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Texas Barbecue

The beef yields slowly, like a bull on a rope. Teeth into peppery black crust and juices hot with mesquite ... Texas barbecue is too dang good to swallow. While most of the South eats high off the hog, beef is the meat of choice for real Texas barbecue. And brisket, the touchstone of any Texas “pit,” is the cut preferred by more than 1,300 barbecue joints across the Lone Star State.

Apart from the biggest sky, best sunsets, most oil, largest ranches, grandest hair and some of the most rugged terrain on either side of the Pecos River, Texans trumpet barbecue as their most succulent God-given resource. Unlike chili, which natives generally equate to cook-offs, barbecue is the culinary currency seating ranchers, roughnecks and high-techies at the same checkered table.

Pull into any roadside barbecue stand, sit-down joint or high-end tourist draw, and you’ll find— apart from local conversation—the same basic menu: sliced brisket, beans, pickles, onions and white bread. Sometimes you’ll find ribs, sausage or pork, but rarely chicken. Sauce is served on the side. You can’t turn down the potato salad, slaw, green beans, and if you’re lucky, peach cobbler and Texas pecan pie. And lots and lots of beer.

Barbecue, a cultural icon of the South, generally refers to smoked rather than grilled meats. Some say the term barbecue is derived from the West Indian
barbacoa, which denotes slow-cooking meat over hot coals. Bon Appetit once attributed it to an extinct Guyana tribe who enjoyed “cheerfully spit-roasting captured enemies.” In Texas, barbacoa endures as a term for cabeza—or steer head—roasted over coals beneath the ground.

Before the Civil War, barbecue was a plantation staple. By the 20th century, barbecue joints in town or along the highway attracted every color and class to their smoky interiors. “Barbecue is a metaphor for American culture in a broad sense,” according to Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country, by Lolis Eric Elie. “Barbecue alone encompasses the high- and lowbrows, the sacred and the profane, the urban and the rural, the learned and the unlettered, the blacks, the browns, the yellows, the reds and the whites.” What barbecue ain’t is a backyard grill.

Barbecue, throughout much of the barbecue belt, almost always means pork. In North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, a pork shoulder is chopped or sliced. In the region around Memphis, the meat is “pulled” by hand into delectable threads. Many in Kentucky prefer barbecued lamb. But, as with all things, the rules change in Texas—where beef is king and hot-burning mesquite is plentiful. Where independent patrons demand their sauce on the side, to be added as they damn well please.

To sniff out whether Texas barbecue is truly pure, step out back—under the pecan trees filled with burning cicadas, past the woodpile of the post oak, hickory or mesquite, under a hot tin roof—to find the smoker, or pit. Here is where the sweat—and barbecue—begins. This is where five- to 25-pound briskets are rubbed with salt and pepper and lowered into pits fitted with stovepipes. Where fireboxes next to the meat are carefully stoked to slow-cooking perfection, and briskets are mopped with basting sauce. Where pit-masters smoke the meat for hours using carefully guarded recipes handed down through generations.

Unlike restaurants in California and New York, whose barbecue lacks the tell-tale reddish smoke-ring edging of the meat, this is the real thing—always the standard, even as non-beef vegetarian and fish options and non-wood barbecue methods work their way into Texas. It is this reddish-black glaze and the juicy well-done smokiness of Texas brisket that makes it good enough for a paper plate or a silver platter.