This history of Texas BBQ is filled with grit and gumption, much like Texas itself. Get a Texan talking about barbecue and you could be there for days. Suggest that you’re a fan of some other type of BBQ (Kansas City, Memphis, Korean…) and you’ll be met with a cold stare and possibly a knock-out punch. We are that passionate about our smoked meats.
The story of the history of Texas bbq and how it came to be such an ingrained part of Texas culture is a long, winding, mouthwatering road. Here are a few fun tidbits to wow your friends the next time you’re gathered over a plate of beef brisket:
- The term barbecue most likely came from the translated Spanish word barbacoa. This traditional Spanish cooking form involves burying meat (beef, but also goat or sheep) in the ground over hot coals, wrapped in leaves. While this might be the origin of the term, in Texas they are never interchangeable. We still enjoy barbacoa here as a Mexican-food staple. In fact, the International Championship Goat Cook-Off is held right here in Texas. So when we say barbecue we mean barbecue.
- Although the Native Americans, Spanish, Mexicans, and black population practiced styles of barbecue, we owe our modern translation to the German and Czech immigrants of the mid-1800s. These hard-working settlers opened grocery stores and meat markets throughout Central Texas. Butchers smoked leftover meat to keep it from spoiling.
- The “leftovers” soon became a mainstay with cowboys, impoverished blacks, and migrant cotton pickers. As such, barbecue was originally a poor man’s dish. The slow cooking process made the meat quality inconsequential. Lesser desired meat cuts were even given to workers as part of their pay.
- These original barbecue lovers started the tradition of eating barbecue on a piece of butcher paper served along with whatever they could find on the grocery store shelves. Typically this consisted of crackers, pickles, onion, or jalapenos, these are still served as accompaniments today.
- Migrant cotton farmers unintentionally spurred the barbecue industry. As they traveled following the cotton, more dining options were needed for the temporary surge in population. Field workers weren’t usually welcomed in restaurants. But meat markets serving barbecue were a casual affair and anyone was welcome, regardless of what you did for a living. Temporary smokers would set up shop when the migrants came to town, serving from dawn until dusk…the original “food truck” of Central Texas.
- After the Civil War, beef became “what’s for dinner” in Texas. Cattle prices rose as cowboys drove Texas longhorns northward along the famous Chisholm Trail, taking their barbecue love with them. This pathway, which stretched from Texas all the way to Kansas City, passed right through current-day barbecue belt towns like Lockhart, Luling, and Taylor. In traditional Texas humbleness, many Texans make the claim that northern barbecue meccas like St. Louis and Kansas City wouldn’t even know how to spell BBQ if it weren’t for our Texas cowboys.
- Sanitation regulations of the 1900s put a stop to the open-pit style of the early days. Instead the German technique of using enclosed brick smokers prevailed. Much later, the 55-gallon steel drum smoker was created, known as “The Texas Hibachi”. This moveable machine gained fame nationwide and enabled pitmasters to take their show on the road, increasing the popularity and participation in barbecue cook-offs. There are now more than 100 barbecue competitions in the state of Texas.
- It wasn’t until the 1950s that Texas barbecue joints started exclusively offering brisket. Prior to that meat was ordered as ‘beef’. If you wanted fatty (moist) beef you would be served brisket. If you wanted lean, you would receive the shoulder clod. Few modern barbecue eaters realize this distinction, although you can still order the meat by brisket or clod at Smitty’s Market in Lockhart.
- Even though barbecue was born a poor man’s food, it has been proved fit for kings. And presidents. Lyndon Baines Johnson served barbecue at a state dinner for the president of Mexico back in the 1960s. Today, the Central Texas style of barbecue has spread worldwide. It can be found in Southern California, New York City, and even faraway locales like Great Britain and Australia!