Keep Austin Weird: an all-encompassing motto spelling liberation, openness, uniqueness and rebelliousness. Qualities all encompassed and celebrated in Texas’ past and some might argue, present too.
Austin is the capital of Texas, housing The University of Texas which is one of the nation’s largest universities, attracting students from various ethnicities and locations. It’s also known as the music capital of the world, with its plethora of live music venues cranking out the tunes nightly from the congested 6th Street and its annual musical draw card festivals such as Austin City Limits and SXSW (South by Southwest) Interactive, Film and Music Festival celebrating all things artistic.
This year it plays host to one of the last legs of the F1 Grand Prix in November taking place on the newly built racing track, as well as the Moto GP for motorcycle enthusiasts. Coupled with the multitude of barbecue cook offs (Walsh estimates over 100 annually on the Texas calendar) and food events, there really isn’t anything that Austin does not offer the sporting, cultural or food fanatic.
But what will the masses eat? With its bustling, expanding and ever changing food truck culture, its simultaneously glamorous and divey dining scene, there’s a slice of Austin to cater to everyone’s culinary palate.
In recent years Austin has really stepped it up a notch, receiving national and world press as a culinary and cultural centre. It’s one of America’s most popular travel destinations and with all the publicity and exposure it’s inevitable that tourism would amp up accordingly. There’s not a person I’ve spoken to in Australia since I got back from my trip that has not shown interest in Austin. They’ve remarked they either know someone that has visited; or if they haven’t been already, they want to visit themselves. In 2010, 19.8 million tourists visited the Austin area, a 3.1% increase over 2009 (Dean Runyan Associates, 2012).
What does all this mean though in context to the past and where Austin, Central Texas, as a region is headed?
Through the historical information we’ve seen Texas is marked by a synthesis of diverse cultures and food practices. From Spanish settlers, Mexicans, Africans, Anglos and Europeans. Each culture has its own techniques, tools, recipes and individual preferences. As people spread, so did their traditions and methods.
We’ve seen Texas barbecue emerge from simple outdoor barbecuing, to meat markets and finally full-fledged restaurants and more recently even being reinvented in food trucks. The government has even passed legislature to officially declare barbecue and sausage capitals, further ingraining this culture in the Texas identity.
When the meat packing industry became nationalised, Texas meat markets didn’t slaughter their own cattle anymore; they were no longer obliged to cook all the offcuts so barbecue joints could order whatever cuts they wanted. Coupled with the rise and dominance of the cattle industry, pit masters preferred beef brisket from the 1950-1960’s onwards as a cheap alternative to the less available and more expensive pork for example. Due to the congregation of the farming and later industrial workers in the outposts, the traditional Texas barbecue joints dominated and could mainly be found only in towns outside the center of Austin.
In 1928, the Austin Housing Authority set aside the area of East Austin for the African-Americans which congregated there for the better part of the twentieth century. "By the mid-1930's, East Austin was synonymous with minority Austin" (Engelhardt et al, p.51), a ghetto, segregating the African-Americans from the rest of society. Later the civil rights movement would force integration and in 1997 developers and businesses rushed into the area to take advantage of low property prices. Considering the neighbourhood’s proximity to the University of Texas and downtown, this was and continues to be a prime spot for development, with gentrification clearly taking hold as more and more trendy eateries and food truck stops continue to open in the area.
As a result, the city of Austin has only recently emerged as the center of culture marked by authentic Texas barbecue. Significantly by the opening of Franklin Barbecue in East Austin in 2009 and JMueller BBQ in South Austin (a hipster, trendy, vibrant and bustling neighborhood) in 2011. Both these barbecue houses value and exemplify the traditions, mastery and skills of the past, yet still embrace the necessities of the current climate and the future.
That in short, summarises what Texas barbecue has been and always will be about: a constant evolution.
