Those basic truths, however, do not apply when you affix a complicated adjective — “Central Texas-style” — to barbecue. To paraphrase Walter Sobchak from “The Big Lebowski”: This is not ’Nam. This is Texas barbecue. There are rules. For this style of barbecue, time is a pump-action rifle aimed directly at the vital organs.
Like many who have lived in the Lone Star State, I became a fervent member of the Church of Central Texas Barbecue, whose tenets are simple: You slow-cook brisket and ribs and sausage over indirect heat and smoke, using seasoned hardwoods and only a select few seasonings. Sauces are viewed skeptically but not shunned completely.
I was, in fact, a convert; I had rejected my early devotion to sauce-heavy Kansas City ’cue. Of course, when I moved to Washington in 2001, I was a man of faith without a sanctuary in which to worship. Back then, the District was cursed with a godforsaken barbecue scene; Hill Country was probably not even a gleam in Marc Glosserman’s eye.
I spent a long, smokeless year in Washington before author Robb Walsh, an old Houston colleague and one of the reigning authorities on Texas barbecue, introduced me to Jim Shahin. That was well before Jim became the Smoke Signals columnist for The Washington Post and years before I started my own career as a food writer. We were just a pair of former Texans who pined for a sheet of butcher paper piled high with slices of slow-smoked brisket, the peppery, post-oak perfume so strong that no sauce was required to appreciate it.
Soon enough, I was introduced to Jim’s barbecue, prepared not with a Weber but a cheap offset barrel smoker; the feasts were big, sweaty and meaty homages to the Central Texas smokehouses that had fed us so well for so long. I reveled in Jim’s parties for years before I had the courage — or the sheer ignorant temerity — to suggest that I try my own hand at it. That is when I was introduced to Jim’s No. 1 rule: I’d first have to learn barbecue the hard way, understanding how to bend fire to my will for hours, before he’d show me any shortcuts. A true Texas pit master does not use a Big Green Egg.
Over the years, I’ve learned many things from Jim and have discovered a few hard lessons myself about hosting barbecue parties. I’ve condensed them into the following rules, some of which are dogmatic and easily dismissed by those who don’t bow before the same altar I do. Others are essential and fixed, realized over long, virtually sleepless nights trying to keep a fire burning in order to bring a taste of my beloved style of barbecue to friends and loved ones.