The History and Regionalism of Texas Barbecue | The Light Lab

The History and Regionalism of Texas Barbecue

Welcome to Go Inside: Exploring Texas Culture! Brought to you by First Choice Power, this series will explore the legends and history that make up the meat and bones of the Lone Star State. Specifically, we’ll share our favorite indoor attractions to visit, which includes the great museums and quirky cultural outposts that fill the Texas landscape.

When you think of Texas cuisine, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Slabs of ribs and sides of beef slow-roasting within a pit of slow burning wood is what we think of!

A staple cuisine of our weekends, a family tradition that’s passed down from generation to generation, and the pinnacle of Texas pride, barbecue touches our lives here in Texas, whether you’re a Fifth Generation Texan, or newly transplanted.

Travel into any major city, or bumble through a small town in East Texas, and you will find barbecue humming next to warm coals to create that smokey and sometimes saucy meat we all have come to love and expect.

Most barbecue restaurants open at 11am, and stay open “until we sell out.” That’s just the way it is! 

In this installment of Go Inside: Exploring Texas Culture, we dive into the history of Texas barbecue, and how each region of our state adopts its own take on how it’s made. By the end of this post, we are sure you’ll be wanting a brisket sandwich, a side of slaw, and a large sweet ice tea, to go!

The History and Regionalism of Texas Barbecue | The Light Lab

What is Barbecue?

Barbecue shouldn’t be confused with grilling. Here in Texas, barbecue can be a half day, if not an all day long affair.

Meat is cooked slowly via indirect heat. By placing the meat into a closed pit that will hold and generate heat, the fire is made near by, and the low heat slowly cooks the meat, tenderly. Another way to slow cook the meat is by using smoke, giving the meat that smokey delicious flavor.

Larger cuts of meat are used as opposed to small cuts such as steaks or hot dogs. The larger cuts of meat require longer cook time, but the big bonus is you can feed more mouths!

Brisket rules our barbecue joints, though chicken, sausages, and pork and beef ribs can also be found in smokers and pits across the state. You’ll typically find sides of macaroni and cheese, potato salad, baked beans, and coleslaw to accompany your main of meat. 

History and Regionalism

The regions of Texas have their own traditions, flavors and approaches to barbecue, and vary as much as the landscape itself across the state. We will brush on each region and share a little of what makes its barbecue unique.

The History and Regionalism of Texas Barbecue | The Light Lab

Central Texas Barbecue

Central Texas barbecues by burning oak and pecan wood. This is a reflection of the trees available in those regions. Think back to times before we had access to everything, and we used what we had within proximity.

Central Texas focuses more on the rub where meat is cooked slowly at low heat. This style of barbecue was likely birthed by the immigrant groups that settled in each area. Czech and German settlers owned butcher shops, and smoked leftover meat in order to preserve it. When they began to offer these delicious delicacies to customers, the popularity evolved into restaurants serving barbecue.

East Texas Barbecue

East Texas relies heavily on the sauce, and you can bet that generations of proud pit masters hold their secret family recipes close to their chest. Sauces are traditionally tomato based, and the meat is cooked very slowly, until it falls right off the bone.

The History and Regionalism of Texas Barbecue | The Light Lab

South Texas Barbecue

Barbecue in South Texas also relies heavily on sauces, and meat is cooked slowly at low temperatures. Sauces emerge with the thick sweetness of molasses, and are basted onto the meat to keep it moist.

Barbacoa, however, is a special type of South Texas barbecue that emerged from the border via Mexican farmhands. Traditionally, barbacoa was made by wrapping a cow’s head in damp leaves, and placing it in a pit with hot coals for hours at a time.

West Texas Barbecue

West Texans use mesquite wood to build their barbecue fire, and they traditionally cook their barbecue at a higher temperature. Often called “cowboy barbecue,” it gets its name from being cooked over an open fire as opposed to an enclosed pit, and hearkens back to the days of cattle rides and trailblazing.

Barbecue Folklore

We leave you with a short tale about President Lyndon B. Johnson, who in 1964, hosted a state dinner featuring barbecue for the Mexican president-elect in his Central Texas hometown of Johnson City. It has since been considered the first barbecue state dinner in the history of the United States!

Hungry yet?

Be sure to check out First Choice Power’s Exploring the Lone Star Barbecue Scene, where we list our favorite barbecue spots in each area of the state!

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Born in Australia, Ebony has been in Texas long enough to consider herself a Texan-Aussie. Ebony has been writing for magazines, newspapers, and blogs, for more than 10 years. When she's not writing she's building quilts, growing her own food, or camping with her family somewhere far from the sounds of the city.