As I revived this blog site earlier this week I was struck by a blog I wrote about Texan food back in 2007. Back then I think I’d only been over a handful of times and, to my shame I hadn’t taken the time to understand the history of the local cuisine, nor had I been introduced to some of the finer delicacies the region had to offer. Okay, excuses out of the way. The truth is I was just plain wrong. Texan food is bloody amazing!
Where to start with this? Well it has to be BBQ. To me, growing up in the UK, BBQ is something you do between rain showers in your back garden whilst getting drunk with friends. It involves a charcoal grill and some sausages and burgers, if you’re feeling fancy you might spice it up with some kebab skewers and halloumi cheese but that’s about it, The mark of a great BBQ in the UK is managing to host it on a day with no rain and not giving all your guests food poisoning. The height of great cuisine it is not. Texan BBQ, I have learnt, is very different. First of all it’s nothing to do with grilling, it’s all about smoking meat.
Now, where did this tradition originate from? Being familiar with European cuisine, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the tradition of smoking meat was brought over to Central Texas by German and Czech settlers back in the 19th Century. The old tradition was that leftover butcher meats were smoked in order to preserve them so they could be stored and sold later. These cheaper cuts became popular with the migrant communities and many of those old traditional butcher shops evolved into what we now know as traditional BBQ joints in Texas. This explains why the meats are still sold by the pound. On top of this, following the end of the American civil war and the emancipation of American slaves in 1865 the East Texan BBQ tradition was born out of the African-American community who, out of necessity, had mastered the art of cooking cheaper cuts of meat low and slow to turn them into succulent dishes. Like I said, this could not be further away from the rather naïve notion of BBQ we have in the UK, it is both culturally important and, as it turns out, utterly delicious.
So what exactly is smoking and low and slow cooking? The idea here is twofold. First of all, cooking meats over smoke adds a distinct flavour to the cut you are cooking, creating what is known as a smoke ring close to the surface of the meat and embedding an extra level of flavour. Low and slow is about breaking down the proteins in the meat, such as collagen, to tenderise it. Done well and a particularly tough cut of beef, like Brisket or beef rib, can be turned in to a soft, deliciously tender cooked meat. This all takes time and skill, you need to maintain an even temperature of around 110C for a prolonged period, as long as 14 hours in some cases, and you need to ensure you surround the meat with just enough smoke, too much and it becomes unpleasant, too little and it lacks flavour. Add in the preparation which includes brining the meat and covering it in a rub of salt and spices to create a flavourful ‘crust’ and you end up with a fairly complex cooking procedure that has, over generations, turned into something of an art form.
I have been lucky enough to sample BBQ from some of the best pit masters in Texas over the years, including brisket at Franklin’s, beef rib at Blacks and turkey at Salt Lick. All delicious and in the main, all served in a friendly and casual “family style” environment where everyone is encouraged to dig in to the food that is ordered for the whole group. It’s not just about the meat of course, there are sides of freshly made coleslaw, potato salad, mac and cheese, beans and creamed corn to name just a few. Invariably all delicious and complementary to the smoked meats. It would be remiss of me not to mention BBQ sauce too, there are countless styles and flavours to choose from to compliment your meal. Here in Central Texas, the sauces tend to be thin and vinegar based rather than the sweet sticky sauces more often associated with BBQ.
So there you have it, I was wrong about Texan food seven years ago, I admit it! The food here is pretty amazing and that’s just BBQ, I haven’t even touched soul food, Mexican cuisine or farm to table dining all of which are so fantastically represented in the region. One thing is for sure though, you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to eating great food in Austin and every time I come here I find new restaurants offering innovative and delicious food. Sure, if you want steak, cheese and fries all of that is available, but for me, when I visit Austin today, that steak is spectacular, the cheese is probably made from goat’s milk and served on a charcuterie plate and the fries are either sweet potato or zucchini (courgette). No wonder I always end up putting on a pound or two when I visit!