25 August 2009

Lockhart, TX

Just before I returned to Buffalo for the school year, G-D and I took an old friend and an Austin Newbie (a pig-roasting friend from North Carolina!) out to Lockhart for dinner at Kreuz's Market. Kreuz's makes up one pole of the debate that has solidified Lockhart as the Barbecue Capital of Texas. That is, by the way, a bona fide title, bestowed upon Lockhart by the Texas State Legislator, House Resolution No. 1024, 76th Legislature, Regular Session (1999). Anyway, Smitty's Market rests at the other pole of the debate and, to be honest, has persuaded me of its superiority. We ended up at Kreuz's because it stays open later. Not to say that Kreuz's ain't good. It is. Probably it's better than all but one other barbecue place in Texas, and that place happens to be the ghost of its own father.

Let me explain.

Kreuz's, sort of pronounced "Krites's," started out on South Commerce Street circa 1900. Charles Kreuz opened it as a meat market and, like many other market owners did at week's end, he cooked the leftover meat over low heat with lots of smoke. The slow cooking process and abundant wood smoke helped cover up any week-old funk the meat might have acquired. Tougher and fattier cuts, brisket especially, worked well because they stayed juicy and tender for the eight to twenty-four hours it might take to finish cooking. Thus, the central Texas style of barbecue developed, and Mr. Kreuz was one of the first to serve the stuff to weekend shoppers at the back door of his shop.

In 1948 Edgar "Smitty" Schmidt bought the place from the Kreuz family, having worked there for over a decade. He kept the name, for business purposes or out of respect I do not know, but Kreuz's carried on in the same location for an entire century. In 1999, after something of a family disagreement, Kreuz's moved down the street and Smitty's opened in the original location. Apparently Edgar left the business to his sons Don, who retired in 1996, and Rick, who still runs Kreuz's in its new location. So the story goes, Rick owned the business but Don owned the building and, after the disagreement, Don apparently drove rent up so high that Rick had to move out--to a much larger and undoubtedly more expensive place. Doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but that's how I heard it. In any case, Nina Schmidt-Sells opened Smitty's, a tribute to her by-then-dead father, in the original location and her son John Fullilove still cooks barbecue on the same pits his grandfather, and Charles Kreuz before him, used all those years ago.

That's why I like Smitty's, really, because you can still see those barbecue pits, you can see the chains that used to secure butcher knives to the tables, you can see the soot that's built up over a hundred years of use. It is the living ghost of the displaced Kreuz's Market. And Smitty's isn't so big that you feel like the cattle their serving while you wait in line. Still, as I say, Kreuz's ain't bad. Here's what we ate during this last visit:

That red butcher's paper is the only plate you get. Those plastic knives the only utensils. The meat comes with either white bread or saltine crackers, but they won't serve you a sandwich. You pay for the meat by the pound. Here we have four pork ribs, two links of sausage and four thick slices of brisket. The bags of dill pickle slices and fresh white onion come free upon request and if you want to pay for additional sides you can get cheddar cheese, jalapeno, German potatoes. We got the potatoes and a six pack of Lonestar.

I paid my first visit to Kreuz's in 2004, after it had moved to its new location. I don't think it was the first time I'd had central Texas barbecue. It may not even have been my first visit to Lockhart. It was, however, the first time I realized that, oh yeah, this ain't the same stuff they got in Tennessee. Well, almost six years later, I can say the same thing with a little more confidence. Under the name "barbecue" exists an entire complex of cultures and tastes. For our purposes here, however, I'll simplify it with this quote from Rick Schmidt, the current owner of Kreuz's: “Some people seem disappointed. They say, ‘How can it be barbecue without beans and potato salad and sauce?’ We just tell ’em this place was here before all that came along.”

Obviously there's more than a bit of Texas pride in that explanation, but I do believe it gets to the crass generalization that I want to put forward. There's barbecue with sauce (and slaw) and then there's barbecue that's just meat. Texas, in fact, has both. East Texas has a tradition of sauces and sandwiches, much like most of the Deep South, although I don't think anyone in Texas puts slaw on their meat. In any case, there exist separate traditions that often seem distantly related at best and no one knows exactly how to map the family tree. While I hesitate to make any assertions beyond the sauce/no sauce divide, some of the speculation on why that divide exists is fairly interesting.

In a Texas Monthly article from 1973, Griffin Smith Jr. offers a theory that begins with etymology and ends with race. Apparently even the origin of the word barbecue is under dispute. Does it come from the Mexican barbacoa, which, even while it shares some characteristics with barbecue, is an entirely different meat cooking tradition? Or does it come from the French "barbe" (beard) and "queue" (tail), suggesting an orthodoxy of whole-body cooking by which we no longer abide? Perhaps it comes from some forgotten native American language? No one knew in 1973 when Smith was writing and no one knows now.

One of the more generally accepted theories, however, hinges on socio-economic status, which in America demographically means racial status, too. Smith explains the idea in more detail but it's pretty easily summarized this way: The dominant class of white folks had access to better meat and didn't need any sauce while the subordinated class of black folks had poorer quality meats and used sauces to compensate. Thus, Czech and German immigrants developed the central Texas style while slaves and their ancestors developed the east Texas and Deep South tradition.

While I'm impressed by the class and race awareness the 1973 article expresses, a sophistication most modern magazines lack, that theory doesn't quite square with the explanation of Czech and German store owners barbecuing their older, tougher meats. Nor does it acknowledge the fact that white people owned slaves, whose labor they controlled and whose "ingenious" labors they no doubt adapted for their own purposes. I don't have the resources to lay out a competing theory here, but it does seem that the historical circumstances suggest a more complicated explanation of divergent barbecuing cultures. In Lockhart, however, the general theory holds; both Kreuz's and Smitty's are owned and operated by whites, as are the other two reputable barbecue places, the Chisholm Trail and, ironically, Black's.

Those last two certainly add to Lockhart's status as Barbecue Capital, but they represent a second tier legacy. Black's employs too many qualifiers, advertising itself as "Texas' oldest and best major barbecue restaurant continuously owned by the same family." Who'd dispute it? Similarly, they have too many menu options. And Chisholm Trail, well, it's still better than anything within Austin City Limits. At least the name recognizes Lockhart's economic roots as a the oldest and best major northward post on the continuously infamous Chisholm Trail whose runners included members of LBJ's family. Did I mention that LBJ loved Black's? Ha!

We didn't stick around long enough to sightsee during this past visit, but Lockhart also has a really neat jail. The first floor has been converted into a history museum, primarily about the city's history with the cattle trade, while everything above it remains more or less untouched and open for viewing. Then, if after the barbecue there's stomach-room for a drink, I like to visit Lilly's elephant themed bar. Here's what Aasim Syed has to say about it:

As you can see, it's cooler than Fredericksburg.

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