A Texas legislator who should be ashamed managed to pass a resolution declaring chili the state dish twenty years ago. Pshaw. Chili is ridiculous. It may have grown out of a genuine tradition, but it has now become an overhyped casualty of chili-cookoff mania. Barbecue, on the other hand, not only has history but still has integrity. We cook it, we eat it, and we argue about it passionately. The ultimate roots of barbecue can be traced back to the Stone Age, when humans first discovered that fire can transform a haunch of raw meat into something magnificently edible, but its more-immediate Texas origins date from one hundred or so years ago, when meat markets cooked and smoked their surplus stock on Saturdays, selling the finished product to customers.
Technically speaking, barbecuing is the simple process of cooking meat using the heat and smoke of wood coals. But the many variables involved invite endless dispute and contention, especially here in Texas, where the only thing agreed upon is that what passes for barbecue in Kansas City (see “ Gone to Kansas City,”), Memphis, North Carolina, or anywhere else is inferior to our own well-smoked delicacies. Time and temperature are hotly debated. When it comes to beef brisket, preferred times run from 6 to 24 hours (one smoke-crazed zealot thinks 72 hours is about right), and temperatures range from 250 to 450 degrees. The choice of wood turns friends and family against one another. An old-school pitmaster utilizes whatever slow-burning, sweet-smelling wood is available locally, such as hickory in the eastern part of the state and pecan and oak in the central environs. In West Texas mesquite is often the wood of choice, although it burns hot and can leave a strong oily aftertaste, causing many pit bosses to import hickory despite the expense.
How barbecue is cooked invites further discourse. Interstate 35 serves as the line of demarcation between two dominant philosophies—indirect heat (with the coals off to one side) being the favored method east of I-35, and direct heat more common west of the interstate. In certain parts of central East Texas, the pits are open-air, not enclosed. Many modern Texas barbecuists contend that only good grades of meat can be turned into superior barbecue. Others counter that the real skill of barbecuing lies in making a tough, fatty cut of meat tender and delicious. The question of rubs is prickly. Many pitmasters would no more pre-season a brisket than they would eat bean sprouts, but others insist that a salt-and-pepper rub (maybe with paprika or cayenne) is essential. Perhaps the most divisive debate is about the optimal firmness of brisket, with those who like a close-textured, stand-up brisket casting snide glances at those who adhere to the falling-apart-tender school. (The depth and color of the red ring just inside the crust provides yet another reason to squabble.) Once upon a time there was a debate about whether serious barbecue could be served on anything other than butcher paper, but that has now largely been decided in favor of the contemptible plastic-foam plate. Unfortunately, plastic knives and forks also rule.
Every region has its own peculiarities, especially where sauces and sides are concerned.