To Texans, barbecue is elemental. Succulent, savory, perfumed with smoke and spice, it transcends the term "comfort food." It's downright heavenly, and it's also a staff of Texas life. Like a dust storm or a downpour, barbecue is a force of Texas nature, a stalwart tie to the state's cultural and culinary history. Though the word is often shortened to "BBQ," the tradition of barbecue stands Texas-tall.
Photographer Wyatt McSpadden has spent some twenty years documenting barbecue—specifically, the authentic family-owned cafes that are small-town mainstays. Traveling tens of thousands of miles, McSpadden has crisscrossed the state to visit scores of barbecue purveyors, from fabled sites like Kreuz's in Lockhart to remote spots like the Lazy H Smokehouse in Kirbyville. Color or black-and-white, wide angle or close up, his pictures convey the tradition and charm of barbecue. They allow the viewer to experience each place through all five senses. The shots of cooking meat and spiraling smoke make taste and smell almost tangible. McSpadden also captures the shabby appeal of the joints themselves, from huge, concrete-floored dining halls to tiny, un-air-conditioned shacks. Most of all, McSpadden conveys the primal physicality of barbecue—the heat of fire, the heft of meat, the slickness of juices—and also records ubiquitous touches such as ancient scarred carving blocks, torn screen doors and peeling linoleum, and toothpicks in a recycled pepper sauce jar.
- Photographs by Wyatt McSpadden
- Foreword by Jim Harrison
- Essay by John Morthland
I grew up in a grocery store in Amarillo. My dad and his brother took over the family business from their father when they returned from World War II. In 1962, when I was ten years old, I started going to work with Dad on Saturdays. I carried around a milk crate to stand on so I could work produce or bag groceries, my apron rolled up so I wouldn't trip on it. The store was a marvelous place for a little kid, but the best part, the heart of it, was the meat market. Central Grocery was known around town for its fine meats, and the star of the operation was the butcher. The butcher was special: he didn't sack groceries, run the register, trim the lettuce, or stock the shelves. The meat market was off limits to me—its floors were slick, the knives were sharp, and the butcher was not to be disturbed.
One butcher stands out in my memory: Harold Hines. I was in my early teens when Harold came to us and first allowed me to set foot in his hallowed domain. Everyone said Harold was a really good butcher, and though I can't say if that was true or not, I do know he was friendlier with the customers and with me than most of his predecessors had been. Once or twice a month, on a Saturday, Harold would make barbecue. That's what he called it, although it was something he prepared in a big, electric slow cooker in the meat market. I loved it—the smell that filled the store, the little cardboard bowls he'd give me to sample—lunch with soda crackers and longhorn cheese. The aroma drew folks to the market. Harold was a star.
While working on this collection of photographs, I've often thought about Central Grocery. Traveling around the state looking for the "right" kind of barbecue places to photograph, my inner sack-boy was reawakened. Some of the places I visited weren't so different from Dad's store. Prause's Market in LaGrange, with the beautiful Friedrich refrigerated cases made in 1952, the year I was born; Gonzales Food Market, where the manager, Maurice Lopez, still wears an apron and paper hat from a bread company; Dozier's Market in Fulshear, with a modest display of canned goods and paper products standing between the entrance and one of the most eye-popping selections of meats I've ever seen. What these places have that Central Grocery didn't have is real wood-smoked barbecue, made out back in brick pits fueled by post oak, pecan, and mesquite.
Many of the barbecue places I visited started out as meat markets. Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Novosad's in Hallettsville, and City Market in Luling still display vestiges of their butcher shop heritage, even though these days the house specialty is smoked meats. Over time the process of creating pit barbecue has transformed such modest spots into great spaces, where the smoke and heat have penetrated the walls and the people who toil within them. To me these are magical places. Part of the magic is in the food; part is the fact that I was always made to feel welcome. Whether I called in advance or dropped in unannounced, I was, without exception, free to shoot whatever interested me. How rare a thing that is in these times, and I am most grateful. These pictures are my thank-you to all the wonderful folks, all the Harolds, who let me inside their lives and who took the time to stand for me, or open a pit, or stoke up a flame.
By Wyatt McSpadden
Wyatt Mcspadden's portraits of governors, golfers, musicians, millionaires, and more have appeared in scores of publications nationwide, most notably in Texas Monthly, where he is a contributing photographer. His other assignments have ranged from shooting ranch roundups and football games to capturing religion, race, medicine, crime, technology, and virtually every other aspect of Texas life.
Jim Harrison is the author of thirty books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. He has recently published The English Major, a novel, and In Search of Small Gods, a book of poems. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
A writer-at-large for Texas Monthly and food columnist for Texas Journey, John Morthland has written widely on the subjects of food, music, travel, and regional culture for more than thirty years.
"When I first looked at Wyatt McSpadden's photos I fancied that someone had given the soul of Edward Hopper a camera and sent him off to Texas."
"Wyatt McSpadden's images of the world of Texas barbecue are so strong and evocative that they seem made of heat and smoke and flavor as much as of light and color. He is nothing less than a genius at summoning up the savory world of this most definitive of Lone Star food traditions."
—Colman Andrews, restaurant columnist, Gourmet
"It is incredibly refreshing to encounter a book of barbecue photographs that does not include neon signs of pigs, Confederate flags, or grinning hillbillies. . . . McSpadden restores some dignity to the field. . . .The tone of his images brings to mind the work of an earlier Texas photographer, Russell Lee, who also photographed Texas barbecue establishments in his work for the Farm Security Administration."
—Robb Walsh, author of Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook