During my recent trip to Austin, I landed smack dab in the middle of a controversy about racism and barbecue. It started when Robb Walsh, proprietor of the zenbbq.com blog, was on a panel at the Texas Folkways seminar themed “Our Barbecue, Ourselves” and uttered the following words:
“The heavily-sauced, chopped East Texas barbecue is a reflection of the fact that it was originally a Negro phenomenon, an ingenious method for rendering palatable the poorer, less-desirable cuts of meat which often were the only ones available to the poor black. Hence most of the attention was lavished on the hot sauce, whose purpose was to smother the dubious flavor of the meat which the barbecueing process had at least made tender.”
In Texas, to say you use sauce to hide the flavor is a slur as bad as saying you water your beer, or serve farm-raised salmon and call it line-caught. Apparently Walsh was immediately branded as a racist, and it was overlooked that he was actually quoting from a 1973 article in Texas Monthly by one Griffin Smith, Jr., “The World’s Best Barbecue is in Taylor, Texas. Or is it Lockhart.” Then, as the outrage played out and the source was discovered, one amateur sociologist opined that the brouhaha was healthy because it showed how much white attitudes have changed since 1973.
What is ignored so far is that the Smith quote was basically nonsense. What are the quintessential elements of Texas barbeque? Brisket, traditionally considered an inferior cut, and hot links made of God knows what. Do you believe that the Texas barbecue tradition began in the German communities of central Texas, as many aver? Then you should note that the Germans are masters of using every conceivable part of the animal. Exhibit One: Head Cheese.
It’s time to ask the question, who exactly is this Griffin Smith Junior and what does he know about barbecue? Do a Google search and you will have a fascinating half hour. He was a classmate of Frank Broyles, founding editor of Texas Monthly, at Rice University. He was also a lawyer and his father was an Arkansas Supreme Court justice. In addition to the barbecue article he wrote about Texas sales tax shenanigans and incompetent governors and lawyers and Cajuns … in other words, a talented gadfly who is not necessarily a cultural anthropologist. Thus, 40 years later*, we might take his remarks with a grain of salt.
BBQ mutton ribs at Sam’s in Austin
I wanted to do my research on the ground so I asked for black-owned (the word “Negro” no longer pertains, per the U.S. Census) restaurants in Austin and my savvy sister pointed to Sam’s. (This recommendation was later seconded by Texas Monthly BBQ Editor Daniel Vaughn, who emailed me this about the controversy: “I think the comments about African Americans getting the worst cuts of meat had to do with what meats they were offered back during slavery and through the times of sharecropping. This informed the definitions of barbecue in Texas, but I don’t think anyone would tell you that the cuts used in white and black owned BBQ joints in the Texas varies much at all these days.”)
Sam’s was involved in a scandal a few years back in which certain people showed up with meat in their pants which apparently had exited a local supermarket without appropriate receipts, but restitution has been made and it is now a legitimate place whose greatest claim to fame may be that it stays open late to serve SXSW club kids and rockers in general, and has a jar of personal lubricants available for the taking. Oh, and they have mutton.
I tried a combo plate of brisket and mutton which were served with the only sides available, beans and potato salad; Becky shared her rib. I am glad I had barbecued mutton once but will not seek it out again. Tender mutton meat is great but mutton fat is skanky and there is no way you will get none of it. [Update: Davis Grocery, another black-owned place in nearby Taylor, has changed my mind about mutton.] Overall, this was middle of the road barbecue that gets barely a nod in Austin though it would earn five stars in another area.
But here’s the thing… the sauce was the most undistinguished part of the meal and it was served on the side, at my request, and completely unnecessary. Myth busted, based on a sample of one. Black barbecue=white barbecue=German barbecue=Negro barbecue and I embrace them all.
Also, irrespective of Robb Walsh’s other credientials, I will give him credit for a very long article on Texas Barbecue which appeared in the Houston Post in 2003, called “Barbecue in Black and White”. In the course of the article you will find a reference from a (black) pit boss to WHITES as the ones who put too much sauce on their meat. Take that, racists.
* Griffin Smith jr. (his preferred capitalization) has quite an afterstory as it turns out. In 1992 he became editor of the Arkansas Gazette and stayed there 20 years, during which time he apparently refused to allow the word “vomit” to be printed, would not allow seatbelts to be mentioned in reports of traffic accidents, and did his best to reconstruct the reputation of 1960s segregationist governor Orval Faubus before stepping down in 2012.