Barbecue state of mind

American studies scholars serve up stories behind Texas' dynamic barbecue culture.

In Texas, barbecue is serious business. Be it ribs, brisket, sausage or something more exotic, barbecue to Texans is not just foodit's a frame of mind.

So what is it about barbecue that Texans hold so near and dear to their hearts?

According to Elizabeth Engelhardt, associate professor of American studies at The University of Texas at Austin, barbecue not only tantalizes the taste buds, it evokes a nostalgic remembrance of yesteryear.

"Barbecue is quickly tied up with ideas of authenticity, nostalgia and a simpler time," Engelhardt says. "There's something really important underneath that, but to find out you need to listen to a story."

On a quest to hear the stories of Texas' uniquely smoky heritage, Engelhardt and 11 of her graduate students set out to collect, document and preserve oral histories from the people who make barbecue happen in Central Texas.

The 25 interviews along with 16 essays and 64 photos, are in their forthcoming book "Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket," to be published by the University of Texas Press this October.

The researchers' behind-the-counter journey took them from popular chain barbecue restaurants to legendary venues like Lockhart's Kreuz Market and Driftwood's Salt Lick to small, owner-operated businesses with slamming screen doors and picnic tables.

While enjoying a mouthwatering cascade of brisket, sausage, ribs and chicken, along with generous portions of coleslaw, cobbler and spongy white bread, the team discovered the story of barbecue in Texas is much more than the smoky goodness on their plates. It is the story of regional pride and strong family values.

Exploring the people and places of Texas' barbecue nation, the authors documented a vast array of themes, including manliness and meat, new technology, civil rights, small-town Texas identity and intrinsically Texan drinks such as Big Red, Dr Pepper, Shiner Bock and Lone Star beer.

"We really wanted to take all those lenses that we use to look at American culture, such as gender, technology, race, environment, ethnicity and history, and apply that to barbecue," says American studies graduate student Lisa Powell.

Continue reading Barbecue State of Mind feature story and don't miss the photo slideshow and audio clip.

Original run date: July 27-Aug. 3, 2009