The Forgotten History of Texas BBQ

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Robb Walsh didn’t just write a cookbook; the Legends of Texas Barbecue Cook Book is an entry point to the history of America that helps us define and understand our communal palette through tasty, tasty meats.

The three-time James Beard Journalism Award winner and restaurant owner isn’t claiming that Texas barbecue is superior to other styles — he simply wants to explore how barbecue has evolved across the Lone Star state, and give a broader view of how it was shaped by African, Mexican, German, and Anglo Texans to form "the cultural icon that is modern Texas barbecue."

The recently released second edition of the book includes over 30 new recipes, interviews with barbecue legends, and an intense background that includes barbecue trails, a glossary, a mail-order source list, and a bibliography. Men's Journal talked to him about his book, and what it’s like to cook a cow’s head for breakfast.

Original Texas BBQ
Veal, mutton, goat, and pork were the original Texas BBQ meats. Before refrigeration, the animals were slaughtered beside the pit — which meant barbecue was only practical as a community event where hundreds of people were fed.

Barbecue and Civil Rights in America
Barbecue tells the story of the American South. After slavery ended, blacks opened barbecue stands by the side of the road — one of the only businesses they could own. They were the "barbecue experts" at white-owned barbecue restaurants in the Jim Crow era. In the 1950s, the best barbecue was found at “blacks only” restaurants, where white people bought barbecue out of the back door. Black-owned businesses suffered after desegregation in the 1970s as blacks moved out of the ghetto, and black barbecue is only now beginning to recover as food writers rediscover African-American bbq traditions.

The Perfect Meal
German meat market smoked sausage with sweet and sour red cabbage is amazing — and a bit of a shock. Cooking your own cow head barbacoa at home and serving it for breakfast with beans and homemade salsa is an eye-opener too.

How to Make Barbacoa 
Paula's barbacoa is like the kind you get in a restaurant made without any smoke in a braising liquid. It comes out very moist with extra cooking juice to keep it wet. Cook-off competitor Ernest Servantes grew up in Uvalde, and his barbacoa is old school. It's cooked in a barbecue smoker with mesquite smoke and no liquid, so you need to have plenty of salsa on hand. My version falls somewhere between the two.

If you live in Texas, you can usually get a cow's head at any Fiesta supermarket. Get the smallest one you can find. The biggest ones don’t fit in barbecue smokers, conventional ovens, or electric roaster ovens. If you don’t live in Texas, see the book on how to get a cow's head. 

Wearing fireproof gloves, remove the cow's head from the smoker and place it, upside down (forehead down), in an oval aluminum-foil roasting pan designed to hold a turkey. (If it doesn't fit, trim the nose with a meat cleaver.) Add six cups water and the onions to the bottom of the pan. Cut two sheets of heavy-duty 18-inch-wide aluminum foil long enough to cover the top of the pan with plenty to spare. Combine the two sheets by overlapping and folding them to make one 32-inch-wide piece of foil, and seal the roasting pan closed with the foil by tucking and folding it around the outside of the pan.

Ingredients 

  • 1 cow’s head, the smallest available, skinned and cleaned
  • salt and ground black pepper, garlic powder for sprinkling, Chili powder for sprinkling
  • 2 onions, halved
  • fresh corn tortillas, lime quarters, chopped onion, and fresh cilantro sprigs for serving
  • pico de Gallo 

Directions 

  1. Place the pan in the smoker and cook the head at a temperature between 225˚ and 250˚ overnight (12 hours), or until the cheek meat easily pulls away from the bone.
  2. Alternatively, put the foil-wrapped pan in a 250˚ oven and cook overnight (12 hours), or until the cheek meat easily pulls away from the bone. (The aluminum foil pan will be very heavy and quite flimsy. Slide it onto a cutting board to carry it into the house — and be careful!)