Community 'Cue

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

Community barbecues in Texas were held to bring communities together, to celebrate opening a new railroad or drilling a successful oil well. These grew into enormous affairs where a dozen or more cattle might be cooked to feed huge crowds. But those giant barbecues for hundreds and even thousands of people that were captured in old black-and-white photos aren't just part of history. They are still around, even if, as Bolten laments, a few changes have been made.

At the XIT Rodeo in Dalhart, Texas, "The World's Largest Free Barbecue" has been going on for 75 years and feeds thousands. The meat is cooked in pits buried in the ground and served from a plastic-lined dump truck. North Carolina boasts several church barbecues that draw tens of thousands. The Big Apple Barbecue Party, held annually in Madison Square Park in Manhattan, may be the biggest community barbecue in the country. The event is held one weekend in early June and draws more than a hundred thousand people to sample barbecue from the greatest pitmasters of the South.

But the community barbecues I really want to attend are held in Veterans of Foreign Wars halls, volunteer fire department stations, lodges and church halls. It pains me to realize that for the last two decades, I have been combing the countryside looking for old-fashioned barbecue joints, while ignoring events such as these. The cooks are volunteers. The pits are fired with wood, the cooking methods are artisanal and the barbecue is excellent.

Some folks prefer to enjoy their barbecue plates at the stand-up tables under the shade trees.
Eric Sauseda
Some folks prefer to enjoy their barbecue plates at the stand-up tables under the shade trees.
The barbecue is a fund-raiser for the old German dance hall of the Millheim Harmonie Verein, which was established in 1872.
Eric Sauseda
The barbecue is a fund-raiser for the old German dance hall of the Millheim Harmonie Verein, which was established in 1872.

Once I started paying attention, I found community barbecues all over the place. I attended a Juneteenth barbecue with an African-Texan trail-riding group in Fresno and a Fourth of July barbecue at another German dance hall in Kenney. I started pulling around to the back of VFW and Knights of Columbus halls as I drove through small towns to check out the barbecue pits that are inevitably found back there. Most of the ones I saw were steel cylinders, but I also happened upon some amazing cinder block pits and brick pits around Bryan and College Station. The old Southern-style pits are concentrated in the Brazos Valley.

In October of 2011, I attended a community barbecue at the Sons of Hermann Lodge in Washington County near the original capital city of Texas, Washington-on-the-Brazos. I got there at seven in the morning to check out the pit. The Sons of Hermann barbecue crew had been there all night. A big guy in a camouflage hunting cap introduced himself as Lance Jahnke and passed me a Mason jar full of sweet homemade wine. "Communion wine," he said solemnly. While I would have preferred coffee at that hour, I took a chug to prove that I was one of the faithful.

There were a dozen men milling around the barbecue shed. There were a whole lot of empty beer bottles in the trash bucket. Sitting up all night making sure the barbecue doesn't catch fire isn't a very difficult job. One person could handle it. But it has become a tradition for a crew to gather around the fire and spend the night telling tales and drinking while tending the barbecue.

The barbecue pit was covered with cardboard. It was three courses of cinder block above ground level and ten cinder blocks long, which would make it two feet high and 15 feet long. The opening looked to be around four feet across. On top of the cinder-block chamber, a grate made of metal rods with stout wire mesh attached spanned the opening. The mesh area was only three feet across, so that there was a gap between the edge of the cinderblock and the cooking area. This allowed the fire underneath to be refueled. When the cardboard was pulled back to reveal the meat, I counted 14 briskets and around 30 Boston butts.

At the far end of the pit, I saw a couple of rabbits and a few coils of sausage. I confessed that I had never seen barbecued rabbit before. "That's not for the barbecue lunch, that's just our breakfast," one guy said while the rest of the gang laughed. While the cardboard was pulled back, three men brushed the meats with small cotton dish mops dunked in a big pot of mop sauce. Lumps of B&B Hardwood Charcoal were added to the fire.

An elderly gentleman with a long white beard and wearing overalls and a MoorMan Feed cap sat in a lawn chair nearby drinking beer. His name was Bubba Roese, and he was the guy who told me about the Sons of Hermann barbecue to begin with. I first met Bubba a few years earlier at the 105 Grocery & Deli, a country store with an awesome homemade hamburger. I sat down with Roese and his companions at a table in the rear of the store where they were drinking beer. His friends introduced Bubba as the "mayor of Graball." Evidently, the Roese family once had a country store a few miles down Highway 105 in the town of Graball. Bubba said the burger at the Graball store was even better. But the store, along with the town itself, was long gone.

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