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 They had been replaced by the barbecue meats of an earlier era: mutton, beef clod and pork shoulder.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.
"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 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.
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.
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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."