
As the pageant winds down, I wander the grounds taking in the sights. In front of one barbecue booth there's a huge wooden sign with "Confederated Cookers" carved across the Rebel flag. Right around the corner I stumble upon the Skinner Lane Gang busily taking barbecue off the smoker. I stand there staring at them in awe. They are the first all-black barbecue cook-off team I've ever seen. One of them invites me to come in and sit down.
This isn't the Skinner Lane Gang's first big rodeo. They won the overall championship trophy here in 1994. And they hope to win it again this time, they tell me. First, I sample a healthy pile of their brisket and a few excellent ribs. Then I start asking questions.
"How many black teams are entered this year?" I want to know.
"I think there's two or three," says team leader Louis Archendaux. There are 430 teams entered in this year's contest, according to organizers; they have no record of how many are black.
The main reason blacks don't enter barbecue cook-offs is money, says Archendaux, who runs his own chemical company in Sugar Land. "You've got to know somebody. We don't have any sponsors -- except for friends and relatives who help us out with a few bucks here and there." Although the entry fee is only $650, a mandatory million-dollar liability insurance policy, tent and table rentals, ice, and food and beverage expenses run up the tab. "We have one of the littlest booths out here. We are barely getting by with $5,000 or $6,000," Archendaux tells me.
The team's booth is furnished with a few picnic tables and a small bar. There are about a dozen invited guests of various races sitting around eating barbecue and drinking beer.
"How do you decide who to invite in?" I ask.
"We set up folding chairs outside here and watch for hungry people who don't have wristbands," chuckles a team member. "You can tell by the look on their face that they have no idea what's going on. So we bring them in and give them some barbecue."
Anyone foolish enough to come to the Houston rodeo barbecue cook-off without a corporate wristband gets a pathetic chopped barbecue sandwich, a scoop of industrial cole slaw and some tasteless beans served on a Styrofoam plate at the public tent. A $6 general admission ticket also allows them to walk around and peek into the invitation-only tents. Sponsors use these to entertain and raise money for worthy causes -- and that's where the competition-quality barbecue, live bands and open bars are.
For barbecue buffs who lack corporate connections, the Skinner Lane Gang booth is a tiny outpost of real-world charity. I take a second helping of brisket, which is very tender and cut into irregular chunks. I'm curious about how it will fare in the judging. Archendaux tells me the brisket they will enter in the contest is sliced completely differently.
"Do you change your regular cooking style for the competition?" I ask.
"You have to," says Archendaux. "If you get it really tender, you can't slice it perfectly. And appearance is very important to the judges."
"Are any of the judges black?" I wonder.
"Probably not," he says. A visit to the judging booth confirms Archendaux's suspicions: There may be a black judge somewhere, but the 60 or 70 I can see are all white.
Although many barbecue cook-off organizers would like to see more black teams participate, African-Americans are discouraged by the white-dominated judging standards and the frat boy atmosphere -- and then there are the Confederate flags.
"Two years ago, when that flap was going on over in South Carolina, barbecue teams started flying Confederate flags here in Houston," says Archendaux. "Somebody complained and the livestock show folks told the teams to take down the flags." Confederate flags are still banned at the Houston rodeo cook-off.
"Flags don't bother me," says Archendaux. The Skinner Lane Gang has been breaking the color barrier at Texas barbecue cook-offs for going on 20 years now. "We were the first black team at the Fort Bend County Cook-off in 1984," Archendaux says. "They had Confederate flags flying all over the place."
"Did anybody give you trouble?" I ask.
"There's always a few assholes," shrugs Archendaux. "But we're kind of rowdy. If you want to take it there, we can help you out. We never minded a little scrape."
The BP World's Championship Bar-B-Que Contest at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, as it is officially known, doesn't discriminate against African-Americans, its organizers tell me on the phone. If very few blacks choose to participate, well, that's just the way things work out.
But Houston's barbecue contest is symptomatic of the historic racial divide that runs through the middle of Texas barbecue with far more serious consequences. This division wasn't the result of intentional racism, either. It's just that according to Texas mythology, barbecue belongs to white people.
Paper plate in hand, I found a spot at one of the tables set up on the quadrangle of the Ole Miss campus. The pork shoulders had been smoked over hickory until the meat was as soft as mush. I ate mine on a hamburger bun with a vinegary sauce.
