The steel offset smoker is ubiquitous in Texas barbecue. Its torpedolike cooking chamber, with a tall smokestack on one end and a low-riding firebox on the other, is the symbol of Texas-style barbecue in and outside the state. The gentle, controlled cooking environment it offers by way of indirect heat has become the preferred method for smoking meat, and new pitmasters are nearly unanimous in their adoption of it. Some would even deem it required to produce “traditional” Texas barbecue. But this is a relatively new allegiance, even younger than our devotion to smoked brisket. How did we get from digging our pits in the ground with a shovel to building them with torches and welders?
Barbecue in what is now the United States began as direct-heat cooking. Cooks would build a fire on the ground with a frame of sticks over it to cook meat. Later, they dug trenches or holes (that’s why we still call barbecue-cooking instruments “pits” today) and laid sticks across them for a cooking surface. Other than South Texas barbacoa, which is cooked in a covered hole in the ground, that’s the way Texas barbecue was prepared until the late nineteenth century. Numerous descriptions of these pits can be found in newspaper accounts of barbecues, which were large community gatherings where local farmers and ranchers donated the meat and the food was free. This account of a pre–Civil War barbecue was written by H. P. Allen, with assistance from W. J. Erwin, and published in the December 31, 1937, issue of the Honey Grove Signal-Citizen, the paper of the North Texas town of Honey Grove:
“A Mr. Tate, a Kentuckian, who lived a few miles from town, was an expert in barbecuing meat, and could be had on most occasions. The grounds for holding the celebration would be where there was a well of good water and plenty of shade trees, and the necessary preparation was cleaning up the grounds and digging two pits about 20 or 25 feet long, 3 or 4 feet wide and 3 feet deep; then have hauled a good supply of dry wood—not crooked limbs and brush, but practically straight poles, with some good sized logs. Most all of the preparation was contributed free of cost.
“Mr. Tate would come on the grounds the day preceding the dinner and take charge of everything. By noon he would start the fires in the pits, so as to have huge beds of coals and practically no smoke, by sundown. After laying green sticks, preferably split hickory, across the pits, he would lay the meat to be cooked on them and he, with one or two assistants, would be attending to the cooking by turning the pieces and changing them over. He would have a bucket of liquid seasoning in one hand and a long handled mop in the other, and would frequently go over all the meat, applying the seasoning, doing this all through the night and until 11 o’clock the next day, when it was cured, ready for the tables.”
I couldn’t find more details about Mr. Tate, but the majority of barbecue cooks at the time were enslaved people. Often the credit was given to a group of white organizers, or the white supervisor, while the labor to dig the pit, load the wood and meat, and turn and mop the barbecue was done by Black cooks. That dynamic continued long into the twentieth century, as you’ll see in an earlier article about Pappy O’Daniel’s gubernatorial barbecue on the grounds of the Texas governor’s mansion in 1941. The undated photo below of an election-day barbecue in Fort Bend County shows what one of those pits loaded with meat would have looked like. Notice the large pile of dirt in the background from the digging of the pit.
When meat markets and barbecue shacks began selling barbecue in the late nineteenth century in Texas, they used similar pits, but as the restaurant culture developed, pits were built up instead of dug out. The Sanborn Map Company made insurance maps of cities across Texas designating the sizes and materials of these structures, probably because of the fire hazard they posed. In 1896, a new designation of a “barbecue oven” appeared in the towns of Caldwell, Crockett, Gonzales, La Grange, Luling, Palestine, and San Marcos—a “barbecue furnace” was identified in Commerce, Honey Grove, and Pittsburg. Whether there was a boom in barbecue oven construction in 1896 or Sanborn became more descriptive of the types of pits on its maps, we’ll never know, but the documentation does show a trend toward building structures for barbecue cooking.
Those barbecue ovens made their way inside the meat markets and barbecue restaurants. That came with risk, as exemplified in a 1907 report on a fire at Redd Bros. meat market on East Sixteenth Street in Austin. “The blaze is understood to have been started by a barbecue meat oven,” reported the Austin American-Statesman. Food writing as a profession was still a long ways off back then, so descriptions are scarce, but some new restaurants wanted to advertise the cleanliness of their cooking operation. “We have just completed a concrete and brick barbecue vat in the rear of our market,” an ad for the City Meat Market read in the Whitewright Sun. “It was built so that it can be kept in a sanitary condition at all times.” The Marshall Messenger reported in 1923 that “the Y-W Market has just installed and put into service a first class brick barbecue pit.”
Those reports provide a glimpse into how the barbecue pit was raised aboveground, but how did we make the move from direct-heat barbecue to indirect heat? In 1924, the brick building that housed Kreuz Market (and now houses Smitty’s) in Lockhart was built. I can’t find photo evidence, but according to the family, the indirect-heat brick pits and chimney were built then as well. The 1929 Sanborn map of Lockhart shows a “Barbecue Kitchen” where the pits currently sit. The late Rick Schmidt, whose father owned Kreuz Market, said he only remembered seeing the brick offset smokers in a 2014 interview.
That would have made Kreuz Market an outlier back then, at least according to a 1935 article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. It included definitions from a mysterious “national committee on the methods of meat cookery” that was established to clarify and standardize “much used but often inaccurately employed terms.” The committee defined “barbecue” as: “To roast an animal whole or in pieces slowly on a gridiron, spit or over coals in a specially prepared trench.” On the other hand, an oven was used to employ “indirect dry heat” for the purpose of baking bread or roasting meat. I don’t think using “roast” in its definition created the clarity the committee was seeking, but it does define direct-heat cooking as the true method for producing barbecue at the time.
