After years of scouting for the perfect barbecue behind swinging screen doors in such towns as Round Top, Elgin, Hondo, Alpine, and Pflugerville, I recently stopped by a place called the Dallas Cowboy in the improbable city of New York.
Designed by owner Clint Murchison as a fashionable setting for authentic Texas food, the Dallas Cowboy caters to an enthusiastic Madison Avenue crowd that differs from the customers of a typical small town Texas barbecue meat market in just about every way possible. Pert English waitresses offering the obligatory lunchtime martini and a choice of steaks or barbecue have replaced the aproned country carver at his chopping block. “Try their barbecue,” my conscience told me. So I did.
Barbecue, in mid-Manhattan? Anyone from the Southwest who has tried to convince a New Yorker of the merits of this regional dish has usually been met with withering scorn edged with pity for his oafish provincial palate. To the gourmet east of the Hudson, “barbecue” means three-day old dried-up shards of delicatessen roast beef which a cunning proprietor has drenched in warm catsup to disguise their rapidly-deteriorating flavor. After this mixture has been left on a steam table for a few hours, the problem of uneven texture is conveniently solved as well.
No Easterner in his right mind would eat the stuff. Many earnestly question the sanity of anyone who would. There is no telling how much damage was done to Lyndon Johnson’s credibility up there by such headlines as “ LBJ Greets German Chancellor with Barbecue Dinner.” Probably served it with Liebfraumilch, the Eastern observer would mutter as he wandered away to the Princeton Club to ponder the impending collapse of the Atlantic Alliance.
I would like to be able to tell you that the Dallas Cowboy has cured all that; that well-intentioned Texans have finally exported the wisdom of ten generations of barbecue cooks; that the real thing can now be had even in darkest Gotham. I would like to; but I can’t. Imagine, if you will, paper-thin slices of lukewarm beef piled on a sesame-seed bun, less than one-eighth of a pound in all, covered with a thick overpowering sauce reminiscent of Kraft’s (which at least served to relieve the dryness of the meat), and topped with lettuce and tomato. Just like dinner from the old chuckwagon, right? Imagine too the price—$2.50 per sandwich. There is no getting around it: if you want barbecue just stay where you are. No place has better barbecue than Texas, and what we have simply doesn’t travel well.
Even on its native soil, “barbecue” means different things to different people. When etymologists run out of better topics, they have been known to quarrel over whether the word derives from the Mexican term “barbacoa,” meaning a frame on posts; from the French “barbe” (beard) and “queue” (tail), connoting the roasting of an entire carcass; or from some extinct Indian language. No one really knows. And until a suitable doctoral dissertation pursues the matter, it will probably remain shrouded in well-deserved mystery. What is certain, however, is that real barbecue has next to nothing to do with the little backyard grill used for charcoaling hamburgers.
The surest way to spoil good barbecue is to cook it directly over a fire. Slow heat, not flame or coals, yields the tenderest, juiciest meat. The typical commercial barbecue pit in Texas is a low, brick structure ten to twenty feet long, covered with a sheet metal lid suspended on pulleys for ease of lifting. Roasts and other large chucks of meat are placed on a grill at one end, and a wood fire is tended at the other. Convection currents aided by a fan (or prevailing winds) draw the heat and smoke across the meat. Cooling time may be as long as 24 hours, depending on the size of the fire, and seldom is less than eight hours. This technique is ideal for a cut of meat like brisket, which has enough fat to stay moist as it slowly gets tender. The process cannot be hurried.
Not every corner of Texas has good barbecue. South of San Antonio is a veritable wasteland, unless you like cabrito. Someone who had sworn to eat only creditable barbecued beef could starve between meals in West Texas, the Edwards Plateau, and the Panhandle. The strongholds of barbecue cookery are East and Central Texas, and while they employ the same basic procedures, these two regions produce remarkably different tastes.
East Texas barbecue is usually chopped instead of sliced, made from pork as often as beef, and ordinarily served on a bun. Its finest manifestations are found in restaurants operated by blacks. It is actually an extension of Southern barbecue; you can find something of the sort all across the cotton states, best in black neighborhoods, with pork gradually supplanting beef until it too gradually disappears in northern Virginia. East Texas barbecue is mercifully free from that special perversion of the Southern variety — a glop of cole slaw on top of the meat — but it is still basically a sandwich product heavy on the hot sauce. Some of these can be excellent if made-to-order; but beware of the proprietor who slices the meat in advance and lets it sit in a tray, drenched in sauce, awaiting customers. You could do as well in New York City.
West of a line running from Columbus and Hearne northward between Dallas and Fort Worth, the character of the barbecue, like the land, changes. This is Central Texas barbecue (although the name underestimates its territorial extent). It has reached its highest expression in the middle-sized prairie towns settled in the last century by Germans and other central Europeans—towns like Lockhart, Taylor, and Luling.
A staple feature of each town in the early days was the meat market, where cuts of beef were often barbecued in the back of the shop and served on red butcher paper to hungry shoppers who thronged the town on weekends. This tradition still lingers, right down to the red butcher