The Art of Smoke
There are three men sitting on a bench in front of Dozier's Grocery on FM 359 in rural Fulshear. I pause on the wood-plank front porch to read the handwritten notes on the bulletin board. A pickup truck honks as it passes by. The three men look up and wave.
Inside, there is a small collection of convenience store items up front and a huge meat market in the back. I order barbecue ribs, sausage and brisket, which I take to one of the eight homemade cedar-legged picnic tables in the back. On the walls above the tables, there are ribbons and photos from the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo barbecue contest as well as a couple of thank-you notes from the White House.
The ribs are as good as I have ever had. They are tender, but instead of the wet consistency common to ribs in East Texas barbecue joints, this meat has a drier, crispier texture, full of flavor. The brisket is so smoky I can detect the aroma before I pick up the meat. Barbecue lovers often judge smoke penetration by the depth of the pink ribbon (called a smoke ring) that appears on the edges of barbecued meat. At Dozier's the ring isn't pink, it's dark red, and instead of the usual quarter inch, it goes a good half inch deep in places. The brisket falls apart beautifully at each bite.
But the best thing about Dozier's is the sausage. Both garlic sausage and German sausage are smoked, sliced and served hot. The pork is coarsely ground and seasoned simply, in the classic Central Texas meat-market style. The German sausage is seasoned with mustard seed. Slow-smoked with pecan wood, it holds its shape when sliced, but is meltingly tender when you bite into it. It stands up well to barbecue sauce, but I think it tastes even better without it.
Many of Texas's most legendary barbecue establishments started out as butcher shops. The meat markets built smokers on which they would turn leftovers and scraps into smoked meats and sausages. The butchers, who were often German or Czech immigrants, were following the traditions of German meat smoking and probably had no idea what people were talking about when they called the smoked sausage and pork "barbecue." But they knew they sold a lot of it. Soon enough, the newcomers were calling it barbecue, too.
Out behind Dozier's, I see a long, low steel cylinder smoker with several doors as well as a big steel Oyler-brand smoker, and a chamber with a door and a lot of hangers inside. I ask a man who is forking blackened beef briskets into a pile what gets smoked in which contraption. He tells me the chamber is for bacon, and the Oyler is for brisket. He doesn't seem to understand the rest of my questions. I run into Dozier's owner Scott Evans, who tells me that the man's name is Billy Pfeffer, who comes from a German family. Pfeffer is 52 now, and he has been smoking meat at Dozier's since he was 18. Scott Evans and his brother, Smedley, bought the grocery from the Dozier brothers in 1985, and Pfeffer came along with the store. Pfeffer is a man of few words. He prefers to let his barbecue do the talking. And what his sausage and brisket and ribs say, bite after bite, is simple: Billy Pfeffer is an artist.
In shopping centers all over Houston, barbecue restaurants are decorated to look like old country stores. In these urban barbecues, employees load meat onto the racks of gas-fired rotisserie ovens, push a button and go home. The automated oven does the rest. An igniter lights a couple of hickory or oak logs in the wood chamber and keeps them smoldering while a thermostatically controlled gas burner cooks the meat at the desired temperature. An electronic damper traps the smoke inside and reduces emissions to a minimum.
These high-tech gas-fired ovens are designed to replicate the flavor of old-fashioned barbecue pits, and in some cases, they do an adequate job. Ribs and sausage have a high enough ratio of surface area to volume for these ovens to give them a smoky flavor. But the virtual barbecue pits just don't put out enough smoke for heavier cuts like brisket or pork shoulder. And even the quality of the ribs and sausage pales in comparison to the taste of meat cooked with nothing but smoke.
But there is a real need for these high-tech barbecue units. Pollution problems have made old-fashioned pits difficult to build in big cities. Clean-air programs regulate their emissions, shopping center leases forbid their odors, and neighborhood groups oppose them as a nuisance. So high-tech barbecue is becoming the norm. The old country store was made obsolete by Wal-Mart just as the old-fashioned barbecue pit was made obsolete by the high-tech barbecue oven.
As Marshall McLuhan observed, we never appreciate the existing technology until it is replaced by something new. "Most people, as I indicated, still cling to what I call the rearview-mirror view of their world," McLuhan told Playboy magazine in 1969. "Because we are benumbed by any new technology -- which in turn creates a totally new environment -- we tend to make the old environment more visible; we do so by turning it into an art form and by attaching ourselves to the objects and atmosphere that characterized it."
Which means that old-fashioned barbecue hasn't disappeared. It's just turned into an art form.
