What makes Texas “Texas”? • Got Brisket?

If you find a Texas town without a barbecue place, look around, you may have inadvertently driven over the state line.

Classic Texas barbecue is a beef brisket, sausage, and ribs. A “vegetable plate” is traditionally a potato salad, raw white onions, and pickles. Not quite what most people would call a healthy vegetable plate, but this is how we do it in Texas.

Liza Palmer, nowhere but home

To understand the importance of grilling and barbecue in Texas, naturally, we consult a Harvard anthropologist. Dr. Richard Wrangham believes the combination of controlled fire and cooked meat had a great deal with do with a large leap in the evolution of the human brain. So it is plain to see why, 700,000 years later, “it’s bigger in Texas” also includes brains. 

The Basics

First, it is important to know that not all food on a grill is “barbecue,” and just pouring a red, tangy sauce on it doesn’t make it so. Confuse the two and you risk losing your Texas membership card. 

For barbecue, one piles coals or wood to the side or in the center, spreads the meat around the grill top, and closes the lid. Cooking meat in this way is a slow process, used for large cuts, and can take a half-day or longer.

Conversely, when you grill, you put the meat right over the fire (direct heat) for a quicker cooking time. This is appropriate for smaller cuts—burgers, steaks, and hot dogs. 

In America, we generally recognize four major types of barbecue; Memphis, Kansas City, Carolina, and Texas. Each uses a proprietary blend of meats, spices, fuel, and fixin’s. If people know nothing else about Texas, they know we have cows. So, what sets Texas BBQ apart begins with beef, and ends with wood-burning, and dry rubs. 

P.S. – Don’t let anyone sell you “Oklahoma” barbecue; theirs is a mix of Texas style and things they gleaned from Kansas City and Memphis. 

Early Texas restaurants cooked in dirt pits outside, and eventually built above-ground brick pits for indoor use. If you want to watch some old school cooks at work, Smitty’s, in Lockhart, is a legendary spot that has been firing up the same indoor pit since 1948. 

Some History

Barbecue historian Dr. Howard L. Taylor believes the first big barbecue in Texas “was probably held on April 30, 1598, near San Elizario on the Rio Grande, about 30 miles Southeast of El Paso, TX.” Natives were present, and it was a traditional, religious, outdoor feast that included spit-roasted wild game and birds, and native vegetables, plus customary salted pork, hard biscuits, and red wine from Spain.

Over time, regional styles emerged that reflect the influences of the people who settled here. In Central Texas, Czech and German butchers smoked leftover meats to extend the time they could sell it, which the locals loved. In the south, Mexican farmhands introduced centuries-old barbacoa—cow heads wrapped in damp leaves and cooked over hot coals—to their new Texas friends. You can still give that a try at Vera’s in Brownsville; cheek meat is apparently great in tacos. 

East Texas gives credit to African-Americans, who settled there after emancipation, for a saucy, chopped variety of cooked beef. Finally, West Texas barbecue is often called ‘cowboy barbecue’ because it is cooked over an open fire and grew out of convenience on cattle drives and trail blazing.

Why It Matters

Barbecue is not just a meal; it’s an event. If you’ve ever argued with a Georgian about how they can eat Low Country Boil all day, or a Marylander about picking blue crabs for hours, you understand barbecue is as much about the activity as it is staving off hunger. 

In Texas, taking a half-day or longer to cook the meal means there is plenty of time for family, tradition, or community celebration. Plus, while cooking methods and gear have improved over the years, recipes and techniques are still passed down (perhaps secretly) from one generation to the next, leaving plenty of room for personal pride. 

A True Believer

John Brotherton is the owner of Brotherton’s Black Iron Barbecue in Pflugerville (one of the best known in Texas), and Liberty Barbecue in Round Rock. He is a self-proclaimed barbecue nerd—and a bona fide expert, traveling all over the state and the nation to eat it. “I live and breathe it, and all my life revolves around it, so I put a lot of passion into what I do. People feel that when they walk in the door, and they can taste it in the food.” 

John enjoys making traditional brisket for his customers, but has a twinkle in his eye about his ribs. “I’m from southeast Texas, so my flavors are a mix of what I grew up on. I have found that many people know what they like, but meat lovers are always ready to try something new. I guess if more Texans were that set in their ways, I wouldn’t sell much.” 

It’s not just about the food—it’s the package. Barbecue is family, a welcoming place, and positive energy… it’s Texas on a plate. 

John is also a quintessential Texan when it comes to his love of barbecue culture; “Barbecue is a food that brings people together. It’s something you enjoy with family and friends. Growing up, we had backyard grills and families that gathered around them. It is about nostalgia, which takes us back to our parents, grandparents, and good memories. And really, no one ‘gets together’ for a salad.” 

When You Go 

Texas is a big state, but rest easy knowing there’s always a great barbecue joint close by. Texas leads the nation in total numbers, and is second place for per capita—one restaurant for every 12,000 residents. First-place-per-capita Alabama has 5 million residents to our 29 million, so our nearly 2,500 locations are still something to brag about. It also appears that, even in downturns or pandemic years, barbecue joints continue to thrive, even outside of Texas. The biggest barbecue chain in the country is Dallas-based Dickey’s Barbecue Pit, maintaining more than 500 locations nationwide.

Still, while other regions generously slop sauce over meats while they cook, and argue among themselves about vinegar vs. mustard base, the only things you will find in nearly all Texas brisket are beef, oak smoke, and a little salt and pepper. Many restaurants and take-outs do not serve sauce at all. At Smitty’s, you have to ask for it, and at the nearby Kreuz Market, the signs explain it to tourists (and perhaps new Texans): “No barbecue sauce, no forks, no kidding.”

Add patience to wait up to 18 hours… and dig in.  

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