In 1938, Sunset magazine published the Barbecue Book. Yes, it was produced by the publication based in California, but it was influential for describing the design of backyard pits, especially for the affluent, who could afford the brick structures. Most of the designs were for direct-heat cooking. Larger structures included a “barbecue oven,” but the author notes that it “can be used for baking potatoes and biscuits.”
A year later, Martin’s Place in Bryan was rebuilding. It had removed the old pits from the front of the original 1925 restaurant and built new indirect-heat ones in the back. Current owner and pitmaster Steve Kapchinskie told me that’s when the brick smokers currently in use were first built. In La Grange, the indirect-heat brick smoker, built in 1953, at the now-closed Prause’s Meat Market was certainly showing its age when I last saw it a few years back.
By then, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram has changed its tune on barbecue. In a 1953 article describing the three types of barbecue pits, it advises building one out of brick. “Some outdoor chefs like an indirect heat on their meats—a method by which heat from the coals is blown or drawn around a baffle structure and thus in contact with the meat,” the article explained. The writer was not so bullish on direct-heat cooking. “Generally, the hole-in-the-ground, unlined and flueless type isn’t recommended for the backyard,” the article read. “First, anyway it’s viewed as still just a hole in the ground—usually big enough to roast an ox and messy enough to get unkind comment[s] from the neighbors.”
Backyard barbecue culture was exploding in the 1950s. A portable barbecue smoker was listed along with aluminum lawn chairs and a dinner gong in a lineup of “new picnic gadgets” covered in the Corpus Christi Times in 1955. Throughout the decade, ads can be found for myriad new grills hitting the market. “It’s a barbecue smoker!” boasted an ad for the KamKap Kovered chuck-wagon barbecue grill. The line of Big Boy Barbecues included a “smoker wagon.” The Western King Deluxe outdoor smoker looked like a split 55-gallon drum and described itself as an “all-purpose barbecue SMOKER for grilling and spit cooking.” This demonstrated a new use of the term “smoker,” which had previously been reserved for smokehouses where hams and bacon would cure, for the instrument used to cook barbecue. Still, none of these new products had an offset firebox, for which backyard pitmasters would have to wait decades.
A few of the legendary barbecue joints mentioned were early pioneers of indirect-heat cooking. Wide adoption of the method in restaurants began in the late 1950s. A new coffee shop that was to serve barbecue was being built in Van Nuys, California, in 1958. The local paper described plans for “an unusual barbecue oven,” explaining that “meat, instead of being exposed directly to flame, is cooked within compartment above fire box where heat is directed around meat by de[f]lectors.” A year later, Louie Mueller Barbecue moved into its current building, and Louie built an indirect-heat brick smoker. A 1960 ad in the Corpus Christi Times boasts that Howard’s Delicious Barbecue “uses only boneless beef that is wood cooked in a pit designed by Bill Howard, cooking for 12 to 20 hours by indirect heat.” The New York Times profiled Fort Worth pitmaster Walter Jetton in 1964. He’s known for the grand barbecues he catered for LBJ, but the Times notes that at Jetton’s Forth Worth restaurant, “the meats are cooked in a smoke oven in indirect heat. The heat and smoke are derived from such woods as oak, hickory, walnut and pecan.”
Massive rotisserie smokers were the contribution of the 1970s. J&R Manufacturing in Mesquite was founded in 1974, and it still builds the wood-fired Oyler rotisserie smokers patented by Herbert Oyler in 1968. A. N. Bewley Fabricators in Dallas began building its rotisserie smokers in 1971. Popular gas-fired rotisseries like Ole Hickory Smokers (1974) and Southern Pride (1976) also debuted their models in the seventies. The backyard smoker being pushed by retailers like Academy late in the decade was the 55-gallon drum cut in half with hinges and a grill grate added on. If you remember your grandfather cooking on one, there’s a good chance he didn’t have another option.
Finally we reach 1983, the year when the first generation of steel offset smokers was widely available to the public. Yes, the first companies building smokers with the same silhouette we use today were formed less than forty years ago. The founders of Pitts & Spitts say they built their first custom offset smoker from surplus oil pipe in the 1970s, but they opened their first retail store in Houston in 1983 and are still going strong. The Longhandle smoker pit was introduced the same year, and the ads were clear that it was “not an oil drum!” Charlie Davenport took a Polaroid of the custom offset smoker he built in 1978. His daughter Marsha Mack took over from him to run Lyfe Tyme smokers in Uvalde, which began offering its line of offsets to the public in 1986. When the Los Angeles Times ran a story in 1988 on how to cook like a Texan, it suggested buying an offset barbecue smoker from Pitts & Spitts or Lyfe Tyme.
That this design from such a short time ago has come to dominate Texas barbecue culture is a testament to its simplicity, efficiency, and ease of use when compared to cooking directly over coals. Propane tanks have largely replaced oil-pipeline materials for the construction of these steel offset smokers, but the basic design is the same. A whole generation of pitmasters has learned on nothing else. That’s not good news for those who love the direct-heat cooking practiced by fewer and fewer barbecue joints in Texas. But there’s no arguing that if you’re going to eat Texas barbecue today, chances are you’ll find an offset smoker nearby.