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John Lewis Jr.’s BBQ Roots

NM -> TX -> SC

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John Lewis Sr. and John Lewis Jr. Photo from John Lewis's Facebook page

Rummaging through your family genealogy can be dicey. The history could be upsetting (just ask Ben Affleck), but you also might be able to confirm some royal bloodlines. And for Austin’s John Lewis Jr., what he and his father discovered was even more rewarding than any monarch. The man who built Austin’s La Barbecue into a nationally respected joint might be a self-taught pitmaster, but he has barbecue in his blood.

Lewis Jr. is still part of the La Barbecue clan, but now he spends most of his time in South Carolina. After testing the waters with several pop-ups and collaborations, the next step was to do the unthinkable—he decided to bring Texas beef barbecue into pork country, so Lewis Barbecue (opening later this year in Charleston) was born. That story bears some resemblance to the path his great-great-great grandfather Henry E. Brubaker took when he brought barbecue to southeast New Mexico over a century ago.

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1908 Advertisement in the Alamogordo News

In 1908, the City Market in Alamogordo, New Mexico ran an advertisement for meats, poultry, fruits, vegetables, and “Barbecued Meats.” Before taking over City Meat Market in 1905, proprietor H. E. Brubaker, had followed the railroad down from Indiana. Just before the turn of the twentieth century, the Brubakers settled in La Luz, New Mexico at the base of the Sacramento Mountains. There, Henry kept hogs and cattle on a ranch until moving to Alamogordo.

That information came from the considerable research of John Lewis Sr., who has collected records on many branches of his family tree. I, however, dug in the opposite direction and found an unexpected connection between the City Meat Market and the famous lawman Pat Garrett.

The City Meat Market was established as early as 1902 by Oliver Lee, who supplied the market with beef from his ranch. Alamogordo, a book about the history of the area, noted: “At its height, the crown jewel of the southern New Mexico cattle industry was Oliver M. Lee’s Circle Cross Ranch.” Lee reportedly sold the market to Brubaker in order to focus on ranching.

He eventually become a respected rancher (there’s even a state park named in his honor), but when Lee made a business deal with Brubaker he was less than a decade removed from a high-profile pursuit by Sheriff Pat Garrett, the man responsible for killing Billy the Kid. In 1896, that part of New Mexico was still very much the “Wild West,” and when Albert Jennings Fountain, an accomplished attorney who once represented Billy the Kid, disappeared along with his eight-year-old son near White Sands, Lee was the prime suspect. But without a body he was acquitted of the murder. Some even believe he was involved in Garrett’s killing in 1908, just a few months before Brubaker ran that ad for barbecue in the newspaper.

Regardless of the founder’s reputation, the Brubakers took the market to new heights. It wasn’t without a rocky start, though. Henry’s sons, Jesse and Claude, were in the meat business with their father, and the first year in Jesse had a serious accident. According to newspaper reports at the time, his right leg was caught in a sausage mill. His coworkers were able to free him before he lost it completely, and he eventually returned to the business.

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The Brubakers moved the market to a larger building in 1909, then added a second location in nearby Cloudcroft. By 1920, Jesse was out of the meat business and working as a forest ranger. His father, widowed and retired, was living with his daughter Carrie in El Paso by 1930. Claude was still listed as a retail butcher in the 1940 census, but John Lewis Sr. wasn’t sure when either of the family’s meat markets closed for good.

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Henry Brubaker out front of Cloudcroft Commercial Co.

John Lewis Sr.’s mother, Cora Lewis (née Brubaker), did not inherent her father Jesse’s affinity for butchery. When John Lewis Sr. was just a year old, he and his parents moved from Michigan back to El Paso where his father, Lloyd, became a fireman. The family’s connection to butchery and barbecue were officially suspended, and John Lewis Sr. continued the streak by working for IBM.

Now that John Lewis Jr. is an accomplished pitmaster, Senior was happy to share the family’s barbecue roots with Junior, but the return to the family business didn’t really surprise dear old dad. “When [John Jr.] was ten or eleven we started going on these backpack trips with the Boy Scouts, and he learned how to cook over an open fire,” Lewis Sr. told me. Junior took to the task quickly according to his father. “He got so good, the adults would bring food and let him cook it for us.”

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Henry Brubaker’s cleaver. Photo from John Lewis Sr.

“I was excited because I now know that I have barbecue history in my family,” Lewis Jr. said. The barbecue thread may have skipped a few generations, but it’s now stronger than ever. In addition to Lewis Jr.’s role as a pitmaster, he also has a passion for pit building. Earlier this year, that resulted in the opening of Austin Smokeworks, where father and son work side by side building smokers out of 500 and 1,000 steel tanks. Their signature is a stylized meat cleaver handle used to control the exhaust dampers, the handles modeled after a meat cleaver that once belonged to Henry Brubaker, the perfect finishing touch on John Lewis Jr.’s new smoker that’s bound for South Carolina.

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  • As a history buff, I always appreciate the research you put into these articles. Thanks Daniel!

  • Tom Collins

    I don’t think I’ve ever read a more shoddily constructed and tenuously tied together “family history” foisted off as some kind of deep, BBQ backstory.

    Of course part of that is Vaughn’s laughably amateur authorship which, sadly, is the rule and not the exception, but mainly it’s the tortured lengths to which Mr. Lewis (Jr.) is willing to go to establish some kind of “cred” in the BBQ world. I don’t blame Mr. Lewis Sr. for this at all. He was asked by this hack to dredge up something to do with meat from his distant family history and actually did a decent job finding something. Not that it bore any influence on or relation to his son’s eventual profession, but I digress…

    And I just can’t keep all these different versions of Mr. Lewis’s (Jr.) back story straight. First, he grew up in El Paso and moved to Austin at 18. Stuff happens that IS mentioned in his official bio, but what ISN’T is that he then worked under the tutelage of John Mueller Jr. (of Taylor, TX BBQ family lore) where he learned basically everything he needed to run a pit, and went on to eventually work for a few others, culminating in getting the pit for John Mueller’s sister, Leann, up and running and producing steady results. That part gets mentioned, so does his allegedly “putting Austin on the map” by helping Aaron Franklin (another of John Mueller Jr.’s former employees – starting to see an unspoken trend here?) get his own brick and mortar operation off the ground. The rest, regarding Franklin, is history. But now it’s this twerp from El Paso who put Austin on the map for BBQ? What?!

    But back to Mr. Lewis’s phony back story. I just read that he is about to open a new Tex Mex themed restaurant in South Carolina and that he’s drawing on his childhood in El Paso and “time he spent in New Mexico” for influences. When, during this busy back story did Mr. Lewis spend any significant time in New Mexico and why is this detail – salient to the notion of a Tex Mex restaurant – only now being trotted out as part of his shifting and conveniently vague biography?

    The real answer to all of these questions is that the whole BBQ scene, lovingly fawned over and pushed on TM readers by Daniel Vaughn (a guy who couldn’t make it as an architect – or a writer in any arena but shameless self-promotion and promotion of food porn) is comprised of a bunch of phonies who, again with the help of Mr. Vaughn, get to re-invent themselves and re-write their bogus backstories as many times as it takes to plant a seed of credibility with (the mostly unassuming) readers who have no way of knowing that 90% of what they’re seeing is straight up fiction.

    Brought to you by the letter “T” for truth. Have a good one, kids.

  • Mr. Collins, You have too much time on your hands. Why do you care about anything I’m doing, weirdo?