The summer before my freshman year of college, as I prepared to move from New York to Austin, I was shocked to hear Bob, my best friend’s father, say, “Don’t worry, you’ll be right at home. Texas barbecue was invented by our kind, you know.” Bob’s greatest pleasure seemed to be cooking meatballs for hordes of teenagers and making unverifiable statements. Much as I adored him, I told him, I simply couldn’t believe that Texas barbecue was invented by Jews (“our kind” being secular New York Jews, at that). “Texas barbecue is beef,” Bob told me. “Everyone else serves pork! Kosher butchers!” He wagged his finger at me.
I’ve eaten my fair share of pork sausage at the Salt Lick, but I’ve always wondered whether there might be a grain of truth in Bob’s suspicions. So when a copy of Foodways, Volume 7 of the New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, appeared, I glanced over it in search of some information. The entry for “Barbecue, Texas,” tells me that the traditional preference for beef is due in large part to the surplus of longhorn beef cattle at the end of the Civil War. And in mentions of the German and Czech immigrants who helped to found the beefy outposts of Kreuz Market in Lockhart and Louis Mueller’s Barbecue in Taylor, no allusions to their religious outlook. Under “Jewish Foodways,” I saw an explanation of Procter and Gamble’s 1912 statement that “the Hebrew Race has been waiting 4,000 years for Crisco” so that Southern Jews could fry chicken and bake pecan pie, sans lard. Still, no mention of Texas or barbecue.
Bob’s theory isn’t confirmed, but plenty else is, on subjects ranging from beans to the segregation of lunch counters to a somewhat mysterious entry on “Funeral Food and Cemetery Cleaning.” This book really digs into the social and economic backgrounds of Southern “Foodways.” If only Bob could add the founders of Texas barbecue to the list of influential Jews in the annals of history. Einstein, Maimonides, Kinky Friedman—if only.