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Real Texas BBQ: Last of the Open Pits

Mutton and mutton ribs (bottom right), pork shoulder (left) and beef shoulder clod (top) were the three meat choices at the annual Millheim Father’s day BBQ. German-style red potatoes in butter and pinto beans were the sides. There was also plenty of white bread, raw onion slices and pickles available. Beer was sold inside the hall, along with desserts. I lost a couple of bucks gambling on the Cake Wheel.

The Millheim Harmonie Verien fires up the old-fashioned open pit out back only once a year and cooks barbecue for the whole community. It’s a fund-raiser for the preservation of the dance hall. Some of the pit masters at this barbecue have been cooking for more than forty years. The German singing society was organized on August 30, 1872. The original music hall no longer exists, the current hall was built in 1938. Members of the Millheim Harmonie Verien claim their barbecue tradition goes back over a hundred years.

If you compare the long open pit at Millheim with photos of open pit barbecue at the turn of the last century you have to agree that they are almost exactly the same. The only difference is that open pits at the turn of the century were flush with the ground, while the pit at Millheim is slightly elevated by a course of cinder blocks and a steel rail. The meat is set on ingenious “baskets” made by welding a rebar frame with chicken wire in the center. The “barbecue gravy” is cooked in 30 gallon cast iron washtubs.

I learned about the Millheim barbecue at a symposium on Texas dance halls last year. The dance halls were built by German “verien” societies–secular organizations dedicated to choral singing, marksmanship, or some other activity. The Germans and later some Czech groups built over a thousand dance halls in Texas– some 500 still exist. Almost every hall had a barbecue pit, some of them built on the Southern-style open pit design that goes back several centuries. At least three of the old dance halls still have operating open pits. The Cat Springs dance hall hosts a barbecue in early June and another takes place on the Fourth of July in Kinney.

Walter Jetton, the barbecue impresario who catered Lyndon Johnson’s barbecues at the LBJ Ranch also cooked on an open pit. The idea of enclosing the pit to capture the smoke was crazy in Jetton’s opinion. I thought that the old open pit barbecue method had disappeared until Bubba Roese set me straight at the 105 Deli in Washington.

Bubba was the chairman of the barbecue committee at the Washington chapter of the Sons of Hermann. Bubba and his fellow barbecue committee members still cook barbecue the old-fashioned way twice a year on a cinder block open pit that was built for the Washington Sons of Hermann Hall in the 1940s. (Their fall barbecue event is held every year on the 3rd Sunday of October.)

I asked Bubba what he thought about Kruez Market, Smitty’s and all those other German meat markets in Central Texas. “They aren’t really cooking barbecue,” Bubba told me.  “Barbecue isn’t supposed to taste smoky.”

7 comments to Real Texas BBQ: Last of the Open Pits

  • Scott--DFW

    Guess I know what’ll go on the calendar next Father’s Day. Terrific find!

  • Jeffrey W

    Rob,

    What was your impression on the the taste?
    Seems similar to Coopers style.
    I have always wanted to see this in person after hearing my Father talk about doing this in the old days but I had also thought it was extinct.

  • I love your cookbooks! Being from East Texas, I’ve had my share of BBQ & smoked meats. This picture is making me so hungry & I live in Nebraska now so…gotta fire up the smoker

  • j.r. neal

    does anyone have a drawing of how to build a pit like this not a huge one just big enough for 4 to 5 butts

  • Brad

    It is a family tradition that we take my father to Millheim every year for BBQ. There are a few small communities that still do open pit BBQ. Industry VFD in July for one still does (which is located near Millheim). And I do agree, open pit tastes much better than closed.

  • Ted Hirtz

    Who is in charge of the entertainment at the Milheim Father’s Day BBQ this year?
    Will he please contact me?
    Ted Hirtz
    Houston Saengerbund
    713-228-5570

  • […] He was the first journalist of this era to celebrate these small town barbecues, first on his blog Zen BBQ, then in his book Barbecue Crossroads. We met on the grounds of the Millheim Harmonie Verein Hall […]

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