Texas Open Pit BBQ

I took my family to the annual Father’s Day BBQ in Millheim, Texas yesterday. The event is a fundraiser for the old German dance hall built by the Millheim Harmonie Verien, a German music group founded in 1872. My daughter won a strawberry cake with cream cheese icing at the Cake Walk. And we all grooved to the tunes of the Lazy Farmers, a polka band. Millheim is a ghost town located halfway between Cat Springs and Peters on FM 959 near Sealey.

I went early with a couple of photographers to document this amazing example of an old-fashioned community barbecue. (Can you spot shooter O. Rufus Lovett?) This is the way barbecue was originally cooked in Texas–not in enclosed smokers at German meat markets, but in an open pit–just like in the Deep South. The low pit is dug several feet into the ground and several cords of hardwood are burned down to get the coals started. The beef shoulders go on the pit the night before, followed by Boston butts and later several sheep cut into pieces.

The old-timers I met there groused at the use of the new-fangled rebar and expanded metal cages and the smaller cuts of meat being cooked. They showed me old photos of the way they used to do it in Millheim–the sheep and shoats (small pigs) were killed on the spot, and a whole calf was quartered. The big cuts of meat were skewered on enormous metal rods. The Millheim barbecue has been going on for over 70 years.

Mutton hindquarters
I was quite happy to see that whole sheep were still being cooked at Millheim. (The mutton ribs are the last meat to go on the pit at around 7 am in the morning.)

Barbecue cook-offs have turned into corporate affairs that only the elite can afford to enter or attend. The competition for big cash prizes has created a do-anything-to-win attitude. Competitors freely admit to using phosphate injections, MSG rubs and other tricks that have nothing to do with the traditions of barbecue.

Meanwhile, progress and the profit motive have destroyed the artisan traditions of American barbecue restaurants. Unbeknownst to most of their patrons, such legendary institutions as City Market in Luling, Texas and Big Bob Gibson’s in Decatur, Alabama now supplement the production capacity of their old-fashioned brick pits with stainless steel Southern Pride gas-fired barbecue ovens. There are a few hold-outs. But if you want to eat Aaron Franklin’s pure pit barbecue for lunch, be prepared to stand in line outside of his Austin, Texas restaurant all morning.

Mopping and turning the meat at Millheim
But while we all moan about the loss of our barbecue culture, community barbecues like the Annual Father’s Day event in Millheim (near Sealey) are hurting for volunteers. This is where the American barbecue tradition came from, and a handful of the faithful are the only ones left keeping it alive.

“I’m afraid this tradition is dying. There aren’t a lot of young people who want to help,” Joseph Jez, who runs the Mother’s Day BBQ in Peters, told me.

If you have a passion for barbecue, find out about community barbecues and go help out. (Pull down the Community BBQ tab on this website for a group-sourced calendar of these events.) If you don’t have time to volunteer, do yourself a favor and go buy a plate for dinner. You will be amazed at what you’ve been missing!