Community 'Cue

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

The all-you-eat barbecue was nine dollars for adults and half that for children. We carried our plates to a table inside the air-conditioned dance hall and sat down to eat while a guitar-and-accordion duo serenaded us. A band called The Lazy Farmers played polkas and waltzes in a pavilion outside while we waited in line for our food. Later on, a German singing society called the Houston Sängerbund was scheduled to perform.

Dessert was a selection of homemade cakes, pies, cobblers, brownies and the like for 50 cents a slice. My five-year-old put a dollar on the cake wheel and won a strawberry cake with cream cheese icing on her first try. Of course, she immediately wanted to do it again. (Try explaining the evils of gambling to a 5-year-old with a strawberry cake in her hands.) The kids wanted to hang around for the auction so we could bid on the exotic chickens that were up for sale, but we went home shortly after lunch.

The Millheim Father's Day Barbecue is a fundraiser for the preservation of the dance hall. There are similar community barbecue fund-raisers in the other old German dance halls in Austin County as well as a few volunteer fire departments and churches. But the barbecue crews are so short on volunteers, they have combined forces. The crew that cooked the barbecue at Millheim includes volunteers from the Peters, Cat Springs and Industry barbecues. The same crew will rotate to all six community barbecues this year.

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.

While community barbecues are plentiful, the old Southern barbecue tradition in the Brazos Valley may not last much longer. If you want to see and taste barbecue as it once was, you'd better do it soon. Check the "Community Barbecue Calendar" on the Web site ZenBBQ.com, where I've gathered information on upcoming community barbecues and information on how to volunteer.

Out by the cooking kettles where the barbecue sauce and beans were being transferred to serving pans, I asked head honcho James Grawunder if I could come and peel onions next year. "Sure you can — but you better not show up in those 'city pants,'" he said loudly while pointing at my shorts. The crew members, attired in blue jeans and boots to protect themselves from the hot coals, got a laugh out of that. They were mostly country boys from the local fire departments and county highway department, but there were black and Hispanic volunteers and a couple of younger guys in the group, and I didn't get the impression new blood wouldn't be welcome.

"We are always looking for new volunteers," Joseph Jez told me. The bearded Jez does his part to keep the tradition of community barbecue alive — he's the head of the volunteer crew at the Annual Mother's Day Barbecue in Peters, and he also helps out at the Annual Fridek Grotto celebration at St. Mary's, the Czech Catholic Church in Sealy.

There used to be a lot more community barbecues in Austin County, he said, but many of the old halls and lodges and fraternal organizations are closed now. "If we don't get more young people involved," Jez said, "the tradition is going to die out."

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