A cult food is a dish people are passionate about that has at least some of the following five characteristics:
It has strong regional or local variations. People argue about which version is authentic. Secret recipes are handed down in families through generations. Cook-offs are held to see whose recipe is best. And perhaps most important, people invest so much pride in the dish, it is a fundamental part of their identity.
Near Marseilles in the south of France, bouillabaisse is a cult food. In Toulouse and Carcassonne, the bean-based stew cassoulet is a cult food. Spain has paella and a number of others. Italy has so many, its cuisine is practically defined by them.
Cult foods of the U.S., for the most part, have not been accorded the same attention, though we have plenty of them, from clam chowder to chili. Southern barbecue -- meat that is hot-smoked for many hours over a hardwood fire -- is perhaps our most extreme cult food. There are championships. (I’ve competed on John Willingham’s team in one of the two “world” championships that are held each year.) And there are huge variations from one area to another. My book “Modernist Cuisine” identifies nine regional styles, with variations (a map is included).
On a recent business trip to Austin, Texas, I and a couple of friends took time out to visit four famous barbecue joints not far from the city. I first went to Lockhart, Texas, about 35 miles south of Austin, for classic central Texas meat-market barbecue. This area was settled in part by immigrants who brought with them the great butcher traditions of Germany and the Czech Republic. In Texas, butchers set up shop in small towns to sell fresh meat as well as sausages, hams and other prepared meats. Over time they started to offer barbecue --which was sold, like all other meat, by the pound and wrapped in butcher paper.
To this day, a typical barbecue joint in central Texas still serves its fare on butcher paper. By now the rest of the meat market has disappeared, so the place is a restaurant. But this hasn’t led people to start using plates. They’ve always served their barbecue on butcher paper, so they still do.
What’s also surprising is that there is no sauce. A sign at one place tells you not to even ask. And, although the meat itself has been slaved over for hours by the pit master and refined to the nth degree, no one sees any contradiction in serving it with cheap saltines, industrial white bread or the world’s worst beans or corn bread. As in any cult, devotees will tell you that the butcher paper, the lack of sauce and the bad side dishes are part of the charm.
Our first stop in Lockhart was Smitty’s Market, which has a bit of a twisted history. The place opened in 1900 as Kreuz Market (named for the owner, Charles Kreuz), but was sold in the late ‘40s to Edgar (Smitty) Schmidt, an employee. Smitty died in 1990, having sold the business to his sons, Rick and Don, but he left the building to his daughter, Nina Sells. The siblings got into a dispute over rent, and eventually Kreuz Market moved to a new place down the road. The pit master dragged along a barrel of embers from the fire at the old location that had been burning continuously for a century. Then Sells opened Smitty’s Market in the original Kreuz building, supposedly with the same family recipes.
It was well over 100 degrees on the day we stopped for lunch, and as soon as you come inside Smitty’s you are in the pit room, with its roaring fire. The heat was oppressive, but we ordered all three things you get in Texas barbecue -- beef brisket, pork ribs and sausage. Brisket is the defining meat of Texas barbecue. The flat portion, known as the point, is lean, and thus very dry, while the thicker back portion, known as the deckle, is fatter and juicier. Brisket is also tough, so it must be cooked slowly, typically for 12 to 18 hours. These challenges lead most of the Southeastern barbecue world to avoid brisket altogether. You find it only in Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri.
Pork ribs are another cheap cut -- not “high on the hog” like chops, loin and tenderloin, but lower down on the chest -- though ribs are easier than brisket to cook well. Sausage is another classic Texas barbecue item, not generally found in other parts of the country, and it’s made of beef, pork and sometimes additions like cheese and jalapeno.
I had eaten at this place years ago when it was still Kreuz Market, and everything looked the same. However, the food didn’t measure up. The sausage was tasty, but its texture was terrible. Good sausage must hold together after cooking. The sausage at Smitty’s did not. It “greased out,” -- that is, the fat melted and separated so that the meat disintegrated with each bite into crumbling pieces swimming in fat.
