HEY DON’T TRAVEL WELL, so they’re seldom seen outside East Texas. They’re pale, stubby grease bombs about the size of a thumb; cooked down, they darken, turning crunchy outside and mushy inside. Alone, they taste plain, not nearly as fiery as their name implies, but when doused with the thin, Tabasco-like hot sauce preferred by locals, they suddenly burst with rich flavor and a lovely smell.
East Texas hot links, now celebrating their one hundredth anniversary, are perhaps that region’s sole contribution to Lone Star cuisine. Pittsburg butcher Charlie Hasselbach first made them in 1897 as raw, take-home meats, then began cooking them for sale in 1918. Pittsburg is still the mecca for devotees of the all-beef morsels: It is home, for example, to Gene Warrick’s Pittsburg Hot Link Packers and the Pittsburg Hot Links Restaurant. Warrick’s plant makes Pittsburg Hot Sauce and several other links, but the lion’s share of the 40,000 pounds prepared weekly are hot links, which are sold to stores and restaurants mainly in an area bordered by Nacogdoches to the south, Fort Worth to the west, and the state line to the north and east. There’s also a lively mail-order business for expatriates, a few outlets elsewhere in Texas, and fewer still around the rest of the nation. “But we could sell all we can make right here in East Texas,” declares Warrick, who has been eating hot links for nearly sixty years, since they were two for a nickel.
The links, which have no filler or binder, are made with ground cheek and tongue and seasoned with a mix of spices that includes red pepper; water is also added, which is why they’re mushy. In most restaurants they’re strung together, hung in vertical ovens—allowing the grease to drip off—and baked for about 35 minutes at 375 degrees (a few restaurants prefer to smoke them like barbecue). At home, to minimize the splatter factor, they’re baked on a grill over a pan for 75 minutes at 300 degrees.
Most vendors buy from Warrick’s packing plant; a few, like Doc’s Hot Links in Gilmer, concoct their own. In restaurants customers order them in multiples of two, for about 35 cents per link. At Pittsburg Hot Links or the Hot Link Palace in Mount Pleasant (where country crooner Ray Price gets his weekly fix), they dominate menus that include burgers, chicken, chili, and salads. Other menus resemble the one at Doc’s, where potato salad, chili, and barbecue are the only additional offerings. Indeed, Doc’s is the archetypal hot-link experience: There’s just one long, narrow U-shaped Formica counter. Sort of a poor man’s oyster bar, you might say, unless you’re from East Texas, in which case oyster bars are a poor man’s hot-link restaurant.