In the old days, a barbecue pit was a hole in the ground. Hot coals were placed in the hole, and squirrels or mutton or venison cuts were suspended above it. From this simplest of beginnings, four different styles of Texas barbecue have evolved: cowboy, meat market, East Texas and Mexican barbacoa. Each has its own style, and each is associated with a major immigrant group. The Central Texas meat markets were owned by Germans and Czechs. The West Texas cowboys were mostly Anglos. And the East Texas style is associated with Southern blacks.
The barbacoa tradition began in cattle ranches along the border where Mexican ranch hands were given part of their pay in less desirable cuts such as the head. The ranch hands cooked cows' heads, wrapped in maguey leaves or canvas, buried in pits. From this tradition we get barbacoa and lengua (tongue) tacos. Nowadays, the head is usually cooked in a baño maria in a conventional oven. Although it started out as a barbecue style, barbacoa isn't really barbecue anymore.
Cowboy, or open-pit, barbecue is the style that most resembles that original hole in the ground. This style was once practiced all over the state. Huge trench pits were dug for all kinds of major civic celebrations. "Great American Barbecue," reads a broadside from an 1860 political rally thrown by the American Party in Austin. "All citizens of the state are invited to attend." Among the featured speakers was the Honorable Sam Houston. When the soldiers were welcomed home from World War I, town officials ordered barbecue pits dug in city parks. Ranchers would donate cattle and sheep, and the meat would be cooked in the open trench pits for up to 24 hours. The meat was cut into two- to three-pound pieces, which were handled with pitchforks. Marinades were mixed in buckets and applied with mops. The invite-the-whole-state barbecue tradition continued as late as 1941, when Governor W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel was inaugurated and the grounds of the capitol building in Austin were trenched for pits.
Every now and then, it's worth the effort to experience barbecue as it used to be. And you don't have to go very far. Within an hour's drive of downtown Houston, you can go back to the roots of every one of the state's unique barbecue styles.
The old grocery stores in the farm country are just beyond the city's western edge. You can find fabulous East Texas barbecue in Huntsville or on the east side of Houston. There are plenty of Mexicans making barbacoa here, too. (Try a barbacoa taco at La Bamba Meat Market on Washington Avenue; see the Press review, "The Mother Flavor," June 29.) And Pizzitola's Bar-B-Cue on Shepherd cooks direct-heat, cowboy-style barbecue on the oldest pit in the city.
You'll be eating high-tech barbecue for the rest of your life. If you want to appreciate barbecue the art form, you better do it now -- before it disappears.
Howard Rivers lifts the lid of the steel barbecue pit and sticks a huge fork into a slab of ribs.
"How do you know when they're done?" I ask.
"When the fork slides through easy," he says.
The barbecue pit is mounted on a trailer, but both tires are flat. The pit evidently isn't going anywhere. Neither is Howard Rivers. Sitting around, shooting the breeze with the boys on the front porch of the New Zion Missionary Baptist Church Barbecue in Huntsville looks like a fine way to spend the afternoon. The scene reminds me more of a barbecue in my backyard than the hustle and bustle of a restaurant. Except that there isn't any beer. But I pull up a chair anyway and join a conversation about this year's pecan harvest. Barbecue may not be a religion in Texas, but the two institutions are closely associated.
Consider this story told to a reporter by William "Uncle Billy" Biggs of Uvalde County in 1941: "Why, we used to have camp meetings that lasted three of four weeks. Everybody would come and camp and listen to every sermon that preacher preached, for no telling when the preacher would get back this way. I remember one big camp meeting they had there one time. They sent for a preacher from back in East Texas somewhere, and they got up money enough to carry the meeting for three weeks. They barbecued beef and goats and had plenty of other stuff to last for three weeks, but at the end of that time, the joiners were still coming in. My wife's father wanted to keep it going another week.He used his own money and killed his own meat for the barbecue."
No barbecue, no religion. Now that's a golden rule. The barbecue-style Texas camp meeting is still going strong here at New Zion Missionary Baptist. Sitting down with the congregation in the funky little church hall is an experience every true barbecue believer should have at least once. Like a pilgrimage to Mecca.
The barbecue began in 1981 when Sister Ward organized a dinner in the church hall as a fund-raiser. It was such a success that they did it again a week later, and pretty soon it became a permanent thing every Wednesday through Saturday. The down-home cooking and good-hearted volunteers make this a wonderful scene. It may not be enough to convert you, but I would gladly sit through a three-hour sermon if I knew this kind of homemade barbecue was waiting at the end.
