The Antebellum Chef in Texas
Replicating barbecue traditions that date back more than 100 years.
Michael Twitty was cold, and his pig wasn’t much warmer. He was six hours into an eight hour cook, and the February winds were whipping across the top of the hill at the French Legation in Austin. A makeshift pit about the size of a coffin had been dug into the gravel courtyard. The coals were hot, but without a wind-break, the sixty pound hog couldn’t absorb much of their warmth. With hungry ticket-holders arriving in just a couple hours, the Antebellum Chef had to resort to the very modern innovation of aluminum foil.
I was one of those ticket holders. When I got there, the now-quartered hog was being finished in two heavy duty aluminum pans that had been laid directly onto the coals. My early arrival allowed me to ask a few questions of Twitty, whose national profile exploded after an open letter to Paula Deen went viral. Since then he’s been profiled by the Washington Post and Garden & Gun, among other publications. His popularity comes from his no-nonsense talk about race and his unique position as a black, gay, Jewish man who recreates recipes from the Civil War era. After doing antebellum-style barbecues on seven previous occasions, Noël Harris Freeze, director of the French Legation, brought Twitty to Austin for his eighth. It was here outside this home of former slave owners that Freeze bundled herself up to serve as Twitty’s barbecue assistant. She started right along with him at 7:00 am, and as the event time approached, more people gathered around the fire along with Twitty and Freeze.
By this time the pit set-up was erected just as you’d see it in the nineteenth century. The rectangular hole in the ground had about four inches of coals covering the bottom, and about a foot above that was a row of saplings bridging the opening. Twitty used green wood, which doesn’t burn up during the cooking. Off to the side was a smaller pile of coals where a cast-iron pot full of mopping liquid simmered.
Twitty was at once affable and intense with the small gathering. He spoke extemporaneously and confidently on the foodways he had studied, and lamented how little is recognized of African American contributions to our culinary heritage. The techniques he used were crafted from studying old photos of public barbecues (usually being cooked by black men) and from WPA slave narratives. Those accounts were gathered in the thirties from former slaves, and it was among these stories that Twitty also found his mop recipe.
Wesley Jones from South Carolina was 97 when his WPA interview was taken in 1937. Many of these interviews discuss barbecues as a common social gathering, but few get so detailed on the ingredients:
“Night befo’ dem barbecues, I used to stay up all night a-cooking and basting de meats wid barbecue sass (sauce). It made of vinegar, black and red pepper, salt, butter, a little sage, coriander, basil, onion, and garlic. Some folks drop a little sugar in it [Twitty chose to add sorghum syrup]. On a long pronged stick I wraps a soft rag or cotton fer a swab, and all de night long I swabs dat meat ‘till it drip into de fire. Dem drippings change de smoke into seasoned fumes dat smoke de meat. We turn de meat over and swab it dat way all night long ‘till it ooze seasoning and bake all through.”
And what was Mr. Jones cooking on the barbecue pit back in South Carolina? “On dem I had whole goats, whole hogs, sheep and de side of a cow. Dem lawyers liked to watch me ‘nint’ dat meat. Dey lowed I had a turn fer ninting it (anointing it).”
With beef’s current dominance, there aren’t a whole lot of whole hogs on pits in Texas these days, but that wasn’t always the case. Whole hogs were routinely barbecued in antebellum Texas. It wasn’t so much a preference for one meat over the other, but really about what sort of crowd you had. If you killed a steer you needed one heck of a reason to celebrate to draw a large enough contingent of eaters to consume it all. On the other hand, a hog, lamb, or goat was ample enough to feed a smaller crowd. I’ve found accounts of big community Texas barbecues in the era that Twitty is trying to replicate, and it was common to have beef and pork for such a big event. It wasn’t until hot-and-ready barbecue started being sold in meat markets that barbecue in the state became so beef-centric.
That thin mop sauce Twitty (and Jones) was using might sound foreign in today’s world that is dominated by tomato-based sauces thickened with molasses or brown sugar, but it was just a product of the times. Using shelf stable ingredients like vinegar and dried spices was basically the rule before refrigeration. An article in the Dallas News from March 26, 1937, describes the traditional Texas sauce:
“It is made simply of vinegar and hot water, melted butter if the purse allows, or rendered beef suet if not, black and red pepper and salt (pioneer sauce stopped there) and generous dashes of catsup and Worcestershire sauce. Onions and sometimes lemons are sliced into it, and canny masters of the grid thicken it slightly with flour and water as thin gravy is thickened, to hold its ingredients smoothly together.”
The “pioneer sauce” isn’t much different than what Twitty was using. What’s funny is just how divergent the barbecue sauces we serve today are from that tradition. You have to go to older barbecue joints to find these thinner dips, places like Prine’s BBQ (established in 1925) in Wichita Falls and Lenox Bar-B-Q (established in 1946) in Houston, where their flour-thickened sauces are almost identical to the recipe described in the Dallas News.
Twitty’s purpose was to replicate the cooking methods of the Antebellum South, and in doing so gave us a window into what barbecue would have looked like in Texas, especially East Texas where the proportion of slaves to whites in some counties was equal to that of the Deep South. As we stood around that fire we each tore off a bite of the finished pork and dipped it into the hot mop sauce. The apple cider vinegar had reduced down into a sauce that really coated the meat. The acidic tang took me back to my barbecue tour through the Carolinas. I expected that. What took longer to comprehend was that it was also transporting me back to the early days of Texas barbecue.