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