In Texas in particular, the Caddo Indians were smoking meats over smoldering wood 10,000 years ago. In the 1600’s the Spaniards arrived with herds of grazing animals (horses, oxen, cattle, goats, sheep, poultry) to do work and provide food and barbecue. These were the moveable feast herds that followed the explorers, the Catholic Church mission settlements, and the settlers from Mexico, all of them seeking free land and fortune. The Mexicans brought with them their style of cooking barbacoa: seasoned meats wrapped in maguey and other leaves, buried with coals and hot rocks underground. They also brought the al pastor (shepherd’s) style of marinating meats, especially young goats (cabrito), and then cooking them over a trench filled with mesquite coals. It was hard to butcher a cow and quickly use up all of the meat before it spoiled, whereas a goat made a dandy meal for 3 or 4 cowboys. Goats could forage on anything, required less water, reproduced much quicker than cows, cooked a lot faster, provided milk and cheese, and tasted just as good when they were done right. The International Championship Goat Cookoff, by the way, is held annually in Brady, Texas.
In the early 1800’s the settlers from the American South started filtering in, bringing with them the traditional Southern pit style of BBQ: meats, especially pigs, cooked over a trench in the ground, filled with coals. In the 1830’s the Bohemian German and Czech immigrants started arriving, and they brought one of the more popular innovations: Old World butchers involved in sausage making and meat smoking, using enclosed smokers made from brick. They also brought their recipes for Pilsner-style beers. The Bohemians were the true Messiahs of Texas barbecue (and Texas beer).
Barbecuing historically was associated with the poorer classes, since the method of cooking was an ideal way to prepare (and preserve) cheap and inexpensive cuts of meats that had little economic value to the middle or upper class consumer. Back then, the barbecue cuts of meat were discard cuts, often given to the workers as part of their pay. The poor smoked and barbecued the leftover meats, while the rich grilled steaks.
When cotton growers begin to flood the black dirt prairies and bottomlands of Central and East Texas their slaves imported with them their own unique style of Southern barbecuing, along with finely-textured spicy sausages. On June 19th, 1865 General Granger of the Union Army arrived in Galveston to announce that Texas’ slaves were freed, thus starting the annual barbecue-centric celebration of freedom for African-Americans in Texas which continues today, and grows in popularity: Juneteenth. It’s a Texas thing.
In 1867 the first major cattle drive went up the Chisholm Trail from Texas, beginning the emerging Texas cattle industry (although historians have proven that there were intermittent trail drives of Texas cattle as far back as the 1830’s). The popularity of beef skyrocketed as huge ranches sprang up, following the decline of the Comanche’s and the buffalo. These were range-fed tough Longhorns that required long and low cooking, usually as whole carcasses, often over trenches filled with coals, and with meat like that, there was some basting and sauce-dipping going on. The cattle drives from Texas spread Lone Star barbecuing styles north as they went. Many Texans say that Oklahoma, St. Louis, and Kansas City wouldn’t even know how to spell BBQ if it weren’t for the rich traditions of the cattle drives, and the Texan and Texican cowboy barbecuers that took the cattle north, showing those Midwest Yankees how it was supposed to be done.
Around the turn of the century health regulations began to be enacted and enforced, to help prevent disease and public outbreaks of sickness. Cooking in pits carved out of the ground began to lose favor, especially with restaurants. The holdouts were in West Texas, where trench/pit barbecuing still exists today for big celebrations and get-togethers. The cooking methods of the Central Texas Bohemians predominated, and the enclosed brick (and later steel) smokers were much more sanitary. The cowboy-style barbecuers still insist that the Central Texas meat market approach is just smoking and not really barbecuing, and they sometimes like a little sauce slathered on (although it’s interesting to note that at any BBQ competition in Texas the meats are sampled by the judges without sauce on the side).
In Texas the itinerant cotton pickers were instrumental in turning BBQ into a legitimate business. The migrant pickers would begin the late-spring picking season in the lower Rio Grande Valley and follow the harvest through the fall up in the Panhandle. This was a large contingent of seasonal workers passing through each town who needed to be fed, and they were frowned upon in restaurants. Back in those days meat markets did their own slaughtering, so they were usually on the poor side of the tracks, and anyone was welcome there and in the grocery stores, no matter how you were dressed. The pickers’ favorite meal was smoked meat or sausage with a side of saltine crackers, and they could get both inexpensively. When the pickers were in town, anyone that had a smoker would set up shop, and serve from early morning until sundown or later.
Barbecue shacks sprung up all over the state, especially in the rural and poor urban areas. They were usually open only on the weekends, because the owner/operator had a regular job; his shack was a way to make supplemental money. It was usually a corrugated metal structure with a poured-in-place concrete floor. The pit or smoker would be in back, or on the side. As business grew, they might add a few mismatched chairs and tables, maybe some casual beer or whiskey. Unless they were really bad, these shacks had a tendency to grow and prosper over time, becoming legitimate restaurants. They could be divided into three groups: black-owned, poor white-owned, and white urban. Until the mid 50’s or so, these shacks and honky-tonks were fairly integrated. If a man sold good barbecue, it didn’t matter what color he was; good barbecue was good barbecue, anyway you looked at it. In the 60’s even barbecue became segregated.
All through the last half of the 1800’s and the entire1900’s there was a strong tradition of the church or the political barbecue. If you were going to get a big group together for God or goddamning, large quantities of barbecue could be easily cooked to feed a crowd, along with a big mess of beans, potato salad, or slaw, or the ladies would flesh-out the meal with a covered potluck for the side dishes and desserts. Often these affairs were cooked over a temporary trench pit dug in the ground, and whole or half steers or hogs were cooked by teams of cooks. A BBQ was the perennial fundraiser dinner of choice all through the state. It still goes on today, and there are now churches, primarily black congregations, that have opened permanent barbecue restaurants to finance their religious operations. For large group cooking these days you see the mega-trailers cooking the meat, but out in West Texas, the trenches are still occasionally used.
In 1949 in Houston a machinist named Leonard O’Neill won a small restaurant while shooting craps. He started a barbecue catering business that by the mid 1960’s was cooking for thousands of diners at a time. With his background as a machinist, O’Neill decided to buy a huge bread-rising oven from Rainbow Bakery that had a rotisserie-like mechanism inside. He converted it to a smoker that could cook 3,000 pounds of meat at a time. Independently, around the same time in Mesquite, Texas, a barbecue restaurant owner named Herbert Oyler did much the same thing as O’Neill. He ended up getting a patent for a steel barbecue pit with a rotisserie inside, heated by a separate fire box. Oyler pits are still made today, and Houston has gained a reputation as being the home of several nationally-known and respected custom pit makers.
In the late 1970’s and 80’s when the oil slump occurred, laid-off welders that would normally be working on oil rigs began to tinker with discarded oil field steel and the portable, trailer-mounted barbecue pit was born. Not long after, the 55-gallon steel drum smoker, known as “The Texas Hibachi”, emerged on a national level. Competitive BBQ cook offs really took off after that, since the pit smokers that enabled the home-grown pit boss to produce his wares became moveable. Now there are more than one hundred barbecue competitions in the state, and the number grows annually.
Today we’ve seen the modernization of the barbecue restaurant: some smokers now have thermostats, sauce has shown up in places where it shouldn’t, side dishes are spreading like wildfire, and now, eating with the fingers is occasionally frowned upon, and, as we know Hank Hill would be proud to hear, propane and propane accessories are combining with real wood to make smoke these days …but the heart of the matter, that succulent meat, kissed by many hours of sweet smoke, lives on like it has for generations. God bless Texas, God bless Texas barbecue, and God bless the things that never change!