Republic of Barbecue: Mind over Meat

A newly published platter of Texas barbecue: scholarly research, with tasty sides of photography, interviews, lists, and even a toothpick dispenser.

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Book review

Republic of Barbecue: Stories beyond the Brisket
By Elizabeth S.D. Engelhardt, et al.
256 pp., University of Texas Press, 2009. paper $21.95

A few weeks ago, my friend William up in Austin put up a picture of some barbecue on his Facebook page. Made on his iPhone during a weekend trip through the Texas Hill Country, the photo was pretty ordinary–just a package of pricey, pit-smoked ‘cue from Cooper’s in Llano. And it made my mouth water as soon as I saw it.

For us Texas natives (and even a few non-natives who got here as fast as they could), sampling barbecue is a serious avocation. Although there are ample restaurants and roadside shacks serving of the good stuff statewide, the crème de la crème of ‘cue is found in Central Texas. Here we like to travel our local roads on four wheels or two, in search of smokey brisket and sausage. We savor feeling the crunch of roadside gravel under a flip-flop on a hot day, the cloud of smoke and scent that envelopes us as we step out of our ride, and the next decision to be made — local beer, sweet tea, Coca-Cola hecho en Mexico or a Dublin Dr Pepper?

And, good lord, we’ll tell you all about the pleasures of our favorite barbecue joint, if you’re willing to listen.

Published October 2009 by University of Texas Press

Then again, thanks to the forthcoming Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket (University of Texas Press), you could just curl up on the sofa and read about it. Though the cover credits UT Austin associate professor Elizabeth Engelhardt as the author, the volume’s really more of a mash-up of oral histories and academic essays served with a couple of cheeky sidebars (“Barbecue Melodies: Post Oak Smoke Gets in Their Eyes”). Engelhardt’s graduate students in the university’s American Studies department contributed much of the text and most of the photographs.  As an alumna of the UT graduate school myself, I can imagine the fun had by feasting on ribs and coleslaw in the name of “research” (wink, wink).

Most readers will get a kick out of the book, too–once they get used to the idea that the “republic” in the title covers only a chunk at the heart of the Lone Star State. I’ll leave the full stink to be raised over that definition to other reviewers and critics, but trust me that it’s coming, most likely from people living in North Carolina’s “research triangle,” an area that rivals Central Texas for its commitment to BBQ, football and top-tier academics. Bear in mind, however, that the book came to be at the urging of the Central Texas Barbecue Association, so a regional slant is to be expected. In addition, the University Cooperative Society (a campus bookstore headquartered across from the UT Austin campus) provided grant funding in support of the project. I’m willing to bet a cold Shiner Bock that the bookstore’s powers-that-be will market the book heavily to alumni and parents.

Marsha Abrahams/from Republic of Barbecue
Vencil Mares of the Taylor Cafe is one of the longtime cooks interviewed: “I put a little more seasoning in…”
In other words, though this book will be of some interest to hardcore, far-flung foodies, its core market is pretty narrow. It is for this reason in part that the photographs figure prominently alongside the essays, conveying the subjects’ atmospheres better than the text. The images frame-up the rural and urban barbecue spots nicely, though foodie writers and Texas Monthly magazine have covered almost all of the locations mentioned pretty extensively over the years. Still, the first-hand accounts of folks like May Archie (Church of the Holy Smoke in Huntsville) and the Meyer clan (Meyer’s Sausage Company and Meyer’s Elgin Smokehouse in Elgin) offer compelling perspectives on what happens behind the scenes at their establishments. And if you’ve ever wondered how to put together an authentic Mexican barbacoa pit in your backyard, Aurelio Torres (Mi Madre’s in Austin) spills the beans–though there’s nary a recipe one in the book’s 227 pages.

Another feature of the book is the contributors’ willingness to look at
barbecue culture and its many influences, from slavery days to
contemporary sustainable agriculture. As you’d expect, there’s a dash
of feminist discourse included, too. Regrettably, it’s often at these
points that the text grows pedantic. Truthfully, the contrast between
the book’s most erudite chapters and the more casual, flowing oral
histories made me wonder at times what the team ultimately envisioned
the book to be. The end product is a hybrid between a big issue of Saveur sans recipes, an academic journal, and a thumbable coffee table book.

Eric Covey/from Republic of Barbecue
Weighing in and checking out at the cavernous Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas

Among the graduate students’ essays, Remy Ramirez’s reflections on life at her grandparents’ South Texas ranch stood out most vividly for me. Because of Ramirez’s skill as a writer, I, a white gal whose paternal grandparents owned a Texas ranch, identified with the whole story. Plus, that Easter picture of Remy with her grandmother looks a whole lot like one my mother took long ago of me, my grandma, and my Aunt Jo.

That’s kind of the gist of the “gut beat,” is it not? That in writing and reading about food, from its cultivation to its consumption, we find that, ethnic, class, gender and racial differences aside, we’re just a bunch of humans who get hungry a few times a day. In shining a light on life behind the Central Texas ‘cue pit, in poking around the ideas we’ve got about cooking meat, gender roles and race relations, Engelhardt and her crew hoped to elevate that dialogue a bit and, for the most part, they succeeded. I tip my sweet tea in their direction.

 

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