Community 'Cue

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

When I told him I was a food writer, Roese started talking about the sad state of Texas barbecue. In his opinion, the German meat markets in Central Texas weren't cooking barbecue, they were smoking meat and sausage, just like they did in the old country. "Barbecue isn't supposed to taste like smoke," Bubba said. "Real barbecue is cooked in a traditional open pit, not in a smoker." When I asked him where I could find this kind of old-fashioned barbecue, he had told me to come to the Sons of Hermann Lodge in Washington on the third Sunday in October. It took me several years, but I finally made it.

The Washington Sons of Hermann Lodge was founded in 1898. The wooden hall at the Washington Lodge was built in 1955, after the original hall burned down. The barbecue shed, with its distinctive natural cedar posts and tin-roof construction, was built in 1948 along with the cinderblock pit.

The barbecues here go back a long way, Bubba Roese told me. "But the tradition lapsed for a few years because the old guys didn't want any kids around." When they were all gone, there was nobody to carry it on. After the war, young people started moving to the city to get jobs, and the Lodge started to decline. When the barbecue was revived, the new crew made sure to recruit some 20- and 30-year-olds to keep things going.

Pork butts, beef shoulder clods and whole sheep cut into quarters are the barbecue meats at the Annual Father's Day Barbecue in Millheim.
Eric Sauseda
Pork butts, beef shoulder clods and whole sheep cut into quarters are the barbecue meats at the Annual Father's Day Barbecue in Millheim.
Pitmaster Herbert Schumann lifts one of the metal rods used to hold the meat before the baskets were introduced.
Eric Sauseda
Pitmaster Herbert Schumann lifts one of the metal rods used to hold the meat before the baskets were introduced.

"We started cooking Boston butts and briskets in the 1960s. It's a lot easier than whole pigs and sheep. We don't burn the wood down and shovel the coals anymore, either. We use B&B charcoal. It's a charcoal company in Weimar that makes oak lump charcoal. The flavor is just like oak coals. Charcoal doesn't put out a lot of smoke, so this is real barbecue, not smoked meat like over there in Central Texas. In the old days, the barbecue pit was open on top, but now we cover it with cardboard. That retains the heat, so the meat cooks faster with less fuel."

At around 10:30 the meat began to be transferred, a few briskets and Boston butts at a time, to a long wooden table in an open shed formed by cedar poles and a tin roof. The beams that held up the roof were so low I smacked the top of my head every time I attempted to move, much to the amusement of the men. The carvers wore rubber gloves on their hands that held the meat and gripped plastic-handled slicing knives in their other hands.

As the steaming meat was sliced for serving, I stole a few chunks to sample. The pork had been cooked to around 190 degrees Fahrenheit, so it fell in very tender slices. The meat was very juicy, with a big pork flavor and just a hint of smoky charcoal. There was a nice bark on the edges. The big chunks of the fatty end of the brisket glistened in the morning sunlight. It was hard to get used to the idea that brisket didn't have to be smoky to taste good, but it was true. The flavor of the beef dominated, with just a little accent from the oak charcoal. It reminded me of the taste of steak cooked on a charcoal grill.

The men began carrying steel trays of sliced meat from the barbecue shed over to the lodge building. The women of the lodge were already there assembling the feast. It was a wooden-floored dance hall built in the mid-1950s, with a stage at one end and a kitchen at the other. Tables were set up in long rows nearer the stage end of the building. There was seating for more than a hundred.

The beans came out of a can, doctored up with spices and heated in the kitchen. Someone brought German potatoes cooked with onions. The homemade barbecue sauce was from a local recipe. The hot items were held in the big white enameled electric ovens most Texans call turkey roasters. There were lots of pickles and white bread, and a huge bowl full of onion slices. When the doors opened promptly at 11 a.m., there were already 20 people waiting outside.

When the slicing was done and things calmed down, I talked to Bubba about the barbecue tradition in this part of East Texas. "Back in the 1950s, there was a big black guy named Abe Johnson who cooked the barbecue for us. He burned down wood coals in a firepit and shoveled them under the hogs and lambs. This was mostly an African-American farming area. Lots of black folks barbecue around here. They used to hire Abe to do the hard work and everybody else just hung around drinking beer. Abe made the mop sauce, too."

Photos of Southern community barbecues usually show black men turning the meat, shoveling the coals and doing the work. Their white supervisors are mentioned by name, but in the photo captions the pitmen are listed simply as "Negroes." When you're enjoying modern community barbecues, it's easy to forget blacks are part of this tradition, too. It was barbecue men like Big Abe Johnson who did the cooking for the white barbecues as well as the African-American church picnics, family reunions and Juneteenth celebrations.

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