Community 'Cue

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

"When we revived the barbecue, we took over the cooking instead of hiring someone," Bubba said. "But we learned how to do it from watching Abe Johnson."

On the wall in the kitchen at Millheim Hall, there's a collection of fading snapshots taken at the barbecues of the 1960s and 1970s. It was the same pit, but the pieces of meat in the photos were a lot bigger. They were skewered with the giant metal rods and rotated over the coals as they cooked.

"The sheep and the shoats (small pigs) were killed and butchered here and cooked whole," Mark Bolten said. "The cattle were cut into four quarters and each one was turned on a pair of metal rods."

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.

The German singing society called the Millheim Harmonie Verein was established in 1872. It was one of many secular societies, or "vereins," established by the German immigrants who began arriving in this area in the 1830s. The Germans founded Millheim, Cat Springs, Industry and New Ulm and began growing cotton and tobacco, following the example of their neighbors in Stephen F. Austin's Mexican land grant nearby.

The settlers of Austin's colony were mainly Southerners, and many brought their slaves along. By 1825, the 300 families who settled there owned 443 slaves. By 1834, one third of the population was African-American. German settlers in Northwestern Austin County didn't believe in slavery, but they no doubt learned how to barbecue from their Southern neighbors and their slaves.

The morning I visited, I joined the group that was cooking the beans and barbecue sauce in cast-iron wash pots over propane burners. When I asked about the barbecue sauce recipe, I was quickly corrected. "We don't call it 'barbecue sauce,' we call it 'gravy,'" said James Grawunder, the head of the barbecue crew, who kept the recipe in his head.

Watching the process, I would guess that a 20-pound sack of onions was chopped and cooked in something like 20 pounds of butter, to which five pounds of ancho peppers and a lot of tomato sauce were added. The men took turns stirring the pots with wooden boat oars. Propane was another newfangled innovation that was grudgingly accepted by Bolten and the traditionalists. "We used to build wood fires under the pots," Grawunder said. "But your pants got so hot standing next to the fire that nobody wanted to do the stirring." Grawunder wasn't sure how long the barbecue had been going on, but he had been part of the crew since 1958. "My father did it before me, and he died in 1955," he said. Bolten and Grawunder told me to talk to Allan "Cap" Hilboldt, the oldest active member of the society and its unofficial historian.

I found Cap Hilboldt at the long wooden table with the crew that was carving the barbecue. Some of the meat was hand-sliced, and some was cut on a Hobart electric slicer. The veteran barbecue man sharpened an old butcher's knife on a whetstone he carried in his pocket before he started slicing mutton. In the booklet published for the Millheim society's centennial celebration, I noticed that the schedule of events included "dinner consisting of Veal and Mutton Barbecue with all the trimmings." I asked Cap why pork, mutton and "veal" were the Texas barbecue meats back then.

Up until the 1950s, when refrigeration became common, whole sheep and small pigs were brought to the barbecue pit and slaughtered on the spot, Cap told me. It was difficult to kill and butcher an 800-pound steer, so beef barbecue was rare — calves were easier to handle. The barbecue committee would drive around to neighboring farms looking at calves before buying a few and sending them to the butcher shop. "The calves were around 300 pounds live weight; they dressed out to somewhere around 175 pounds," Cap recalled. The meat market delivered the veal quarters, which weighed a little over 40 pounds each.

Beef shoulder clods, which weigh around 25 pounds apiece, have replaced the veal quarters. Whole sheep are still butchered, though they are cut into parts these days. Mutton hindquarters and mutton prime rib sections are among the largest cuts on the pit. Mutton ribs are the last items to be added. The whole shoats have been replaced by pork shoulders, which are also known as Boston butts.

The original Millheim hall was built in 1874. It was demolished and the lumber was used to build the new hall, which was erected in 1938. In its current form, Cap said, the Millheim Father's Day barbecue had been going on for more than 70 years.

My wife and our two toddlers met me at the Millheim dance hall shortly after 11, when the serving line opened. There were three huge hotel pans full of sliced meat. "Beef" was printed on the paper tablecloth beside the first pan, beside it was "Pork" and next to that, "Mutton." The beef shoulder was pretty good, if you found a pinkish slice. The pork butt was a little dry for my taste, but I'm picky since I've been eating a lot of whole hog lately. But the mutton was spectacular. Having watched the meat being carved, I knew to skip the hindquarters and look for the juicy slices from the lamb's prime rib. The buttery barbecue sauce was terrific, as were the pinto beans. Beer and soda were sold from two concession stands.

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