Texas Barbecue Fit for Father’s Day

June 11, 2024
Dining & Wine
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In Lockhart, a small city just south of Austin, Texas, barbecue is still the feast of choice. Anywhere friends and family meet, butcher paper unfurls to reveal a mosaic of smoked meats and pickled jalapeños, juicy links of sausage that snap into a savory crumble, nestled between foam cups of potato salad, frijoles and baked mac — and always served with a stack of white bread and warm tortillas.

Twenty-five years ago, state lawmakers declared Lockhart the Barbecue Capital of Texas, in acknowledgment of its four historic smokehouses and their contributions to the tradition of Texas barbecue.

Lockhart is also the place five generations of my family have called home. Many of them — uncles, cousins, in-laws — have tended the fires at Kreuz Market, which has served Texans for more than a century.

The work they did was grueling. Some evenings my father would return home with a nose like Rudolph’s, near-frostbitten from hours filling sausage casings in a subzero icebox. Other times, his hands were tinged by the flames of the pits, and his clothes blackened with ash and soot. When the Texas sun beats down at 100 degrees or more, there is often little reprieve in a kitchen like this.

Maybe it’s the demanding nature of the work, or the legacy it carries forward, but those who trade their sweat and stamina for barbecue perfection share an ingrained sense of pride and reverence. It’s evident in how visitors are welcomed into Lockhart today. And it was palpable in the quiet moments my parents shared over barbecue dinners.

My great-grandfather was the first to work at Kreuz (pronounced krites) Market, in the early 1960s, when the restaurant was one of the few places where a brown-skinned person was welcomed to order a meal as well as cook it.

His son, my grandfather, preferred to eat rather than cook the barbecue, and never worked at Kreuz. But he has always been quick to the draw when asked about our Chicano roots and how we ended up in Lockhart. “Our people never crossed the border,” he’ll shout in his raspy Spanglish. “The border crossed us!”

In the years after the United States annexed Texas in 1845 and later warred with Mexico, the border was reshaped. Lockhart, an ideal layover spot between San Antonio and Kansas City, Mo., became a rest stop for cowboys driving cattle on the Chisholm Trail, many of whom were Black or Hispanic. These cowboys’ taste for the flavors of charcoal and barbacoa helped stoke the region’s appetite for smoked meats.

In 1900, a son of German immigrants named Charles Kreuz established his market. To cut down on waste, he began smoking the unsold cuts in the tradition of his European heritage — stringing up rings of sausage links like Christmas lights over the relentless warmth of slow-burning post oak. Tougher cuts of beef were smoked at low temperatures for many hours or even days, until the fats and collagen broke down into a rich, aromatic jus that saturated each bite.

Nearly a century later my father, Dennis Sanchez, tossed oak logs into the market’s sweltering fires. For him and many others who have called Lockhart home, what drew them to these fires was a support system they had known their whole lives: This restaurant has always been a place for family, and an opportunity to find dignity in hard work.

Shortly after I was born in 1989, my dad found a similar home in the Marine Corps, where he served for 36 years. We began a nomadic life as a military family, moving across the country to one base after another. In 2004, after serving during the Iraq war, my father was decorated with a Purple Heart and a Navy Commendation Medal with Valor.

After he returned from that harrowing experience, I could see that the place that helped center him the most was in front of his Weber kettle grill. There, he could monitor the temperature of a slow-cooking brisket with military precision, and try out new techniques or technology in pursuit of the flavors he had left behind in Texas.

As I got older, he taught me to do the same. In countless lessons over fire and ash, I learned the care and attentiveness necessary to keep a smoker hovering low and slow for hours on end, moving the coals to ensure a steady warmth and narrowing the dampers for optimal airflow. I learned how to trust a pair of tongs over a thermometer to check the doneness of a rack of ribs. Most important, he taught me that the crucial ingredient for truly great barbecue is patience.

It wasn’t until last fall, when I brought my two young sons to Lockhart for the first time, that I realized my dad was never just teaching me about barbecue — he was showing me what it takes to be a good father. To learn how to cook barbecue is to learn how to accept failure as an opportunity for growth. And it goes without saying that the most essential ingredient for raising kids is patience.

My father, now a colonel stationed in New Orleans, is nearing 40 years as an active-duty Marine. Back in Lockhart, much has changed. Barbs-B-Q, run by three young women (two of them former vegans), opened last year to accolades from around the country. The original Kreuz smokehouse, where my father worked, is now called Smitty’s Market; the Kreuz name lives on at a newer market less than a mile away.

During my fall visit to Smitty’s, as I adjusted the rubber bib around the neck of my son Félix, his eyes scanned a dining room filled with laughter and conversation. In this smokehouse I had known my whole life, I suddenly took note of something that hadn’t been apparent to me: the many generations of families seated around us, connecting with one another over flavors of the past.

I thought about my father as an infant in this same room, and his father as a baby here many years before him. I tore a small nibble of brisket and passed it to my son’s tiny hands for his first taste of where he comes from.

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