There’s a story they tell in barbecue lore about the legendary Schmidt family of Texas, and how it nearly fell apart over internal feuding, like meat off a succulent pork rib.
It happened in Lockhart, the Barbecue Capital of Texas. (This is an actual designation that the state’s House of Representatives approved the same year this all went down.) A power struggle erupted after the family patriarch Edgar “Smitty” Schmidt retired from Kreuz Market. And it culminated in half the family dragging out coals from the famed pits to start a rival joint half a mile down the road.
This is how seriously Texans take their meat. If anyone knows it, it’s photographer Wyatt McSpadden. He heard Kreuz was splitting up in 1999, so he went and spent nearly a week capturing its smoke-stained people and artifacts. “It was like a museum – a working museum of old-style barbecue,” McSpadden said. He spent over two decades photographing the brightest stars and establishments of the barbecue universe for his 2009 book, “Texas BBQ.”
Throughout the project, some of McSpadden’s favorite characters have been the pit bosses. There’s Tootsie Tomanetz of Snow’s BBQ, a rare female pitmaster and a “lovely soul [who] knows nothing but hard work.” And the picturesque Monroe Shubert, a human-shaped monument to 40 years of barbecue devotion at Prause Meat Market. Their jobs require a supernatural patience due to the grueling demands. They fire up the pits in the dark morning – unless they’ve already been up at night tending the meat. They must know how to get consistency through the seasons and understand how different types of weather, even a slight breeze, might affect the cook times.
Despite a long tradition rooted in rural strongholds, a recent crop of smoky altars have sprung up recently in big cities. Franklin Barbecue in the heart of Austin opened just seven years ago, but has already jumped to the top of Texas Monthly’s ranking of 50 best barbecue places in the state. There, patrons can expect to wait in line for three hours or more on a busy day. Coming in at number two is Pecan Lodge in Dallas, founded the year after. McSpadden says that since the publication of “Texas BBQ,” he has accumulated much work on the new establishments and older places he missed the first time around. He hopes to combine it all into a second photography volume.
Also among the new urban joints is a name you might recognize: Schmidt Family Barbecue. In 2013, descendants of former rivals Kreuz Market and Smitty’s started a new restaurant just outside of Austin. To officially put the feud behind them, they brought coals from each establishment in to christen the new pits.
If there’s anything more Texan than a steaming slab of barbecue, it’s that barbecue brings families together.