The sandwich was delicious, although it's hard for Texans to accept that squishy pork on a bun is actually the purest form of barbecue. Most Texans are equally reluctant to admit that the issue of race has any relevance to the subject of smoked meat in the Lone Star State. And that puts them at odds with the Southern barbecue experts who gathered last October for "Barbecue: Smoke, Sauce and History," a symposium held by the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), an affiliate of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.
At the three-day conference, academics, food writers and chefs from across the country assembled to debate, pontificate about and consume their favorite subject. The meals were catered by some of the most famous names in Southern barbecue, black and white. Supervising the cooking at this particular event was the famous pitmaster Devin Pickard from Centerville, Tennessee.
Barbecue and race have long been emotionally intertwined in the South, where the pit-smoked pork is viewed as a totem for both whites and blacks. Southern culinary historians are accustomed to navigating carefully around the issue of who the true progenitors of Southern barbecue were.
Most scholars agree that the cooking style came from the Caribbean, or at least that's where it was first observed by Europeans. The word initially appeared in print in the English language in 1661. In 1732, Alexander Pope was already writing about the craving: "Send me, Gods! a whole hog barbecu'd."
In colonial times, barbecue was common in the Carolinas and Virginia. Whole hogs cooked over smoldering coals in long pits was the usual methodology. By the height of the plantation era, no political rally, religious revival or civic celebration in the Deep South was complete without a barbecue. Whites obviously did the organizing, but who did the cooking?
In the heart of Dixie, evidence suggests that African-Americans did the work. "It was said that the slaves could barbecue meats best, and when the whites had barbecues, slaves always did the cooking," wrote a former Virginia slave in the Autobiography of Louis Hughes.
But there are also Southern barbecue traditions, in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina and elsewhere, where whites manned the pits.
"Did blacks create Southern barbecue?" I ask Lolis Eric Elie, the black author of the widely acclaimed barbecue book Smokestack Lightning and a staff writer for New Orleans' Times-Picayune.
"You can't draw a straight line between black and white contributions to Southern culture," Elie says diplomatically. "But you can't ignore the fact that the South is distinct from the North because of the presence of so many black people. And many white Southerners are still afraid to acknowledge the African influence that flows through their food, their music, their manner of speech and their attitude toward life."
The origins may be hazy, but there can be no doubt that barbecue became central to black identity in the South after the Civil War. Black barbecue stands on the side of the road sold the favorite barbecue of the Old South. And because of the fame of black barbecue, "whites, in a strange reversal of Jim Crow traditions, made stealthy excursions for take-out orders," according to the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.
But a combination of forces conspired to take the barbecue business away from its rural black roots. Urbanization, new sanitary regulations enacted during the Progressive era, and strict segregation laws gave white-owned barbecue businesses major advantages.
At the symposium, we watched a documentary called Smokestack Lightning: A Day in the Life of Barbecue. In the video, Elie asked the owner of Charles Vergos Rendezvous, perhaps the most famous barbecue joint in Memphis, about the origins of the Tennessee barbecue tradition.
"Brother, to be honest with you, it don't belong to the white folks, it belongs to the black folks," Vergos said. "It's their way of life, it was their way of cooking. They created it. They put it together. They made it. And we took it and we made more money out of it than they did. I hate to say it, but that's a true story."
One of the hottest topics at "Smoke, Sauce and History" was the continuing saga of South Carolina's white barbecue king, Maurice Bessinger. When the Confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina state house in 2000, Bessinger lowered the giant American flags he once flew over his nine Piggie Park restaurants and raised the Confederate flag instead. It wasn't the first time Bessinger had taken a rebel's stand; in the early 1960s, he refused to integrate his barbecue joints until forced by the courts. This time the reaction came from the market: After protests by blacks, national chain stores refused to continue carrying Bessinger's popular barbecue sauce. Bessinger sued the chain stores claiming his right to free speech was being violated.
Racial controversy is part of the culture of Southern food, and the SFA has never shied away from it. In fact, the association's 2004 symposium will be devoted entirely to racial issues in Southern cooking. After all, promoting diversity and multicultural understanding is part of the group's charter.
