When savoring good barbecue, I never think of its origins in the vast open fields of Texas when African Americans and Mexican Americans worked the fields picking cotton at the turn of the 20th century. All I do is delight in the juicy, smoky flavors enhanced by apple cider, vinegar, molasses, and maple secret sauce.

Sauces are not a factor in Central Texas’ barbecue traditions for the focus is on dry-rubbed large cuts of beef smoked low and slow using oak or pecan wood. German and Czech butchers spiced and smoked leftover meat to avoid spoiling. These became popular among these farm workers and eventually locals. It is in Lockhart meat markets where the custom of serving smoked meats on butcher paper originated for take-out orders. 

We visited Black’s Barbecue in Lockhart but missed the original Kreuz Market. We plan to visit the next time we are in the area.

Barbecue derives from the Spanish barbacoa and Haitian barbakoa meaning a framework for grilling meat and game. Slaves introduced the American South to their age-old barbecue traditions that reached Texas via East Texas where barbecue is said to “fall off the bone” due to its even lengthier smoking process using local hickory wood.  

West Texas barbecue cooks utilize the readily available mesquite wood to cook on an open flame. Also known as Cowboy Barbecue because of its adaptation to campfires and use of goat, mutton, and beef. Pitmasters use mops to baste the meat and enhance the flavor with spicy sauces. 

It is in South Texas, the birthplace of Texas ranching, where things get tangled for the border injects culinary traditions from northern Mexico to give us barbacoa. Mexican farm workers were partially paid with inexpensive cuts of meat such as cow heads which they wrapped with maguey leaves, buried them in pits over coals and smoked for hours. The tongue (lengua) and cheek (cachete) are popular barbacoa taco fillings. Brownsville is home to Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que; the only place in Texas where barbacoa is still made in the old style. 

South Texas style barbecue in the Valley originated with molasses-based sauces known to seal the moisture of the meats. Today, the Rio Grande Valley boasts of numerous establishments serving varied traditions of Texas Barbecue. 

The multicultural origins of barbecue are humble with meats of poor grade such as beef links, pork ribs, chicken, and cow heads. But things changed in the 1970s when boxed meat from Midwestern meatpackers were readily available. Prime cuts are popular these days yet East Texas barbecue masters plan to change that by creating new spins on beef links. We can only wait and see what is cooked up next. 

I had the pleasure of visiting several popular barbecue joints to write a new story for Magic Valley Electric Cooperative. The story came out this month of June.