The problem lies with the word “barbecue” and the public’s many associations with it.
All too often, this all-American noun implies languid July afternoons, a Weber kettle smoldering through a bag or two of charcoal as mindlessly as I might plow through a tub of popcorn during a summer blockbuster. The party may have an actual arrival hour, but it can last well into the night, as long as there are still briquettes to burn, ground beef to press into patties and cold beer to swill. Time holds no sway over a backyard barbecue.
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.
Ban the collards and corn bread: I’ve violated this rule countless times, mostly because I love collards and corn bread (the non-cakelike kind), but a true Central Texas barbecue feast includes neither. Those two sides are staples tied to other barbecue regions. Your table should groan under the weight of smoked brisket, spare ribs, beef ribs, beef sausages, coleslaw, potato salad, pinto beans (not baked or refried, thank you), pecan pie and peach cobbler. And don’t forget the side plate of sliced raw onions, pickles, jalapenos and white bread. Yes, white bread. Nothing will prove your utter East Coast cluelessness faster than a loaf of multi-grain bread. Sauces are optional. Do not consider your barbecue a failure if a guest asks for sauce.
Invite punctual partygoers: I once invited a friend whom I’ve known since my Kansas City days in the 1980s. Relishing my role as brisket evangelist, I was excited to introduce him to Central Texas barbecue and perhaps get him to renounce his saucy ways. I didn’t hear from him until a few minutes after midnight; he texted, wanting to know whether the party was still going strong. I read the message while lying in bed, the leftovers already tightly wrapped in the fridge.
Here’s the takeaway from this anecdote: Texas barbecue is carefully timed. You calculate how many hours it will take to produce perfectly smoked brisket, ribs and sausages (or what you hope and pray will be perfectly smoked brisket, ribs and sausages), and you invite your guests to arrive a little before that time. Those who miss the dinner bell will suffer inferior meats, plain and simple. This is where barbecue and fine dining intersect: Both are perishable meals that decline quickly once pulled from their heat source.
Don’t cheat the meat (or your guests): You could use a Big Green Egg to smoke your meats, just as you could slow-cook your brisket ahead of time in a conventional offset smoker, then wrap, freeze and reheat the meat. Both of those approaches would allow you to sleep through the night without having to hover over your smoker and adhere to its strange feeding schedule. (My smoker requires refueling every 90 minutes or so.)
Both approaches have major drawbacks: With the Big Green Egg, the ceramic smoker that burns charcoal for hours at a miraculously constant temperature, you learn nothing about tending and controlling fire. More important, you deprive your guests of that mini-drama of watching a voluminous cloud of smoke billow from the smoker to reveal their dinner. That elemental special effect is worth a poor night’s sleep on its own. The preheating-and-freezing method does inexplicable things to the texture of your brisket while adding the risk of overcooking the meat. If you plan to host a Texas barbecue party, you should plan to suffer for the cause.
Keep out all strangers: Because you will have stayed up most of the night, feeding that demanding smoker for your brisket, you will be bone-dead tired by the time the party starts. That is just the harsh reality. You might find a second wind by the time your guests arrive. Regardless, you need to make sure your partygoers are friends or, at the very least, very cool people who will understand if you happen to turn into a slack-jawed zombie halfway through the meal. The last thing you need is some unexpected barbecue geek who wants to pepper you with 20 questions about your fire management.
Clean your house the day before you smoke the meats: This is a rule I need to follow myself. It only compounds the fatigue if you have to tend a smoker and clean the bathroom at the same time.
Don’t complain: This is another Jim Shahin rule, and it might be the most important one. If you’re committed enough to build a fire, tend it and feed it for hours to cook your brisket and ribs, then you are probably a certified smoked-meats obsessive. You seek nothing less than perfection, sometimes come achingly close to it, and routinely pick apart every flaw of your barbecue when you fall short of it. You need to keep those complaints to yourself.
“It’s just bad manners to bring [the flaws] to everyone’s attention,” Jim says. “It just changes the atmosphere of the whole evening.”
Serve people yourself: You’ve spent hours on this meal; you should have the honor of slicing the brisket yourself. That way, you can cut off fatty little bites — those buttery pieces from the point side of the brisket, with a thin, lush crust of salt, pepper and smoke — for old friends and special guests. It’s your gift to them.
If you’ve done your job well, your friends will express themselves with sounds of sheer, savage delight. And you will feel revived by their words, at least for a little while.