The Secret to Great Texas BBQ

Brenda and I were in Texas researching an oil operation run by a small, independent company called RyHolland Fielder. We were promised a Texas barbecue lunch out in the field. The lunch was excellent. But I discovered the secret to Texas barbecue (pictured here):

KC Masterpiece BBQ sauce. (If you are ignorant of acronyms, the “KC” stands for “Kansas City,” as in Kansas City
style barbecue.)

I always expected as much.

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Barbecue

bar · be · cue [bahr-bi-kyoo] –verb. To marinate meat with a dry rub and cook it at a low temperature (200° – 225°) in dry and traditionally smokey heat. –adj. A word used to identify meats that have been cooked in the above manner, ie “barbecued ribs.” –noun. Pork shoulder or beef brisket that has been prepared in the above manner.

Barbecue, as you no doubt know, is slave food. It’s the part of the animal the classy folks would not consider eating. The farther down the animal, the less desirable it was (pig’s feet, ham hock, beef brisket and pork belly). But eating “high on the hog” (tenderloin, etc.) was something only the rich folk could afford to do, so the slaves got stuck eating the supposedly inedible stuff.

But the slaves and poor folk understood that even poor cuts of meat (the hock, butt, and brisket) could be delicious if enough time and care was put into their preparation. Eventually the rich folk smelled what the poor folk were cooking, and the BBQ rage began. Almost from the beginning, the rich folk ate all the ribs, leaving the brisket and pulled pork for the masses.

And this history led to a “traditional” understanding of what BBQ was and where you could find it. According to the old school purists, “barbecue” (the noun) is loose meat, typically brisket or pulled pork, often served with beans, slaw, and cornbread. There are also meats that are “barbecued” (the verb) and often served at the same joints that served “barbecue” (the noun), but are described adjectivally, such as barbecue chicken, barbecue links – and the most confusing subject of all – barbecue ribs.

You see, ribs are a special category. They aren’t precisely barbecue in the traditional, technical sense because they’re too expensive to be put in the same category as brisket and pulled pork. Barbecue is everyday poor people food; ribs are special occasion food. So, if you’re going out for “barbecue,” you’re going out for a plate of meat with a side of beans, slaw, and cornbread. If, on the other hand, you say you want “ribs,” you’re saying that there’s a special occasion and you can afford something real fancy.

Of course, in this modern suburban, upper middle income culture that America has become, all this traditional, purist terminology (and the joints that went with it) has been lost. Fancy is now an every day expectation and money (at least until the stock market crash) was a secondary consideration. And this way of viewing things leads to a second question: Where do you get barbecue?

Traditionally, barbecue wasn’t cooked in a modern restaurant. It was rather found where you probably would be embarrassed to take your mother-in-law. There was an old adage, “If there ain’t no flies, it ain’t barbecue.”

Back in the 80s Brenda and I had a book that was a barbecue bible of sorts. It was a travel guide of great barbecue across the country, with a special section for those in search of ribs rather than barbecue. Many of those joints (I hesitate to use the word restaurant) were mere shacks down by the river with a broken screen door on the front, a smoker in the back and stained and greasy tables and floors in between.

A few restaurants confounded the experts. Haywards, in Kansas City, was one such place. It was founded by a true barbecue expert, but it had become a proper restaurant with clean floors, even cleaner tables, and air conditioning. The editors observed that there were no flies and that you could even find German sports cars in the parking lot (which was paved!), and yet Haywards served the best burnt ends in a three state area.

They recommended it with an asterisk. It was mighty fine barbecue, but it was certainly no barbecue joint!

Haywards was a precursor. Now that barbecue has gone mainstream, the sense of barbecue as a relatively inexpensive meal has been lost. The true barbecue joints are overlooked in favor of fine restaurants that serve cuisine.

I’m not opposed to this in principle. The finest barbecue in our area (and they have good ribs as well) is a restaurant chain called Famous Dave’s that tries to pose as a joint. It has good food, but it’s no joint. In my family (my brother and nephew in particular), the place that gets their vote for best barbecue in the world is Fiorelli’s Jack Stack in Kansas City. They do have great ribs – maybe the best I’ve ever had – but their barbecue is passable at best (the brisket is better than the pork) and the restaurant is so upscale you need reservations, nice clothes, and a lot of cash.

In other words, while it’s great cuisine, it isn’t barbecue in the classic sense.

New York chef and best-selling author, Tony Bourdain, has a wonderful show on the Travel Channel called “No Reservations.” He is a first rate gourmand and appreciates the intricacies of five star cuisine. But when he’s in an unfamiliar part of the world he prefers to eat at the street vendors. Restaurants tend toward a certain uniformity no matter where they are; street food and small cafes tend to reflect the local life. Whether it’s New York, Mexico, Singapore, or Nigeria, he always manages to find fabulous food that reflects the unique local style, cooked by ordinary people.

As Tony explains it, there is something two dimensional about “cuisine.” Because it’s made by professionals, it tends to lose its local personality in favor of international professional standards. Restaurant food, especially high end restaurant food (ie, “cuisine”) has a difficult time maintaining a connection to the place where the food developed. French “cuisine” can be found in Paris, New York, and Tokyo. A French bistro just isn’t very French outside France.

And this is precisely the problem with smoked meat cuisine. Whether it’s Jack Stack (Kansas City), Famous Daves (Wisconsin), or Central (Memphis), the restaurants are pretty generic and interchangeable. The food is good (often excellent) but with no real connection to Kansas City, Memphis, or even Wisconsin. In contrast to this soulless cuisine, when I want Kansas City barbecue, I’m looking for that Kansas City experience, not just good food served in a place that could be just about anywhere.

The catch is, my friends and family aren’t particularly interested in that sort of barbecue, they want fine restaurants that serve “smoked meat cuisine”. Don’t get me wrong; smoked meat cuisine is mighty fine eating. I love Jack Stack, it’s just not barbecue in the classic sense. And when its barbecue you’re hunting for, an upscale restaurant in a high-end generic mall is about as far from the target as one can get. When I mention great barbecue, they immediately start talking about ribs. When I ask about great barbecue joints, they recommend fancy restaurants that serve great ribs because that’s all they’ve tried.

But I guess I deserve this burden. After all, I don’t drive a pick-up truck, I drive a jet black German sports car. What business do I have pulling up in front of a barbecue joint? (Although, when I’ve washed it, my car does look pretty spiffy parked in front of Haywards.)