Renee Carrathus doesn’t know how her dad came up with the recipe for the sausage she serves at Smitty’s Bar-B-Que in Brownwood. Smith “Smitty” McArthur Jr. traveled widely during his time in the Air Force, going as far as Germany, but that sausage sure tastes like a Chicago hot link. Maybe he picked it up there, I told her. Or maybe he never stopped trying to perfect it—just as he made adjustments to the barbecue sauce in the opaque squeeze bottle and the hot sauce disguised as ketchup that sits next to it on the table. He took out the habaneros when folks complained about the burn, even though he’d preferred the greater intensity. “He always started a lot of stuff that was too hot, then he dialed it back,” Carrathus said. She still makes the tame version with jalapeños, lemon juice, pickle juice, and a little of Smitty’s signature rub. At $56 a gallon, it’s the most expensive item on the menu, but she promises it’ll fetch that much from homesick natives who make Smitty’s their last stop before leaving town once again.
Smitty’s rub get used on everything except the potato salad and the sweet tea. It even gets sprinkled over barbecue that’s been cut and plated. You can ask for your brisket sliced, but Smitty always cut it into bite-sized chunks. “My dad’s whole thing was to make sure it was easy for them to eat,” Carrathus explained, so she does the same. How can you argue with the methods that kept Smitty in business until he died, despite a fire that gutted the place in 2011? There was never any question about the wisdom of rebuilding for a man who’d cleared the land by hand back in 1970. The concrete floor he poured was probably already cracked by the time he opened the doors on July 4, 1972, but it still serves as a reminder of the man who built the barbecue joint himself, then built it again at double the size, at the age of 83.
There are no plans to fix the crack in the floor. Smitty’s old work shirt, framed in a shadow box with his barbecue fork, hangs on the wall of the restaurant as another reminder of its namesake. Two Oyler smokers, built before I was born, still churn behind the restaurant. Smitty’s son, Ravia McArthur, keeps them stoked with mesquite wood, just like his dad, but he’s gone to adding a little pecan too. I guess there is some room to revise the way it has always been done before.
Still, Carrathus isn’t ready to change anything about the sauce or the sausage recipes three years after her father’s death at age 88. She helped him doctor up bottled barbecue sauces in the old days, then watched as he developed his own version. “We touch everything,” she said, noting that their cooking is from scratch. Even the sweet tea has to be mixed a certain way to make what Carrathus calls “real Texas Southern tea.” Bottled lemon juice sits beside the dispenser in case you want to temper the sweetness.
Potato salad and beans used to be the only sides. They call them red beans in this part of Texas, but they’d be known as pinto beans anywhere else. Carrathus has added black-eyed pea salad and coleslaw to the menu since Smitty passed. Even the innovations are traditional around here, but Carrathus is an unexpected caretaker. She thought her long-ago move to Austin was a permanent one. A week-long trip back home to visit family turned into a short stint at the the restaurant that turned into a career with permanence. “He just kept pulling me back,” she said about her dad. Somehow I doubt he had to pull that hard.
When Smitty’s eventually pulls me back in, I’ll skip the supporting cast of smoked meats and go straight for the homemade sausage sandwich. The smoky links are sliced and piled between two slices of white bread. The sausage has some kick from red pepper and at least one green herb. A douse of the hot sauce and a squeeze of barbecue sauce are welcome partners to the salty, smoky meat. The slaw, finely chopped and plenty sweet like the KFC variety, will be hard to pass up too. A little of the new with the old. I’ll probably spring the extra 60 cents for pickles and onions next time too.
It’s funny how the evolution of a recipe often stops with the passing of the loved one who created it. The measuring and stirring act as a remembrance that might feel tarnished if altered. Smitty was tweaking his recipes until the making was out of his hands. Who knows if he ever saw them as truly finished products, but I’m glad I can try that sausage sandwich just the way Smitty would have served it, even though I never met the man. The sister and brother team will allow the joint to evolve in different ways, while acting as caretakers for the basics. I trust they’ll do their best to preserve what their father and his barbecue meant to the community of Brownwood almost fifty years after he first cleared the land out on Austin Avenue.