The succulent East Texas brisket is coated with dry rub for 24 hours and smoked until tender. Then it's held in a covered roasting pan in the oven where it continues to slow-cook. Howard Rivers's fork-sliding ribs are perfectly cooked then held in an ice chest to steam themselves soft. A spicy barbecue sauce adds a tangy touch. If the homemade mashed potato salad, creamy cole slaw and soft-as-butter beans taste like they came from a church hall potluck supper, that's because they practically did. I just wish they would buy better sausage. They use the kind that tastes like bologna.
The screen door slams behind me, and it takes a minute for my eyes to adjust to the darkness inside. I can smell barbecue, but the scene that emerges doesn't make sense. At John's Country Store in Egypt, just north of Wharton, there are antique 7Up signs on the walls and patent medicines on the shelves. There are a few tables with red checkered tablecloths up front, so I sit down. A man named Bubba Hodges comes by and takes my order. The choice is pretty easy. All they have is brisket and sausage. There are no sides. I order a brisket sandwich.
While my order is being prepared, I wander around. There is a very old saloon adjoining the store; in it, I notice a safe with the inscription "Northington Land Cattle Company, 1867." The barbecue pits are in a middle room, and in the back of the store, there is another room with a pool table and a jukebox. This room has no glass or screens on the windows, just big wooden shutters hinged at the top and propped open with two-by-fours. Outside, a brown horse with a black mane is grazing in the bright summer sun. Flies buzz around the crude homemade wooden booths.
John's Country Store not only sells antiques, it is an antique. It was called G.H. Northington Sr. Mercantile Store when it first opened in 1900. Over the years, a feed store, meat market and saloon were added to the original structure, creating the little commercial strip of Egypt that you see today. From the turn of the century until the late 1950s, when cotton picking was mechanized, thousands of cotton pickers strained the capacities of farming towns like this one southwest of Houston. After the pickers were paid their day's wages, they headed for the nearest store or meat market and bought ready-to-eat barbecued meats. The brisket at John's Country Store is very flavorful and very tender. The smokiness is accented with an interesting blend of seasonings. Hodges tells me the brisket is coated with dry rub for 24 hours, then smoked for about five hours on a fabricated steel smoker with a blend of half mesquite and half pecan. During this time, it's basted with a mop sauce that is seasoned with onions, lemons and spices. Then it's wrapped in aluminum foil with the onions and lemons from the mop sauce and cooked on the smoker for several more hours. This old country recipe has been used here for more years than anybody can count.
In 1978 the store came into the ownership of a G.H. Northington descendant, John Northington, who changed the name to John's Country Store, where he sells beer, barbecue and antiques. A band plays in the back sometimes, and corporations rent the place out for company barbecues.
It's just a relic now, but once upon a time, Northington's was the center of all commerce in these parts. There is an antique desk with a strange dummy of a woman sitting at it. Hodges told me it was the likeness of the paymaster, a woman named Miss Ivory. "That's where all the wages were given out on this plantation for over a hundred years."
"My heart is in barbecue," says Harry Green, an elderly black man and one of Houston's most famous barbecue operators. "I was a barbecue man for 46 years. I can walk into a kitchen, cut a piece of meat and tell you how long and how fast you cooked it. I know you think I'm bullshitting you, but that's the honest truth."
Harry Green was schooled in the East Texas barbecue tradition. The settlers of East Texas weren't cattle ranchers; they were pig farmers. They had come from Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana, and they knew how to butcher pigs and cure pork. They built smokehouses where hams and bacon were cured, and they understood the nuances of cold smoking and barbecuing better than most modern cooks ever will.
Harry Green is retired now, but he once had three barbecue joints in Houston. Green's Bar-B-Q on Almeda still bears his name. "In 1953 I moved into a vacant drugstore on Dowling Street [now the location of Drexler's Bar-B-Q] and built a brick barbecue pit there," he tells me.
Green traces his lineage as a barbecue man back through Houston's greatest practitioners of the art. "I learned from Joe Burney; he had Burney's Barbecue and Avalon Barbecue in the 2700 block of Dowling. Joe Burney learned from Matt Garner. Matt was the oldest around here. He came from Beaumont, must have been in the 1920s. He had Matt's Barbecue on West Dallas, which later moved to West Gray. The barbecue was much better in the old days."
I asked Harry Green what was different back then.
"Nobody cooked briskets in the old days. I used to go down to the packing house and buy a front quarter of steer. I'd cut it up myself. It was a hell of a job. And I served mutton, too. But ribs and beef were the biggest sellers. And juicy links. Matt Garner made the first beef links around here, and he passed it on to Joe Burney. And Joe passed it on to me. It's still a big part of black people's barbecue."
"Where was Houston's greatest barbecue in the old days?"
"There were four or five great barbecue men in the old days. Matt was early on, then Joe Burney, John Davis, me and maybe a couple of others. When the Houston papers picked the best barbecue in town, I always used to win."
