The title of this year’s Foodways Texas symposium — “Our Barbecue, Ourselves” — tells you a lot about the kind of discussion that happened last week during the yearly gathering of the Foodways Texas organization.
This year’s theme is a spinoff of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” the 1971 book on women’s anatomy and health that has become cultural shorthand for learning more about something we thought we knew well.
Thus is the case with barbecue, a tradition whose legacy runs deep in regions across the country and whose fans have only become more heartfelt in their passion for all things meat (and, if you’re in Central Texas, potato salad, pickles, raw onions and white bread).
It is no exaggeration to say that barbecue helps shape the self-identity of those who were raised in a geographic region with a distinct barbecue tradition. Just ask the question “Sauce or no sauce?” and listen to the debate that follows to see how strongly people feel about their particular traditions.
It’s a natural fit, then, that Foodways Texas, a statewide organization that preserves and celebrates food culture, would dedicate its third annual symposium to what some would consider the state’s strongest food tradition. (Gulf Coast foodways was the theme in the first year, when the event was in Galveston, and last year, when the conference moved to Austin, the theme was preservation.)
I caught a handful of the Friday panels at Saengerrunde Hall downtown, which featured Houston cookbook author Robb Walsh, Austin writer and activist Toni Tipton-Martin and Renee Studebaker, the former gardening columnist for the Statesman who got to talk about — and hand out samples of — one of her favorite subjects: raw onions.
I was also there to interview Franklin Barbecue owner Aaron Franklin and Daniel Delaney, who started serving Central Texas-style barbecue in his Brooklyn restaurant, BrisketTown, last year. We talked about the new business of barbecue, which from Aaron Franklin’s perspective looks a lot like the old business of barbecue.
Even with the monumental success of his 3-year-old business, Franklin still has to pull long hours of hard labor to turn out a product that he feels comfortable serving. Franklin grew up watching his parents run a barbecue restaurant in Bryan, and he happily calls himself a purist who embraces tradition. (After this statement, I teased him for having espresso barbecue sauce, which violates not only his own rule of letting the meat speak for itself but also what ingredients are supposed to go in a Texas sauce if you do serve it.)
Delaney is also walking that line between upholding tradition and staying relevant in a city whose denizens might not appreciate a greasy tray of brisket, sausage and Cheddar cheese during their lunch hour. After serving breakfast tacos in the morning, his restaurant is open only for dinner, and he refuses to serve sauce, even though many customers ask for it. (Hot sauce, on the other hand, is available. Go figure.)
High labor and operating costs force him to charge $25 a pound for brisket, but the restaurant has been successful enough that he is opening a restaurant in Manhattan called SmokeLine on April 18 that will specialize in sandwiches and pies.
Walsh, a former Austinite who was recently hired as the food editor for the new Houstonia magazine, talked about the history of various barbecue styles and the importance of community barbecues, subjects he covers in his newest book, “Barbecue Crossroads: Notes & Recipes From A Southern Odyssey,” which comes out Monday from the University of Texas Press.
For this book, his 11th, Walsh traveled the barbecue trail from East Texas to the Carolinas and then back with noted photographer Rufus Lovett to discover what he calls the “the roots of our oldest artisan food tradition” and how it has evolved and changed over the decades.
Never one to shy from calling things as he sees them, Walsh addressed the influence of both race and class on the differing styles of ’cue by quoting a 1973 Texas Monthly article about barbecue origins. While Germans who ran meat markets had first pick for the cuts of meat they wanted to cook, African Americans were likely to have been left with lesser cuts and were more likely to use sauce to cover up “the dubious nature of the meat,” he quoted from the article.
Barbecue still carries undertones of this cultural baggage, and we often overlook these facts when we get into arguments about whose barbecue is “better.” However, “when we preserve the barbecue styles, are we preserving the racial and class divides that they also represent?” he asked provocatively. Could the “synthesis” of these styles be seen as achieving racial reconciliation?
One place where some of the purest of barbecue traditions still lives is in the community barbecue, the small-town gatherings that continue largely unnoticed in churches, clubs and lodge halls, he says. “Community barbecues are there to preserve tradition, and I think they deserve our attention,” he says.
Not enough young people are volunteering to work them and learn, but to help keep them from fading away, Walsh has created a website called ZenBBQ (zenbbq.com) with a calendar where people can post and share events.
Tipton-Martin, a Foodways founder who also runs the website The Jemima Code, talked about women’s role in the barbecue tradition, especially around Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the date in 1865 when slaves in Texas first learned of their freedom, which was more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
While the men were cooking meat over an open fire for the celebration, the women were often preparing the side dishes and red soda water, a drink that has been tied to the original celebrations, she says. Big Red didn’t show up until 1937 and Coke and Dr Pepper weren’t out until the 1880s, but the drink was likely “lasses,” molasses diluted in water to create a sugary drink with a hint of color. The color red, also found in the watermelon, carries with it a religious significance of faith and sacrifice, which is also part of the reverential holiday.
Other featured speakers from the symposium included Austin hunters-turned-authors Georgia Pellegrini and Jesse Griffiths, Southern Foodways Alliance director John T. Edge, and Daniel Vaughn, the Dallas writer behind @BBQsnob whose recent appointment as the official barbecue editor for Texas Monthly magazine shows just how high our collective meat fever has risen.
For more information about Foodways Texas and its upcoming events, go to foodwaystexas.com.
Beer Joint Sausage
Vencil Mares of the Taylor Café learned how to make sausage at Southside Market in Elgin. This is a Bohemian Czech sausage recipe from Central Texas.
If you cook sausage too quickly, you render the fat out of the “batter” of meat and fat inside the casing. This causes the sausage to squirt out all its fat. For best results, set the batter by cooking the sausage very slowly at first. Once the batter is set, you can cook the sausage over high heat.
6 lbs. beef rump roast or beef trimmings
4 lbs. fatty Boston butt pork roast
1/4 cup salt
5 cloves garlic, minced
3 Tbsp. coarsely ground black pepper
1 tsp. cayenne
Medium hog casings (available at butcher shops)
Coarsely grind the beef rump and pork butt together through the 1/4-inch plate of a meat grinder. In a large bowl, mix the ground meat with the salt, garlic, pepper and cayenne. Knead the mixture with your hands until everything is well blended. Don’t rush the mixing — it takes a long time.
In a small skillet, heat a little oil. Form a meatball-size piece of the mixture into a small patty and fry it. Taste for seasonings, and adjust to your taste.
Soak the hog casings in lukewarm water. Stuff the meat mixture into the hog casings with a sausage stuffer or a pastry bag, and tie into 4- to 6-inch links. The sausage will keep for 3–4 days refrigerated and up to 2 months frozen.
When you’re ready to cook the sausages, place them in a pan of warm water on the stove and slowly bring the heat up to 140 degrees to set the “batter.” Set up your smoker for indirect heat with a water pan. Sear the links over hot coals for 3 minutes on each side, or until nicely brown. Move them to indirect heat over a drip pan and smoke for 30 minutes, or until cooked through. Makes 10 pounds.
Variation: To make Vencil’s Turkey Sausage, grind 8 pounds of boneless turkey and 2 pounds of fatty pork, and proceed with the recipe for Beer Joint Sausage.
— From “Barbecue Crossroads: Notes & Recipes From A Southern Odyssey” (University of Texas Press, $45)