What is the most traditional American cuisine? Is it the fast-food movement that grew out of the Prohibition Era, when it shut down the classic New York restaurants and ceded real estate to greasy spoons and diners? Growing up in Singapore, the American food I was exposed to was the McDonald’s in the Eastern town centre of Bedok North. That’s a strong candidate, certainly America’s most visible export. France, land of the baguette, is actually the second-most profitable country for McDonald’s worldwide! But tradition goes deeper than the 20th century.
Three factors in judging the quintessential American cuisine are important:
- Substantial history – long family-traditions
- Widespread across America – from coast to coast
- Democratic – every man, woman, and child could have an opinion and variation.
Barbecue captures those characteristics well:
- History – In North Carolina in the 1660s, pigs started to be roasted. Vinegar was used as a bactericide, and peppers a source of Vitamin C to prevent scurvy. Slow cooking at low temperatures made it less likely the bbq rack would go up in flames. In Texas, bbq was used as a means to feed large groups of people. A Sam Houston political rally from 1860 was called the Great American Barbecue. – An Economist Gets Lunch.
- Widespread across America – The diverse “centres of excellence” include Memphis, Texas, North Carolina, and Kansas. In recent years, smoke permits have allowed a rash of BBQ restaurants to arise in NYC.
- Democratic – you bet everyone has their own recipe for rub, and smoking times.
In An Economist Gets Lunch, Tyler Cowen argues that big cities have traditionally been inimical to barbecue because of the fire hazard of a slow-burning open pit. With better technology, I think such risks can be mitigated. Burnt Ends in Singapore (of the Spanish bbq tradition), for instance, has in a small space put a oven that reaches 850 degrees centigrade.
American barbecue, according to Wikipedia, can be split into four major categories:
While the wide variety of barbecue styles makes it difficult to break barbecue styles down into regions, there are four major styles commonly referenced (though many sources list more). The four major styles are Memphis and Carolina, which rely on pork and represent the oldest styles, and Kansas City and Texas, which utilize beef as well as pork, and represent the later evolution of the original Deep South barbecue. Pork is the most common meat used, followed by beef and veal, often with chicken or turkey in addition. Lamb and mutton are found in some areas, such as Owensboro, Kentucky (International Bar-B-Q Festival), and some regions will add other meats. – Wikipedia
Brisket is a popular cut in Texas, and represents breast/lower chest meat. Only long-hours over the pits can break down the collagen tissues in brisket enough for it to be delicious. The brisket is split into two parts, the flat end and the point end. The flat end represents everything that you dislike about chicken breast meat – tough, stringy, relatively flavourless. The point end endures long hours over fire, charring its exterior, giving it the sobriquet – Burnt Ends.
This normally tough cut of meat, due to the collagen fibers that make up the significant connective tissue in the cut, is tenderized when the collagen gelatinizes, resulting in more tender brisket. The fat cap often left attached to the brisket helps to keep the meat from drying during the prolonged cooking necessary to break down the connective tissue in the meat. Water is necessary for the conversion of collagen to gelatin. – Wikipedia on the science of BBQ.
In March, my friend C and I, went to Texas to sample the famed BBQ pits of Texas. These being the most famous standards by which American barbecue is judged, would also serve as to calibrate our standards for barbecue.
The Salt Lick, Driftwood, TX
Address: 18300 FM 1826, Driftwood, TX
Telephone: (512) 858-4959
The Salt Lick is located on the outskirts of state capital Austin, near the newly constructed Formula 1 Grand Prix circuit. This is the grand-daddy of Texan BBQ restaurants, certainly the most famous – The Salt Lick has a subsidiary outlet in Austin’s airport. We ordered Family Style – “All you can eat beef brisket, sausage, pork ribs, potato salad, cole slaw and beans. Bread, pickles and onions on request.”
Sides of Cole Slaw, Potato Salad, and Beans
Flat End Brisket (2.75/5) and Pork Ribs
Burnt Ends (4.5/5) and Pork Ribs
Burnt ends were flavourful and succulent. My fingers ended up as well-seasoned as the barbecue, and I found myself unable to make notes on my iPad about the meat candy we tried, and … I also forgot to after the dinner. According to my highly unreliable 8-month-after-the-fact impressions, I think these were among the best burnt ends we tried on the trip.
Not pictured are beef ribs, but they were also very good.
The place attracts a lot of tourists, even though it though it is a 30 minute drive from Austin TX proper. Food is served in a large enclosed mess hall, and many order a last side of brisket and ribs to pack away for the next week.
- A barbecue aficionado’s thoughts on the Salt Lick.
From there, we moved on the Lockhart, the Barbecue Capital of America.
Kreuz Market, Lockhart, TX
Address: 619 North Colorado Street, Lockhart, TX 78644
Kreuz Market is located in Lockhart, a delightfully quaint town. It contains three major barbecue shops (Kreuz, Smitty’s, Black), all regarded by some people some of the time as the best BBQ places in America. Strapped somewhat for time before we headed to San Antonio, we decided to hit up Kreuz and Smitty’s. Kreuz was started by a German family, quite common in West Texas, which is home to a rapidly declining dialect called Texas-Deutsch.
Jalapeno Cheese Sausage (5/5)
Original Sausage (4.75/5)
Pork Spare Rib (4.25/5)
Barbecue Brisket (4.25/5)
Banana Pudding (3.25/5)
The best thing here was the Jalapeno cheese sausage, oozing with an addictive spicy, cheesy flavour. It was the first thing to go from our plates. The brisket was stringier than at The Salt Lick. No forks are given at Kreuz – one toughs it out with two knives. The brisket was very flavorful, but tough.
Smitty’s Market, Lockhart, TX
Address: 208 S Commerce St, Lockhart, TX 78644
Telephone: (512) 398-9344
Smitty’s Market operates out of the old premises of Kreuz Market, which were vacated in 1999.
Mess hall dining at Smitty’s
Pork RIbs: 5/5
Beef Ribs: 5/5
We noticed that the barbecue was always served with white bread and saltine crackers in Lockhart. The charred part of the beef ribs had an admirably crackly crust that tasted of salt and pepper. Even though we were quite full from having had Kreuz about an hour earlier, we finished the beef ribs and pork ribs with enough to spare. The brisket was a bit tough and stringy.
Also of some childhood nostalgia was coleslaw, which was identical with that served at KFC. KFC-type Coleslaw is one of my many weaknesses, and I had seconds.
Driving through Texas also made me aware of how reliant Americans are on their cars for going anywhere interesting. Commuter rail transportation in Texas is almost non-existent, and we had to hightail more than 15 hours of driving to get from Austin->Driftwood->Lockhart->San Antonio->Houston->New Orleans. This is why I am so excited for the Google self-driving car. Think of all the time that will be liberated for drivers! (more to fritter away, says the cynic, but the human benefit is almost incalculable.
Each of the three major barbecue joints offered something different. If I were to go to Texas for barbecue again, these would be on my order list:
- The Salt Lick – burnt ends, and beef ribs
- Kreuz – jalapeno sausage, brisket
- Smitty’s – beef ribs, and pork ribs
- My review of Burnt Ends, spanish barbecue in Singapore.