In the hands of Texan pitmasters, the humble hunk of meat known as brisket is elevated to culinary nobility, writes Colman Andrews.
A few years ago, at the annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party in New York City - an event that brings together 20 or so top pitmasters from all over America each June to a park in Manhattan to prepare their smoky, savoury specialties for a couple of days - I chaired a panel discussion on the subject of defining "barbecue". One of the participants was the legendary Texas-born television anchorman Dan "60 Minutes" Rather. When I introduced him to the audience, he said: "While I'm happy to be a part of this discussion, I have to say that I'm confused as to why there'd be anything to discuss. Barbecue comes from Texas, and it's beef."
He didn't sound like he was joking. I've learnt, through many visits to the Lone Star State over the past three decades, that Texans don't joke about the Alamo, high-school football or about the fact that there is no place for beans in chilli con carne. And they certainly don't joke about barbecue. When Texas Monthly magazine published a story last year titled "The 50 best BBQ joints... in the world", all 50 places were in Texas.
What is this barbecue of which we speak? As any aficionado, Texan or otherwise, will tell you, barbecue is not the same as things cooked on a barbecue. A barbecue is an apparatus - an outdoor grill or barbie - used to grill or roast food directly over charcoal, wood or gas at high heat, usually for short periods of time. Barbecue itself is a genre of food wood-smoked not over but in the immediate vicinity of indirect heat, long and slow. It is also a culture, a defining tradition of the American South and, in certain corners of the country, virtually a religion.
The word "barbecue" apparently derives from a term in the language of the Taíno, a people native to the Caribbean, meaning a framework of sticks over an open firepit. The original word is variously rendered, but the Spanish thought it sounded like "barbacoa", so that was how it entered their language and, with slight variation, English as well.
In 1755, in his famous A Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson defined barbecue as "a term used in the West Indies for dressing a hog whole; which, being split to the backbone, is laid flat upon a large gridiron, raised about two foot above a charcoal fire".
The Taíno cooked fish, wild birds and probably lizards, frogs and snakes, on their frameworks of sticks. What early colonists (and their slaves) in the south-eastern portion of what was to become the United States cooked was mostly pork - feral hogs to begin with and later farmed pigs. The sweet, fatty meat of these animals seemed to call out for the counterpoint of spice and acidity, sometimes in the form of dry rubs (spice mixtures to be rubbed into the skin of the beast), but more often in the form of sauces, usually tomato-based and sometimes fiery, mopped over the pork while it cooked or served at the table as a condiment or both.
The nature of these rubs and sauces helps define regional barbecue styles throughout the South. In much of North Carolina, for instance, meat may be seasoned with little more than cider vinegar and black pepper. South Carolina natives make their sauce with mustard. In Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee, the sauce tends to be sweet as well as spicy.
And then there's Texas.
Scholars of the subject in that state - and, believe me, there are scholars of the subject - like to say that Texas is blessed with four different styles of barbecue. The east Texas variety is the most like that of the south-east, involving meats - both beef and pork - smoked over hickory wood and glazed with a piquant, tomato-based sauce. Out west, on the other side of Texas, the so-called cowboy style is a cross between grilling and smoking, generally using mesquite wood and cooking beef, and sometimes goat or mutton, over low direct heat. In south Texas, Mexican-style barbacoa is prominent, using cheap cuts of beef (whole calf's head is typical), traditionally roasted not over but in a pit full of hot embers. That leaves what most people, in Texas and beyond, think of as the definitive Texas style: Hill Country barbecue.
The Texas Hill Country is an appropriately hilly section of south-central Texas extending west from Austin and north from San Antonio. Pork certainly figures on barbecue menus here, not least in the ubiquitous spiced pork-and-beef sausages sometimes called "hot guts" that are a legacy of 19th-century German, Czech and Polish settlers in the region - and most purveyors put sauces on the table. But the quintessential Hill Country barbecue meat, flavoured with little more than smoke and salt, eaten sauceless (at least by purists), is a humble hunk of beef raised to culinary nobility by local pitmasters: brisket (try our recipe for Texas-style barbecue brisket).
Brisket is serious business in Texas.
The organisation Texas Foodways, whose mission is "to preserve, promote and celebrate the diverse food cultures of Texas", even hosts an annual Camp Brisket with the Meat Science department of Texas A&M University - a two-day hands-on seminar devoted to all things brisket.
A large, intricately muscled and more or less rectangular cut from the breast or lower chest of the cow, brisket has excellent flavour, but must be tenderised by slow cooking, which makes it particularly suitable to barbecue. (It's also popular in traditional Jewish cuisine, where it's typically braised for hours in a low oven.) Raw brisket is usually sold with a layer of fat, called the fat cap, covering one side. This is essential if you're barbecuing it. The meat is cooked lean side down, and the fat cap slowly melts as the brisket smokes, helping to keep it juicy. The finished product should have a slightly crisp crust, called the bark, with a red smoke ring just beneath it, and be tender enough to cut with a fork.
The current barbecue darling of the Texas food community is a young man named Aaron Franklin whose Franklin Barbecue in Austin - which began out of a trailer and is now not much more than a shack - opens at 11am for lunch Tuesday to Sunday and closes when the brisket is sold out (which can be by noon).
"I found God in Texas," gushes one amateur online reviewer, "and it was in the form of Franklin's brisket." Well, it is admittedly good stuff, juicy and just smoky enough, with a thin, flavourful, peppery crust. Franklin smokes it over post oak (a native American white oak variety) and serves it Hill Country-style on brown butcher's paper with slices of spongy white bread on the side.
My favourite brisket, though, is that cooked by 90-year-old Vencil Mares, who opened Taylor Café in Taylor, 50 kilometres or so north-east of Austin, in 1949 and has been tending the pit there ever since. His brisket is as juicy as Franklin's, but slightly smokier (he uses post oak, too), slightly saltier and falling-apart tender. There's something wonderfully basic about it - it's elemental, the definition of the mating of meat with fire. I'm sure Dan Rather would approve.