The brisket was OK, but a bit too dry, even though I had ordered it from the deckle. The pork ribs were also OK, but it’s hard to ruin pork ribs.
Next we headed to Kreuz Market, which is in an enormous new building that’s done up to look old. Here, the brisket was far better -- juicy and delicious. The ribs were great, too, well smoked without being overcooked. The sausage was also far superior to Smitty’s, though still a bit greasy for my taste. I suspect that both Smitty’s and Kreuz smoke their sausage in the same pits as their ribs and brisket, and that is likely too hot.
What’s funny is that Kreuz Market seems to be the inspiration for an entrepreneur who opened a virtual clone in, of all places, Manhattan -- Hill Country Barbecue Market on 26th Street. (I’ve eaten there, and it’s pretty good.) How is it possible to transfer barbecue knowledge across the country, but not across town?
Our third stop in Lockhart was Black’s Barbecue, which touts itself as the “oldest and best major barbecue restaurant continuously owned by the same family.” You can bet that every one of those qualifiers is needed because, in Texas, tradition is important. There must be a really good place that is family-owned, but not continuously by the same family, and another place that is older but not “major.”
With cult foods, there is an underlying assumption that the best cooking ideas came generations ago. Yet culinary innovation is nothing to be ashamed of. When a chef tells me he is cooking with his grandmother’s recipe, I always wonder why. Did talent skip the past two generations?
Black’s is in many ways the least appreciated barbecue place in Lockhart, not often included on “best of” lists. But the brisket there was the best I had in Lockhart: a thick set of slices from the deckle and fantastic -- all that brisket should be. The ribs and sausage at Black’s were also good, on a par with or slightly behind those at Kreuz.
At that point my merry band had ordered and eaten, within a period of two hours, a pound of brisket, a pound of pork ribs and a couple of links of sausage at each of three places. So we couldn’t stop at the fourth place in Lockhart, Chisholm Trail. The next day in Austin at a business meeting, some Texans told me, “Well, that’s where the locals all go.”
Which brings up another assumption about cult foods -- that the locals are great gastronomes. People who grow up in a region doubtless have a better cultural awareness of their own cuisine, but it’s also true that a lot of locals go to McDonald’s, Applebee’s and the like. All I can report about Chisholm Trail is that to be able to survive in Lockhart with three strong competitors, it must be pretty decent.
My next barbecue pilgrimage was more unusual. I got up at dawn on a Saturday morning and went to Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, about 50 miles east of Austin. Lexington is a very small town, population about 1,200. There is almost nothing there but a water tower bearing the town name and some rusty corrugated iron buildings. “Now this,” my limousine driver said as he turned around at a stoplight, “this is Texas.”
Snow’s is open only on Saturday mornings, from 8 a.m. until they sell out of meat, which is usually about 11. This unusual policy reflects the original mission of Snow’s, which was to serve the ranchers who come to town on Saturdays to sell their cattle at the local auction. Well before 8 o’clock, I joined the line at the door. Pickups rolled down the streets, and the cattle mooed loudly in their trailers.
Yet many of the people in line with me weren’t in town to sell cows; they had come for the barbecue. Snow’s found itself in the limelight in 2008, when Texas Monthly proclaimed it the best barbecue joint in Texas. You might think that would be enough to get the owners to open on other days, or at least cook enough meat to last all day Saturday. But then, you clearly wouldn’t be thinking as they do.
At 8 a.m. sharp, the door opened, and we all went in and soon had brisket, ribs and sausage. Strangely, they also had chicken and “roast pork,” which was a slice of smoked pork shoulder. The chicken was pretty dry. (It’s hard to get a decent result from smoking a chicken.) But the brisket slices, even though they were from the point, were very good. And the sausage was great, as was the pork shoulder. Getting up ridiculously early had paid off.
The Michelin guide in France rates restaurants in stars -- three stars are “worth a journey,” two are “worth a detour.” By that standard, the barbecue I had in Lockhart and in Lexington was three-star -- worth the journey.
(Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief strategist and chief technology officer at Microsoft and the founder and chief executive officer of Intellectual Ventures, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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