Spare ribs, beef links, and Big Red are to Juneteenth what roast turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce are to Thanksgiving. Juneteenth is the Texas state holiday that celebrates the freeing of the slaves in Texas on June 19th, 1865. Black slaves introduced Southern barbecue to Texas cotton plantations in the early nineteenth century. According to accounts in the “Slave Narratives,” when slaves were liberated, spontaneous barbecues sprung up to celebrate their newfound emancipation, and everybody—black and white—came to eat. The idea of racial harmony didn’t last long, however, thanks to the introduction of Jim Crow laws.
A hundred years after the first Juneteenth, the Civil Rights Act of 1965 made it legal for blacks and whites to sit down together in Texas barbecue joints. (Though only the most intrepid whites would venture across the tracks to sample black barbecue.) One hundred fifty years after the first Juneteenth, Austin pitmaster Aaron Franklin won the 2015 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest, and Texas barbecue became the darling of the national food press—or, at least the Central Texas strain did. Yet in spite of this groundswell of attention, the African-American roots of Texas barbecue are still largely ignored.
“Black barbecue is booming, but the national press never makes it to East Texas,” J.C. Reid, the Houston Chronicle’s barbecue columnist, told me while we ate lunch at a joint called Southern Q on Kuykendahl Road in North Houston. The restaurant is owned by an African-American couple named Steve and Sherice Garner who perfected their tender pork ribs and awesome smoked boudain (the Texas spelling of "boudin") while cooking church picnics. “That’s because when national food writers come to Texas to cover barbecue, they fly to Austin.”
The relentless fawning over Austin's 'cue scene paints a narrow picture of the Texas tradition, as does the maniacal focus on brisket—marginalizing a crucial strand of culinary DNA.
“If you use brisket as your yardstick, you miss the good stuff in East Texas,” Reid told me. “Of course, I grew up in Beaumont, the first place I ever ate barbecue was Patillo’s,” he said. Founded in 1912, Patillo’s is the fourth oldest barbecue business in Texas. Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn was eating beef links at Patillo’s when he was struck with a “road to Damascus” epiphany. In the fall 2015 issue of Gravy, the Southern Foodways Alliance literary quarterly, Vaughn wrote a touching mea culpa: “At Texas Monthly, we evaluate barbecue joints according to brisket…a rating system anchored in the legendary, and mostly white-owned, joints of central Texas."
Because they don’t cook brisket, historic African-American joints like Patillo’s have long been ignored by Texas Monthly’s influential Top 50 Barbecue lists. “I’ve come to realize that it’s an outdated way of thinking,” Vaughn conceded after sampling the ribs, chicken, and old-fashioned beef links there. He went on to wax poetic about the quixotic career of Robert Patillo and his amazing “grease balls” a.k.a. beef links—another icon in the Texas black barbecue lexicon that has largely been swept under the rug.
Beef links—also known as “juicy links,” “grease balls,” and “garlic bombs”—are savory sausage rings made by stuffing natural hog casings with a finely ground beef and suet mixture that is heavily seasoned with garlic and chile powder before being tied into rounds and smoked. They are served with a thin gravy. When you cut them open, the filling oozes out into a pool of orange goodness, which is traditionally squeezed onto a slice of white bread. The foldover tastes a little like a smoked chili con carne sandwich. Some eat the tough casing, and some throw it away.
“Patillo’s has been somewhat overlooked,” owner Robert Patillo says in a short film made about his unusual barbecue. A descendant of a famous Anglo entrepreneur and Creole laundry woman, Robert Patillo calls himself black because there was no such thing as “mixed race” when he was growing up. The Patillo family recipes have been handed down for generations. “As long as I can remember, Patillo’s has been known for beef links. We make 500 to 1000 a day.”
In the Jim Crow era, beef links were dismissed as “N-word barbecue” by whites because they were made from inexpensive beef trimmings. While black barbecue men specialized in links, chicken, and pork ribs served Southern-style smothered in sweet and tangy sauce, the German meat markets of Central Texas specialized in large cuts of beef sliced to order served with no sauce at all.
Brisket didn’t take over the Texas barbecue scene until the 1970s when boxed beef from Midwestern meatpackers replaced locally slaughtered cattle. Some Central Texas landmarks, like Kreuz Market in Lockhart, still smoke once-common cuts like shoulder clods, and they also barbecue prime ribs. Franklin’s Barbecue in Austin, among other cutting edge urban Texas barbecue joints, has raised the bar on quality (and price) even higher, cooking USDA Prime natural briskets. Barbecue used to imply inexpensive meats made delicious by slow cooking, but that’s not true anymore in Central Texas, where prime brisket and beef ribs are selling for $20 to $25 a pound.
Reid founded the Houston Barbecue Festival four years ago. Around a quarter of the barbecue joints represented are African-American, he said. He ticked off the names of some intriguing black Q venues I hadn’t visited yet: there’s The Bookity Bookity Boudain Man where you can get chicken, pork, and beef boudain; Fainmous Barbecue, run by a pitmaster named Jamie Fain; and Powell’s Barbecue, where they use retired Houston pitmaster Harry Green’s recipe for beef links.
The recipe for “Harry Green’s juicy links” was included in the original edition of my book, Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook. But Green told me he got the recipe from a legendary black pitmaster named Joe Burney. After the book came out, Joe Burney’s grandson hunted me down and gave me some fascinating information about his grandfather, and shared some old family photos. The Joe Burney bio and photo is included in the newly released 2nd edition of Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook, and the recipe now appears as “Joe Burney’s Juicy Links.”
Once popular all over East Texas, the beef link is becoming rare. Orange grease and Wonder Bread just don’t appeal like they used to. But Robert Patillo doesn’t care. He has devoted his life to keeping his father’s specialty alive. “Everybody has a brisket, but these links are unique, and they are becoming an endangered species,” he says.
The national media got very interested in Texas barbecue when Aaron Franklin upscaled it with his stunningly delicious USDA Prime brisket. Right now, Greg Gatlin, Houston’s hippest black pitmaster, is working on a new spin on beef links. At Jackson Street Barbecue next to Minute Maid Park, Gatlin serves a Sunday brunch with cutting edge stuff like smoked deviled eggs, a burnt end sandwich on jalapeño cheese bread, and barbecue eggs Benedict.
For the Juneteenth brunch at Jackson Street Barbecue, Gatlin will be serving his new beef links stuffed with finely-ground USDA prime brisket that’s been seasoned with premium paprika powder, lots of garlic, and just the right amount of salt, smoked over oak. The prime brisket-stuffed juicy links will be priced at around $10 a serving. Prepare to be astonished when you when you squeeze one of these out onto slices of squishy white bread.
If the New York media decides to come, Gatlin says he’ll serve their beef links over cronuts.