A friend and I have had an evolving discussion on the rise of urban barbecue joints that we’ve never really resolved. He says barbecue, no matter what style, loses something in translation from the country to the city. After all, it’s a wonderful thing to eat barbecue in a shack off some rural road from a man who has grown up smoking meat. Barbecue tastes better when it’s eaten in the country.
My father, who now lives in South Carolina—home of the hashmasters—would agree: Eating ‘cue in a city is like putting a tuxedo on a turkey. It just isn’t right.
And yet, we’re facing an onslaught of barbecue joints in urban spaces from New York City to Washington, D.C. All this suggests urban folk aren’t looking for authenticity—when it comes to environs, anyway. What they’re looking for is food that’s endemic of place, that reminds them of somewhere they’ve left behind, where people had been good to them, particularly when they were very hungry.
To help resolve a tussle, I thought I’d ask D.C. native Marc Glosserman, founder and CEO of Hill Country, what makes for good barbecue and what it takes to make it authentic.
Q: What’s so special about Texas barbecue?
A: In some places it’s mesquite, but not in central Texas. Here, it’s about a salt, pepper and cayenne based dry rub and the wood.
Central Texas has history. You can see it in people’s blue jeans, in the way they talk, in their belt buckles, and in their communal gatherings, and certainly in its barbecue. Yet there’s something universal about the place: no matter whatever walk of life you’re from, once you’re in central Texas, it’s equalizing. There’s something real and down to earth in the place and the food.
The most essential factor in central Texas barbecue is the wood. Post oak grows prodigiously in central Texas and it’s essential to the style I’m going for.
Also important in Texas: cattle is king, which explains why so much barbecue in the region is beef. There is also a large population of Eastern European immigrants. So the melding of the land, the resources and the people who have shaped the region has resulted in this barbecue style I love, which is best represented at Kreutz Market in Lockhart.
Q: You’re originally from D.C. and have lived in New York and London as a trader. What connects you to central Texas?
A: My mother is from Texarkana near Arkansas and my father is from Lockhart. They met at UT-Austin, when my father was in law school and my mother was an undergrad. When he finished law school, they wanted to get out of town, so my father took a job at the Department of Justice in D.C. and they’ve stayed here since. They always said they’d move back, but it never happened. When I was a kid, I’d go visit my grandparents and cousins. I’d get new belt buckles and cowboy boots every year. I really grew to romanticize the place.
When I was in London, I yearned for the comfort foods of my youth. I ended up going to my cousin’s wedding in Lockhart in 2003, and it was then when it really dawned on me that I wanted to change direction in my career life, and that Texas and food would have something to do with it.
Q: How do you smoke Texas barbecue in a city space?
A: We have three large custom-made pits that hold 1000 lb from Ole Hickory. They have giant rotisseries and racks inside. In the back of them, there are five chambers for wood. We get post oak shipped up to us several times a week.
At night we load up the smokers, and during service, transfer meats to the show pits—the ones you see out front when you’re at the restaurant. Customers come to the meat counter and order meat by weight. Then the counter guys pull meat from the show pits and wrap it up in butcher paper.
Q: So, do you think country food can be replicated in the city for urbanites?
A: We certainly try. When it pleases my parents and Texas relatives, we’re getting close.
Photo by Flickr user scaredy_kat using an Attribution 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license