Just who invented Texas barbecue anyway?

A platter of genuine Texas barbecue. Photo: Gray Line Tours.
A platter of genuine Texas barbecue. Photo: Gray Line Tours.

OLD-TIME CHUCK-WAGON COOKS ruled the Texas cattle drives with tempers as hot as their Tabasco sauce. They were lords and masters, tough as burnt boot leather, which they sometimes served, and nobody defied them.

The cowboys knew better.

They didn’t want to wake up to coffee too weak to drink and too dry to spit. Gravel would have a nasty of winding up in their beans. Their sourdough biscuits would turn yellow and sometimes sour.

That wasn’t good at all when you came riding in from a long, dust-chewing day on the trail, so hungry your stomach thought your throat had been cut.

One old cowboy, saddle broke and corn-shuck tired, bit into a biscuit and barked, “Dammit. It’s burnt on the bottom, soggy in the middle, and salty as hell.”

A shadow fell over the campfire.

The old cowboy glanced up into the scowling face of an angered cook and continued, without taking a breath, “By golly, that’s jes the way I like ‘em.”

If a cook didn’t believe in wasting any of the beef at all, his specialty was sonofabitch stew.

It was simply a thick gravy concoction of heart, liver, tongue, sweetbreads, brains, and marrow guts, just about anything off and out of the cow with the possible exception of hide, hair, horns, and hooves.

As the trail hands would say, “Sonofabitch might not have any brains and not heart, but if it don’t have guts, it’s not sonofabitch.”

The cook would merely shrug with humility and say, “We don’t really make it. It jes sort of accumulates. And if you can tell what’s in it, it ain’t made right.”

The choice chunks of beef, however, were saved for something special.

There beside a lonely cattle trail, slung over a pile of mesquite coals and smoldering cow dung, heaped up on land where it was fifty miles to water and six inches to hell, those ornery, cussed old cowboy cooks invented a western slice of heaven called barbecue.

Sonofabitch kept them all alive.

Barbecue made them glad to be alive.

The cooks of the range generally hung around till old age because they weren’t worth the powder it would take to shoot them. But the angels tasted barbecue and forgave them of their sins. The gods took a bite and figured anything that good and greasy probably was a sin.

Texas barbecue is cooked the way a cowboy dances, slow and easy and often as tender’s as the lady’s heart, as moist as her goodnight kiss, as lean as the cowboy’s wallet.

In Texas, great barbecue is part of the holy trinity itself, along with women and whiskey. Babies don’t suck pacifiers; they gnaw on a rib. Preachers believe that when the good Lord sent Moses manna from heaven, at lest half of it was brisket, and the courts have declared: “All men were created. Barbecue makes them equal.”

So it does.

In Texas universities, these truths are well known:

Patrick Henry said: “Give me barbecue or give me death.”

Sam Houston’s battle cry was: “Remember the Alamo.” He had heard the Alamo was a rib joint on the west side of San Antonio.

John Milton wrote Paradise Lost after he misplaced his self-guided tour map to real, honest, genuine Texas barbecue establishments, advertised by pecan, oak, hickory, and mesquite smoke instead of neon.

And Shakespeare penned Much Ado about Nothing after sopping his white bread through a batch of Georgia pork sauce, then using the crust to pick his teeth.

On the sports scene, if you can believe what you hear down amidst the piney woods around Cut ‘N Shoot, Texas, and it’s far better to believe than call anyone a liar, sex beat out barbecue in the World Series, but it went the full seven games.

Down in the hollows of deep East Texas where I live, there are even rumors of barbecued o’possum. Out west of the Caprock, the delicacy is barbecued rattlesnake.

Each chef has his own recipe.

Each chef has his own secrets.

None are handed down and some are buried with them.

Johnnie Brown in Wills Point had a terrible responsibility, it weighed heavily on his mind, and often it got him down with a greasy case of the blues.

He and he alone possessed the secret of old Lank Robinson’s famous devil sauce, and everybody knows that old Lank Robinson could always cook sweeter over red oak than anyone else could cook over hickory. He had the knack.

He gave his closely guarded recipe to Johnnie brown, which made Johnnie Brown a nervous, troubled man.

Johnny told me, “Lank made me swear not to tell what’s in it until I’m just about to die.”

He wiped the sweat from his face.

He wiped it on his overalls.

“That’s got me real worried,” he said.

“How’s that?”

“How am I gonna know when I’m about to die?”

“Have another rib,” I said.

“Might as well.”

He grinned.

“I ain’t dead yet,” he said.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    If real, genuine Texas barbecue is cooked right, the meat falls off the bones and can be cut with a fork. Unfortunately, a lot of quick-grilled barbecue can only be cut with a chainsaw.

  • jack43

    I learned to cook low ‘n slow in Hawaii where hogs were put in pits with hot rocks, covered with leaves and dirt and left all day and night. Slow cooking preserves nutrients and keeps moisture from boiling away as well as enhancing flavor. I’m curious as to how a chuckwagon cook invented low ‘n slow cooking when they were always on the move. I had always heard that beans and sidemeat (salted pork) were the staples on the cattle drives. Cows were too valuable for drovers to eat…

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Cows were indeed valuable on cattle drives, Jack. So were cowboys who didn’t like to ride on empty stomachs. I’ve had Hawaiian pork barbecue. It is absolutely wonderful.

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