I walked into the pit house at the Bellville Lions Club as thirty volunteers were putting the finishing touches on more than one thousand chicken halves. The haze of smoke hanging under the roof intensified as they liberally mopped the birds with a liquid that singed the hot charcoal beneath. Forty chicken halves fit on each metal rack, and the volunteers situated on both sides of the long brick pits flipped them intermittently. Once they pulled off all the perfectly cooked poultry, they readied the pits for another load. Eighteen-hundred halves, or nine hundred whole chickens, were needed to feed the hungry crowds that would soon gather at the nearby Austin County Fairgrounds.
This was the fiftieth year of the Bellville Volunteer Fire Department chicken barbecue. The proceeds benefit the local VFD, led by fire chief Mike Kasprowicz. He was on hand to check the progress of the chickens, and he joked about bringing his own meat thermometer to ensure the safety of the public. He said the annual event, which includes a silent auction and a cakewalk, provides 75 percent of the yearly income for a fire department that covers several communities within 217 square miles northwest of Houston. This is just one of the long-running community barbecues in this region.
“People around here like this barbecue here better than they like barbecue made in a smoker,” Don Luedke told me, referring to the meat cooked directly over the coals. The other volunteers call him Big Man, and he’s been part of the cooking crew for longer than he can remember. His father did it before him. Back then, they only had eight hundred chicken halves to contend with, but the pits weren’t as user-friendly. The volunteers used to cook at the city park in pits made with corrugated tin sides that had metal pipes in the ground to hold them in place. The low wooden roof over the pits was a little too close to the fire. “Sometimes you had to get up there and put out the fire because that old pine would start smoking,” Luedke said of those wood trusses. Now the cooking is done in three sturdy brick smokers built in 2001 at Concordia Hall, where the Lions Club meets. It organizes this and several other smaller barbecues throughout the year.
Austin County remains a hotbed for community barbecues. Several years ago, I wrote about the annual Father’s Day barbecue at the Millheim Harmonie Verein Hall, which just celebrated its 150th year. Peters Hall hosts a Mother’s Day barbecue, while some choose to celebrate the Fourth of July with a barbecue at the Kenney Agricultural Hall. Cat Spring Hall held its 166th annual June Fest barbecue earlier this year. The Austin County tourism folks include even more barbecue events on their calendar. All of these barbecues are conducted by volunteers on brick or concrete pits using wood coals or charcoal for fuel. It’s all direct-heat barbecue, with no lids and no offset smokers involved, let alone gas or electricity.
The community barbecue pits in Bellville look much like the others in the region. They’re about forty feet long and four feet wide, similar in dimension to the in-ground pits you would have found at Texas’s early community barbecues. Before the Civil War, those pits were often dug by enslaved people before they built the fires and cooked the barbecue. The pits are now raised above the ground, but the methods haven’t changed much from what was recorded in many slave narratives describing the preparation, right down to the importance of a mop sauce.
Stanley Jackson now presides over the mop sauce.“I got a bad back, so I couldn’t flip chickens anymore,” he told me when explaining how he came to be in charge of the flavored liquid basted onto the chickens. He added onions and peeled lemons to water in two cast-iron pots heated by propane burners. To that mixture, he added white vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, and Wish-Bone Italian dressing along with several dry seasonings. After reaching a rolling boil, the pot gave off an uncomfortable cloud of steam on an already muggy day. The only respite came from standing closer to the hot pits or out in the parking lot under a light drizzle. Those in charge of mopping the meat came to fill their metal pails, and when one cast-iron pot was empty, the next was boiling.
The birds that come in from M-G Poultry in nearby Weimar are around two and a half pounds each. They’re loaded onto the metal cooking racks and seasoned with unlabeled shakers of a red seasoning mix, as well as another mix that looks like salt, pepper, and garlic. The racks are carried over to the pits that are already blazing with B&B oak charcoal, which is confined to the outside edges of the pits rather than the centers. Once the chicken racks are loaded onto the pits, volunteers apply the mop sauce liberally. The mop goes on again just before and after the chickens are flipped, to coat both sides. The chickens are flipped several times throughout what is usually a two-and-a-half-hour cook, though due to the moisture in the air, it took about twenty minutes longer than normal this time. The bone sides of the chicken halves spend more time directly over the fire than the skin sides to keep the skin from burning.
A couple half chickens were brought over to a table for a doneness check by Brent Jackson, Stanley’s son, and whoever else wants to join in. Brent tested the tenderness by pulling a leg off and then tried a bite to check the seasoning levels. Once done, the chickens, with more of the mop sauce applied to each layer, are packed into coolers. Those coolers are loaded onto a trailer and trucked over to the Austin County Fairgrounds, where the chickens are served. I asked Luedke if I could try a half chicken and was rewarded with a beautifully bronzed bird that had crackling, crisp skin and juicy, tender meat. It was really incredible. A few hours later, after a long, hot rest in the coolers, the chickens served at the fairgrounds were missing that crispness in the skin but were still delicious, as were the green beans, potatoes, sausage links, and gravy served alongside. There’s a group that makes the gravy, which would be called barbecue sauce anywhere else, for all the local community barbecues. It’s heavy on ketchup, onions, and butter, and it’s not too sweet.
There were three generations of Jacksons cooking this year. Stanley was there with his brother Steven. This was Steven’s thirty-seventh year of cooking, and he had invited me to come watch this process for several years before I could finally accept the invitation. Stanley’s nephew Kirk and son Shawn, who is also Bellville’s city manager, were there flipping those racks of birds along with Shawn’s son Jake. Stanley’s other son, Brent, was mopping chickens. Brent leads the Austin County Go Texan team at the the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo’s barbecue competition. In 2014, it took home second in the chicken category. This year, it won the Bloody Mary contest, but there was no mixology happening at Concordia Hall during the chicken cook. The coolers were full of light beer, Gatorade, and pickle juice for hydration.
Seeing several generations working together showed me this event isn’t just for the old-timers. There’s interest from young folks in taking over the cooking when the older generation needs to retire to less strenuous aspects of the event. It made me hopeful these community barbecues will continue, so everyone can witness the closest thing to Texas’s original barbecue methods. The only problem for me will be going back to eating regular old smoked chicken until next August, when the boys in Bellville fire up the pits once again.