Lockhart, capital of Barbecue (Texas III, travelog entry 22)

Lockhart, population twelve thousand six hundred and ninety eight, has four barbecue places which are so good that the Texas state legislature has officially declared the town to be the barbecue capital of Texas. It is laid out like a cowboy town, with broad streets and low buildings, and a central square with a grand Second Empire style courthouse (just don’t tell the Texans it looks French; Texans are the most provincial-chauvinistic of all Americans, and American provincial-chauvinism starts with disdain for the French).

Some of these places have been operating as family-run businesses since the thirties. They started as general stores, and began to barbecue some of the meat they sold to keep it from going bad. The barbecued meat sold so well that the stores gradually replaced their shelves of wares with seating, and now Texans flock here just to eat piles of meat.

There’s a spartan aesthetic to barbecue here: vegetables are for rabbits, though an exception may be made for red beans. Bread is an afterthought, purchased at the grocery store presliced in plastic bags. Sauce is regarded with disdain, like ketchup in a fine French restaurant (they say they have no sauce because they have nothing to hide). And there is no attempt to make the dining experience elegant.

But the meat is barbecued ritualistically and with great care. Large slabs of meat are laid out on long smoking racks and regularly flipped for hours and hours until ready.

Some people confuse grilling with barbecuing (Australians even call the grill the “barbie”), so forgive me for a digression of American pedantry. You grill meat quickly over searing hot coals, and sometimes you grill so quickly you even leave the center of the meat cold, but barbecue is slow cooking, often with smoke. There are two ways to keep the meat from drying out. One is basting with sauce. That is not done, as far as I can tell, in Lockhart, but is common further east (where pork is king; Texan barbecue is more beef-centered). Meat is treated with a rub before barbecuing but is not basted during the cooking process.

In order to barbecue without sauce, you need the temperature to be lower and the air to be more humid. That means not hot coals but burning wood, and to avoid charring the meat the smoke and heat are shunted from the fire along a channel to the meat. A good part of the flavor of barbecue comes from the wood smoke, whereas on a typical backyard grill the coals are too charred to impart any wood smoke flavor; any smoke flavor comes from drippings from the meat itself. The slow process tenderizes the meat by dissolving collagen. In a barbecue, a brisket (a belly cut of the cow) might cook this way for eight hours or more.

In the smoky brick-walled barbecuing area of Smitty’s (to call it a kitchen would evoke the wrong image; this looks more like a medieval foundry), we purchase an assortment of beef brisket, pork rib, and sausage, which is sliced and weighed right at the grill and handed to us in butcher’s paper. We then go into the dining area, where beans and beverages are sold at a counter. Egon is looking for a salad but there isn’t anything so fancy: he is able to purchase a whole tomato. We put that on our cafeteria tray, together with the beans in a paper bowl and the the paper bundle full of meat, and beverages, and plastic cutlery, and find a place at a formica-topped table among a bunch of plump Texans.

The meat is truly delicious. The long slow smoky cooking process makes it incredibly tender and flavorful and even without sauce it is juicy. I am dying to try the other three establishments in Lockhart, but we have eaten our fill and there is obviously nothing to do in Lockhart but eat barbecue, so sticking around long enough to be hungry again is out of the question. We aim the battle cruiser for San Antonio, home of the Alamo.

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