Community 'Cue

The tradition of open-pit barbecues in Texas predates the Civil War.

Community 'Cue
Eric Sauseda

It was early in the morning on Father's Day and Mark Bolten, the president of the German singing society that owns Millheim Hall, was sitting in a folding chair at one end of a 75-foot-long barbecue pit watching a 20-man crew tend the meat and douse flames. A handsome man in his 50s, Bolten was wearing jeans, a dress shirt and a cowboy hat. He wasn't sure how long the old German dance hall near Sealy had been holding this Father's Day barbecue, but he knew it started before he was born. As we talked, the crew began basting the joints of meat with cotton mops soaked in a vinegar sop.

This didn't look like the barbecue that most of us are used to. The trinity of Texas barbecue — brisket, pork ribs and sausage — wasn't on the menu. They had been replaced by the barbecue meats of an earlier era: mutton, beef clod and pork shoulder. The pit didn't have any metal doors or chimneys; it was part of that older style of cooking known as open-pit barbecue.

The long, low open trench was recessed several feet into the ground and lined on either side with a single course of bricks and an iron rail. There were no coverings to retain the smoke or heat. The void in the middle had been filled the night before with oak and pecan wood, which had burned down until nothing remained but glowing wood coals. The biggest cuts of meat went on the pit the night before. The crew tended the pit throughout the night, extinguishing flare-ups with a squirt of water or a shovel full of sand.

The meat is turned by placing an empty metal basket on top of a loaded one and flipping both.
Eric Sauseda
The meat is turned by placing an empty metal basket on top of a loaded one and flipping both.
The Grawunder boys make the barbecue "gravy." (From right:) James Grawunder has been cooking here for 58 years, his nephew Tom and sons Ray and James Jr. help out.
Eric Sauseda
The Grawunder boys make the barbecue "gravy." (From right:) James Grawunder has been cooking here for 58 years, his nephew Tom and sons Ray and James Jr. help out.

I was amazed by what I was seeing. It was as if I had entered a barbecue time machine. This is almost exactly what barbecue pits across the Old South looked like in the 1800s, according to the black-and-white archival photos I have come across. But while I was marveling at how much of the tradition had been preserved, the guy next to me was grousing about how much of it had been lost.

"Times have changed," Bolten said glumly. "We never put the cooked meat in an ice chest in the old days." I'm not sure where the practice of putting barbecued briskets and pork butts in coolers so they could finish cooking came from — I suspect it's an innovation introduced by barbecue cookoff competitors. But it's a great way to keep the meat warm and give it a little extra-slow cooking time without burning it. I didn't even notice the coolers until Bolten mentioned them.

"And those baskets, we didn't have those, either," he said, pointing to the portable grates of welded metal rods and expanded metal that stretched from one side of the pit to the other, holding the meat above the coals. When the men wanted to turn the meat, they would place an empty metal-rod basket over the top of the one on the pit, turn them both over and take the top one off. "We always used these," Bolten said, pointing to a thick and rusty seven-foot-long metal rod.

Barbecue is one of the oldest artisan food traditions of the Americas. For the past few years, I have been crisscrossing the Old South documenting Southern barbecue culture. When I set out, I expected to trace American barbecue back to its roots in rural Southern restaurants. But in my research, I found the ancient artisanal culinary culture I was searching for has been much better preserved in community barbecues, though those are endangered, too.

In Lexington, North Carolina, the nation's self-proclaimed barbecue capital, there are more than 20 barbecue restaurants, but you can count the traditional wood-fired pits on the fingers of one hand. The barbecue restaurant category is booming in Atlanta, but few if any of the new franchise outlets have old-fashioned pits. And I was surprised to discover that even iconic barbecue restaurants like Big Bob Gibson's in Decatur, Alabama, and City Market in Luling, Texas, now use stainless-steel Southern Pride barbecue ovens to increase their capacity.

The most important thing I realized in my travels is that I was looking for the wellsprings of American barbecue in the wrong places. The purpose of a barbecue restaurant is to make a profit, not to preserve culinary traditions. Restaurants aren't where American barbecue came from.

The oldest barbecue tradition in America is the community barbecue. Colonists borrowed the barbecue techniques from Native Americans, but the Europeans introduced the hogs, sheep and cattle that became the favored meats. In colonial times, barbecues were common in Massachusetts and Maine as well as Virginia and North Carolina.

George Washington's diary entry for May 27, 1769, notes that he "went in to Alexandria to a Barbecue and stayed all Night." The barbecue George Washington ate was almost certainly cooked on a long, low pit full of hardwood coals, much like the one in Millheim. He certainly ate barbecued pig, and he may have eaten mutton as well.

In his book Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Robert F. Moss writes: "From its earliest days, barbecue was not just a type of food or a cooking technique but also a social event." In the early 1800s, sermons were heard at camp-meeting barbecues and patriotic speeches were delivered by politicians at Fourth of July barbecues.

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