I ordered a tray of meat at Big Boy’s Bar-B-Que in Sweetwater, 40 miles west of Abilene, and didn’t ask for brisket. I’d been to the joint many times before, and wanted to enjoy the cuts I thought were best suited to owner and pitmaster Gaylan Marth’s direct-heat method of cooking. Thinner meats like pork ribs, pork steaks, and chicken are what I crave from any joint that cooks over wood coals. Marth filled my order, then slapped on a couple slices of brisket anyway. After I posted a photo to Instagram, comments about the shaggy-looking brisket ensued.
“The brisket that most people want needs to look like the one Aaron Franklin throws down on his table,” Marth said, explaining customer expectations these days. “It’s supposed to be this barked-up, black-looking chunk of beef.” But Big Boy’s brisket is never going to get that bark. Marth seasons his briskets with a proprietary rub and loads them in his cooker fat side down. (Marth is adamant that what he does to meat is not smoking, and his pit is a cooker, not a smoker.) He shovels in coals directly underneath them, and they cook that way for a couple of hours before he wraps them tightly in foil and returns them to the pit for the final two thirds of the cook. Nearly every barbecue joint that uses direct heat finishes its briskets in foil to ensure tenderness without burning the surface over the intense heat of the coals. The exterior also ends up more reddish than black.
Because it’s so tender, Marth cuts the brisket with an electric knife, lest it shred under the weight of a chef’s knife. The slices don’t glisten on the tray like most Instagram-famous briskets. It got me wondering: is the modern brisket aesthetic—and its dominance in Texas—killing off direct-heat barbecue? The customers demand it, online commenters denigrate anything else, and just about every new barbecue entrepreneur is trying to replicate it. I asked Marth. “I think you nailed it on the head right there,” he replied. Still, brisket is his most popular item.
Marth doesn’t want to cook barbecue any other way. His German grandfather and two great uncles all had steel pits at their houses in Roscoe, just west of Sweetwater. The pits had lids and big handles so that several men could move them around the yard or load them on a trailer. They had no bottom. Hot coals would be shoveled onto the bare ground wherever the pits were placed. Sometimes the brothers would gather their pits together for large family feasts, and Marth learned to cook barbecue from watching them.
“I don’t think we ever cooked briskets,” Marth said of his early days in Roscoe in the sixties and seventies. The family cooked thick sirloin steaks and sausages. Around the same time, Marth was part of a group that raised pigs to sell, and during the sale they’d cook barbecue and serve it. “We’d take a couple pigs to the butcher and have them cut in two-inch-thick slices all the way through,” he said. That is whole hog of another variety. When Marth was a kid, his family went out for barbecue infrequently, and only to Underwood’s Cafeteria in Abilene.
Marth didn’t see an offset smoker until he attended Tarleton State University in Stephenville. He learned to use one to cook ribs and briskets. Marth and his wife, Jane, with whom he co-owns the restaurant, moved to Sweetwater after college. Barbecue was just a hobby while he ran a cotton gin, sold insurance, and then raised ostriches for about thirteen years until the market went south. The Marths sold most of the birds and decided to open a barbecue joint in 2000. They built it from the ground up, and Marth hired a welder to built a direct-heat pit and an offset smoker just for brisket. After a year, he sold the offset. “I didn’t like the outcome of it,” he said.
The menu at the restaurant hasn’t changed much since it opened. You can still order “My Ribs,” which means country-style pork ribs, also known as pork steak. They’re the tender, savory morsels of pork that Marth prefers, and I agree. Though I also love “Your Ribs,” which are what most folks expect of a pork rib. They’re heavily seasoned and coated with a sweet barbecue sauce. Marth cooks chicken halves slowly over the coals alongside the two types of ribs, and the birds get bathed in some of the smoke generated from pork fat dripping onto the mesquite coals. If I had to choose a favorite meat on this menu, the chicken would be a solid contender.
On Fridays, ask for a few of the jalapeño poppers, cream cheese–stuffed half jalapeños wrapped in bacon and seasoned with rub. The bacon is crisp from cooking over the coals, and they make a perfect appetizer with a little heat. Cool the burn with a slice of Jane’s key lime pie, which has a buttery graham cracker crust and fresh whipped cream. Jane uses Nellie & Joe’s Famous Key West Lime Juice from a bottle, but the key is to slowly add it in as you whisk the eggs, lest the acid “cook” the eggs. It’s fluffy and tangy, and one of my favorite barbecue-joint desserts in the state.
Marth opened a joint later in life than many of today’s young pitmasters do. He’s 67. “We’re not going to last forever,” he said of himself and his wife. They don’t have children, or anyone else who has shown interest in carrying on the business when they retire. Marth is familiar with the barbecue landscape outside Sweetwater and knows when Big Boy’s closes it’ll be yet another loss among the few barbecue joints in Texas still cooking directly over wood coals. “The future of direct-heat barbecue is pretty bleak,” he said.
Besides its being less photogenic, another reason Marth thinks his style of brisket isn’t attracting new blood is that his pits require more attention than an offset smoker does. You have to keep the feeder fire going so you have coals to harvest. A cook can’t leave the meat alone and simply watch a thermometer. Those racks of ribs, sausages, and chicken need to be flipped, and in Marth’s case spritzed with apple juice several times as they cook. Then there are the sights and sounds unique to direct-heat cooking that trigger Marth’s responses. He has to hear the right sizzle, and look for smoke rising from the edges of the lid but not leaving at too quick a pace. The fat dripping onto the coals is a good smell, but fat dousing the coals, possibly from a ripped foil package, is cause for alarm.
Marth still wants to pass his knowledge on. “I hoped I would have someone I could have taught,” he said. For now, he’s focused on cooking for as many years as he can, serving the folks of Sweetwater and the many travelers along Interstate 20 who stop for some of his West Texas barbecue. As for the next generation, even if no one wants to take over Big Boy’s, he craves the opportunity to share what he’s learned. As we finished our conversation, he had an offer for any curious pitmasters. “If anyone wants to learn how to cook direct-heat barbecue, look me up,” he said.