Several years ago, I was choking down just enough food to be polite at a now-defunct barbecue joint. As the owner and I made small talk about wood and smokers, he told me he’d cooked more than 10,000 briskets, which he said matter-of-factly was the magic number after which one could be dubbed a pitmaster. I’m not sure whether this had anything to do with Malcolm Gladwell’s rule about 10,000 hours of practice being required to become a master in most fields, but I nodded and left without offering any axioms about quality over quantity.
The man’s meat was pretty rough, but I’d still call him a pitmaster. Maybe that shows how diluted the term has become. At Texas Monthly, we toss around the word the way one would use “chef.” It denotes a position in the kitchen rather than a judgment of skill. This raises the hackles of those who want the term applied to only the most talented barbecue cooks. Food writer R. L. Reeves Jr. lamented, a few years back, “If you can butt a Bic lighter up against a Kingsford briquette these days, you’ve earned the sobriquet ‘pitmaster.’ ”
And the blanket use of “pitmaster” doesn’t sit well with some who have truly mastered the craft, some of whom don’t even think the word should apply to themselves. John Mueller, of the famous barbecue family, prefers to be called a cook. “ ‘Master’ means you’re really good at everything, every day, and I can screw it up any day,” he told me. He’s not sure whom he could rightly call a pitmaster now, though his late father, Bobby, would make his list. “He was the ultimate pitmaster,” Mueller said. “He was consistently good, every single day.”
The use of “pitmaster” to describe barbecue cooks isn’t nearly as old as Texas barbecue. In nineteenth-century England, the term was sometimes used to describe a coal miner. In the 1920s, sportswriter Jim Jab, of the Pittsburgh Press, called boxing referees “pit masters.” Snake wranglers in Texas and at least one cockfight ringleader in Tampa also shared the label, in the seventies. But I couldn’t find mention of a pitmaster in reference to American barbecue until 1939, when the Daily Times-News of Burlington, North Carolina, ran a story that said, “Jeter Crutchfield, pit master, will supervise the beginning of roasting pork for the barbecue tonight at midnight.”
In 1956 the El Paso Times referred to a local man named C. Hurd as the pitmaster for an event for the Knights of Pythias, but I couldn’t find any other examples like that during the fifties. Men cooking chickens for barbecues on both coasts received most of the pitmaster mentions in newspapers of the sixties and seventies, but it wasn’t until 1977 that a pitmaster made statewide headlines.
When Texas state representative Ben Z. Grant, of Marshall, took up the cause for chili to be declared as the state dish of Texas, a strong opposition voice emerged. Lee Newsom, of the Dallas-based Repasts in Barbecue Society (RIBS), countered with a humorous pitch for barbecue. The story was picked up by United Press International, which referred to Newsom as RIBS’s spokesman and “pit master.” The piece ran in papers from Longview to Brownsville.
Six years later, the nomenclature seemed to have caught on. Alison Cook, the Houston Chronicle’s restaurant critic, isn’t sure when she first heard the term, but she remembers that she didn’t think it needed explanation in her December 1983 Texas Monthly cover story, “The Texas Food Manifesto.” “The Germans in particular fell hard for the romance of Texas beef, setting up the premier meat markets and turning themselves into such superb barbecue pitmasters that sauce was (and still is) beside the point,” she wrote. That was, as far as I can tell, the first mention of the word in these pages. Two years prior, the magazine’s Paul Burka called Fred Fountaine, of Louie Mueller Barbecue fame, a “master barbecuer” in a glowing profile, while he referred to other cooks simply as “barbecuers.”
It’s really the “master” part that’s the most important component of “pitmaster.” John T. Edge, a food writer and the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, explained the significance of the word in a 2011 talk on barbecue culture at the University of North Carolina. “What does it mean for a working-class or underclass man or woman who was once a minion to be known as a master? What does it mean specifically for black Southerners, in a close remove from slavery, to be known not as chattel but as masters of a very specific and highly valued sort of labor?”
“Master” used as a term of respect for black cooks in the Jim Crow South is rife with irony. Still, when “Uncle” Walter Robertson was chosen to cook for a group of governors in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, an Associated Press report that ran in the October 2, 1951, edition of the El Paso Herald-Post referred to him as a master barbecuer, and it didn’t stop there. “With loving care and the hand of an artist, Uncle Walter, 77-year-old Negro from Union City, Tenn., fired up long pits last night and started cooking 1,400 pounds of meat for tonight’s barbecue feast.”
Barbecue chef, barbecue artist, barbecue expert: all have been used to describe talented cooks. We can call an acclaimed chef a master chef and a certified bartender a master mixologist, but “master pitmaster” sounds silly, especially as the art of barbecue gains more recognition by James Beard and the national media.
My solution? Let’s go back to the phrase used by the great Burka. Call someone a master barbecuer, and there’s little doubt of their talent or the high esteem in which their work is held. The term “master barbecuer” is henceforth reserved for those who have truly excelled at the craft. Now, good luck devising the test. It shouldn’t have anything to do with cooking 10,000 briskets.