Which is why the SFA's June 2002 "Taste of Texas Barbecue Trip" ran into problems. The idea was to bring food writers, scholars and barbecue lovers from across the country to the Lone Star State for a barbecue tour. But SFA officials were dismayed to discover that all of the barbecue spots selected by a committee of Texans were white-owned.
The SFA asked for a list with more diversity. The Texas barbecue experts insisted that the state's most emblematic barbecue was produced by Czech and German meat markets. When officials insisted that any SFA program about barbecue in the American South must be multiracial, one Texan on the committee accused the SFA of "inserting a racial agenda" where one didn't belong. In a compromise, a few black- and Hispanic-owned barbecue joints eventually were added to the tour.
But the conflict put the widely held assertion that Texas barbecue is a white tradition under the microscope. And considered in the larger context of racial issues discussed at the Ole Miss symposium, the matter raises some troubling questions.
"The Bessinger controversy has given barbecue a starkly political dimension ," wrote The New York Times' black culture and politics reporter, Brent Staples, in September 2002. "The pulled pork sandwich you eat is now taken as an index of where you stand, on the flag, the Civil War and on Maurice Bessinger "
Last summer, in a piece called "Stalking Barbecue in the Lone Star State," The New York Times picked the top four barbecue joints in Texas: Kreuz Market, Louie Mueller's, Cooper's and The Salt Lick. All of them are white-owned. A barbecue survey that excluded black establishments anywhere else in the South would have drawn angry charges of racism from writers such as Staples.
So why is Texas barbecue different?
The counter runs the length of the long hall beside the meat market, the wood stained black by a century of smoke. Knives are chained to the wall at intervals, and enthusiastic eaters have worn wells into the wood wherever the knives will reach.
This 103-year-old meat market on the courthouse square in Lockhart is probably the most famous barbecue joint in Texas. For most of its history, it was called Kreuz Market. The business was purchased in 1935 by Edgar Schmidt, who kept the original name. But his son, Rick Schmidt, moved the business to a new location down the road. His sister, Nina Sells (née Schmidt), owns the building and now calls the barbecue joint Smitty's Meat Market.
"Which one is Smitty?" I ask, showing Sells a black-and-white photo of two white men in aprons sitting in the meat market.
"That's him," she says, pointing to her dad, Edgar Schmidt.
"And who is this?" I wonder, pointing to a photo of a laughing black man in butcher's whites standing behind a huge pile of meat.
"That's Dummy Wright making sausage," she says.
"Dummy?" I ask.
Houston "Dummy" Wright was pit boss and sausage maker at Kreuz Market for decades, I'm told. Evidently, Edgar ran the meat market up front, and Dummy tended the sausage-making and smoking out back.
When I started writing the Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook, I thought Texas barbecue was invented by German butchers in meat markets like this one. But there were a few problems with that theory. For one thing, "barbecue" isn't a German word or a German concept. So how did wurst and smoked meats like Kassler Rippchen suddenly turn into Texas barbecue?
Several old-time pit bosses tipped me off. It was the black and Hispanic cotton pickers who once roamed the state who started calling German smoked meat barbecue, they said. So I combed through archives in Texas libraries and museums looking for material about cotton pickers and barbecue.
What I found instead were narratives in which former slaves talked about cooking barbecue on Texas cotton plantations before the Civil War, and turn-of-the-century photos of blacks cooking barbecue in earthen pits.
It wasn't what I was looking for. In fact, it ruined my whole neatly organized book outline. If blacks were cooking barbecue on cotton plantations in Texas in the mid-1800s, then how could I write that German butchers invented Texas barbecue half a century later?
And how did it happen that we forgot blacks used to cook barbecue in Texas in the first place?
According to University of Texas history professor Neil Foley, "African-Americans have been completely erased from the meta-narrative of Texas history." Foley is the author of White Scourge: Mexicans, Blacks, and Poor Whites in Texas Cotton Culture. I was intrigued by a couple of paragraphs in the book's introduction about the way Texas reinvented its history after the Civil War, so I called Foley to see if he could help me understand the strange disparities in Texas barbecue history.
"You want to hang your mythological hat on something you can be proud of," Foley said. "The image of the rest of the South was cotton, the Confederate flag, overalls and mules. But Texas had something no other Southern state had: the Alamo. Texans were the men who won the West, the men who defeated the Mexicans.
"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.
"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.
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.
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.
"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."
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."
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.