"And who has the best barbecue in the city now?"
"Drexler's. Drexler's is the best that's left."
The pork ribs at Drexler's take my breath away. They are as soft as butter inside, with a smoky crust of seasoning. I devour rib after rib, dipped in sharp, hot barbecue sauce. Meat-market barbecue is drier and crispier. East Texas ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender and a little wet. East Texas brisket is very tender and often a little wet, too; it is often held in aluminum foil or in a sealed container so that it continues to steam itself after smoking. But the most characteristic element of East Texas barbecue is the beef link.
Good beef links, which Green calls juicy links, are finely ground beef in a ratio of about 70 percent meat to 30 percent fat. They are seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic and lots of paprika. According to Green, beef links aren't as good as they used to be because people don't like all the orange grease that flows out when you cut into them.
I always preferred coarsely ground German-style sausage over East Texas beef links, until I encountered the juicy links at Drexler's. They ooze out of the casing when you cut them, and they are fiercely seasoned. Wrapped in a piece of white bread, they are an awesome barbecue experience. Since rediscovering the beef link at Drexler's, I have sampled the excellent links at Williams Smoke House in northwest Houston and some pretty decent links at Leon's in Galveston. But none hold a candle to Drexler's.
The ribs at Lenox Bar-B-Q on Harrisburg Street are very good, and the stubby pork links, which are custom-made in Yoakum, are a nice variation on the meat-market sausage theme. The little restaurant, once known as the Lenox Cafe, was originally located a block away at the corner of Harrisburg and Lenox. It was here that barbecue first met modern technology.
In the late 1940s this area of town was known for its gambling dens. It was around that time that Leonard D. McNeill won the Lenox Cafe in a game of craps. McNeill, who worked at the nearby Hughes Tools company, had never run a restaurant before. But he had some big ideas. It was the era of the giant Texas barbecue, and McNeill was soon competing with the biggest.
By the 1960s McNeill was catering barbecues for thousands of guests at a time. Along with Walter Jetton of Fort Worth, he was one of the state's top two barbecue caterers. In 1967 Ann Valentine, food editor of The Houston Post, wrote an article titled "Barbecue Barons" about these two mega-caterers. At the time, Jetton held the record for the biggest barbecue, having fed 12,000 people at one event. McNeill's top attendance was a mere 9,000. Today the record for the biggest barbecue is held by the XIT ranch's annual reunion in Dalhart. In 1991, 11,000 pounds of beef were barbecued in open pits dug with backhoes. It fed 20,000 guests.
But while West Texas cowboy-style enthusiasts fought over the world's largest barbecue title, the future of barbecue technology was being shaped in Houston. Leonard McNeill could cook mountains of barbecue in open pits just like his contemporaries, but unlike them, he could also see there wasn't any future in it.
It was becoming unfashionable to cook in unsanitary outdoor dirt pits. Sooner or later, a more modern method of barbecuing had to be found. With one giant step, McNeill took barbecue straight from a hole in the ground into the era of mechanization.
McNeill bought an enormous bread-rising oven from Rainbo Bread. The oven had a rotating mechanism inside that moved the loaves through a timed cycle. McNeill converted this machinery into a wood-smoke rotisserie that could cook 3,000 pounds of meat at one time.
Today the old Lenox Bar-B-Q restaurant where McNeill got his start is run by Erik Mrok, whose father was a friend of McNeill's. The restaurant uses three rotisserie ovens of a type patented in 1967 by Herbert Oyler of Mesquite. Oyler, a barbecue restaurant owner, also started tinkering with a smoker rotisserie made from a bread-rising oven; whether he was working independently or in cooperation with McNeill is unknown.
Oyler's invention is a steel barbecue pit with a rotisserie inside. It has an electric carrousel, but no heating elements. It's fueled exclusively with wood, which is burned in a remote firebox. The advantage of the rotisserie is that the meat gets basted with dripping fat, but it is cooked with pure wood smoke. It isn't exactly an old-fashioned barbecue pit, but the results still depend on time, temperature and the talents of the pit boss. Oyler smokers are used by such well-known Houston establishments as Goode Co., Texas Barbecue House and Pappas Bros.
From the basic design of the Oyler rotisserie, it was only a short step to add a heating element and a thermostat, not to mention a few optional electronic bells and whistles. And in a city that loves technology as much as it loves barbecue, a space-age barbecue unit was an easy sell.
There's not much point in complaining about high-tech barbecue. It serves a purpose, and it's here to stay. And no doubt the quality of it will keep on improving. But as the old barbecue joints slowly disappear, each one that remains becomes a bigger treasure.
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