Robb Walsh, co-author of Nuevo Tex-Mex, is a culinary adventurer hailed as the "Indiana Jones of food writers." A multiple James Beard Award winner, he is currently the restaurant critic of the Houston Press and a commentator for National Public Radio.
It's summer, and that means a new crop of barbecue books. One that stands out is "Legends of Texas Barbecue Cook Book: Recipes and Recollections from the Pit Bosses" by Robb Walsh.
It includes plenty of recipes, but the best part is the fascinating lore about the history and folkways of Texas barbecue. The cliche about Texas barbecue is that it's about beef - open pit mesquite barbecue. Actually, Texas barbecue is a mixture of Southern, Midwestern and Southwestern elements.So in east Texas, people make classic Southern pork barbecue, in the west, there's a lot of Mexican goat or cow head barbacoa, and this tradition has spread beyond the Latino population. As Walsh says, no matter how much cowboys like beef, it wasn't worth slaughtering a cow for a meal, but a single goat was about enough to feed four or five cowboys. In the center of the state, there's a sizable colony of Germans and Czechs, who follow their own European tradition of smoking pork, though sometimes in Texanized form. The famous Elgin sausage (the "gin" pronounced as in "begin," not as in the liquor) is basically a smoked German garlic sausage with extra red pepper. This has given a unique spin to Texas barbecue. The German and Czech places were originally markets that only sold their barbecue out their back doors. The reason was that their barbecue customers were migrant cotton pickers who went to the shops for something to eat because regular restaurants wouldn't serve them (or, to put it another way, because the cotton pickers wouldn't have to take off their dirty coveralls and dress up if they were just eating a handful of barbecue behind a butcher shop). To go with their hot smoked meat, they'd buy a few things like crackers, pickles or canned peaches. In a few old barbecues, that's still all you get. Kreuz Market in Lockhart, one of the most revered barbecues in Texas, serves your order on a piece of butcher paper with nothing but bread and crackers - and not a drop of barbecue sauce, which barbecues in this tradition have only recently, and grudgingly, started serving. This means that the recipe for Lockhart-style pork loin calls only for pork, salt and pepper. Most of the book's sauce, spice rub and side dish recipes are more elaborate, but there's still a classicism about the whole appraoch here. Two ongoing themes of the book are the growing interaction of those various barbecue traditions and the power of the state's love of 'cue. In San Antonio, for instance, Miller's Barbecue operated in violation of the city's zoning and health department regulations for decades, but it was such a beloved institution that inspectors never dared cite it. The clear moral is: Don't mess with Texas barbecue. -Los Angeles Time This book is for the committed, the grown-up boys (and girls) who ogle barbecue rigs at cookoffs as though they were antique cars and swap lies about recipes and appetites. Like Griffith, Walsh is a Texas journalist, but instead of looking at the national scene, he stays home and picks at ribs and things with accomplished barbecuers as disparate as the late Dallas pit master Sonny Bryan and Lady Bird Johnson. His legends comment on various aspects of cooking and consuming brisket, ribs, sausage and chicken. They talk about preparing pits and smokers, regional barbecue specialties within the state and give recipes for side dishes. Nor is anyone pulling punches. "It's not hard to tell when meat has been oversmoked," Walsh writes, "it tastes like tar." It's fun to read their commentary and a joy to look through the vintage photographs Walsh has collected. You'll need two copies of his bok, one pristine to read in bed and another - soon to become grease-stained - to cook with. -Chicago Tribune