Barbecue has always been there, through the hard work, development and evolution, weddings, parties , religious celebrations, politics, good and bad times, oil boom, wars, cotton agriculture, failing economy and rise of industries. It’s been providing affordable food options to the average consumer and bringing people together.
Yet the question still remains. Why now, why these traditional barbecue places? It’s important to not overlook the fact that barbecue restaurants or restaurants serving various cuisines including barbecue opened and continue to operate in Austin for a while now. It’s just that before Franklin Barbecue and JMueller BBQ, what critics and customers considered to be the best and most authentic existed only outside of Austin.
Small town traditional Texas barbecue joints started to fall away when health regulators tightened their rules and increased limitations and entry or endurance into the market. This made room for automated operations cropping up in strip malls, run by people who neither know nor care about the traditions associated with this style of cooking. Employees load the meat into gas-fired rotisserie ovens, push a button and go home. They make the meat convenient and consistent whilst solving the building code and air pollution problems that make old-fashioned barbecue pits difficult to build in big cities. Slowly and surely they replace the real thing to the point of becoming homogenised franchises. The quality and result pales in comparison to truly great meat, cooked and smoked the old fashioned way.
In the past it was hard to get good Texas barbecue without cooking it yourself or driving really far to get it. The rise in barbecue tourism has become another way to visit the past and get insight into what Texas culture and history is all about. It’s the small nuances that give the customer a glimpse into the past: the butchers paper; the sauces; the sides; the cuts of meat; the nostalgic, decrepit buildings; the pit master s attitude or reputation. There are distinct and valid emotions linked to having an authentic experience. Texas barbecue belongs to a line of traditions and institutions that link to the region’s shared past. Buildings, menus, cooking techniques help define the cuisine as authentic, but not necessarily a timeless one. There’s been necessary change like the demise of racially segregated dining rooms and a series of deliberate decisions to preserve single details. Authentic can be linked to the age of an institution and the buildings they reside in. The older and dirtier the better – as they reflect the smoke and hours of hard labour that go into preparing the barbecue. The practices and work that go into producing this food offers a window into the past, which increasingly only exists in authentic barbecue restaurants.
Although some may argue these factors are not applicable to Franklin or Mueller because they are the “new kids on the block”, their ties to descendants of barbecue greatness (Mueller from Louie Mueller BBQ clan dating back to mid-1900’s and Franklin the protégé of Mueller) still prevail to importance. Ultimately it doesn’t come down to the details (or does it?) but the end result: the meat they produce and how much the people that eat it enjoy it. At the end if the day it's about linking people to their heritage or a part of history.
These operators must function with one eye on the future whilst freezing a moment of time and capturing the history and culture of Texas in a single bite of their food. Although other operators may employ cutting edge cooking technology; meat may not necessarily be supplied by an in-state supplier; and side dishes, sauce and additional cuts of meat are added to menu. It comes down to changing customer demands and the economic, social and cultural environment in which these joints operate in. It’s all part of evolution. Even though a decision has been made to hold on to something, such as real, traditional, and authentic Texas barbecue, it still evolves. It’s this sense or feeling that changes over time that coincides with this changing social landscape - it has to in order to survive.
And in challenging, uncertain economic or political times such as now, what better comfort food to dig into than Texas barbecue?
“Because we are benumbed by any new technology – we tend to make the old environment more visible; we do so by turning it into an art form and by attaching ourselves to the objects and atmosphere that characterise it.” - Marshall McLuhan, Educator/Philosopher/Scholar
Increased tourism demands the celebration and revival of this culture as a unique, standalone experience that cannot be had or replicated anywhere else in the world. Traditional, old fashioned Texas barbecue has become an art form, usually passed down from one generation to the next. It dies out with its descendants, making the joints left behind even more treasured.
Now there’s only one thing left to do: raise your rib or sausage to the prosperity of joints like JMueller BBQ and Franklin Barbecue - here’s to another hundred years of great Texas barbecue!