restricted access Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket ed. by Elizabeth S. D. Engelhardt (review)
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Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket. Ed. Elizabeth S. D. Engelhardt. Foreword by John T. Edge. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009. Pp. xxvii + 227, acknowledgments, introduction, photos, index, photo credits.)

This beautiful collection, colorful enough to display as a coffee-table book, contributes significantly to the oral history tradition and the study of barbecue simultaneously. It arrives full of vibrant and artistic photographs delivering as much food for the eyes as the establishments it discusses deliver barbecue to the people of Austin, Texas, and its surrounding areas. Recognizing the cultural importance of barbeque to the people of Texas, Republic of Barbecue: Stories Beyond the Brisket compiles pages upon pages of oral histories from the men and women who have dedicated their lives to the delivery of what has become not only a Texas staple, but for many, a way of life. Editor Elizabeth Engel-hardt, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, compiled essays, interviews, photographs, and personal narratives collected by 11 graduate students and turned them into a study of the people behind great barbecue that informs, engages, and entertains readers of all spheres.

Opening with a foreword by John T. Edge, of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, and comprising an introduction and six sections, this book boasts an efficiently constructed collection of information on the culture of barbecue in central Texas. This anthology illustrates not only the prized briskets, ribs, and sausages that Texas has grown famous for, but more importantly, as an ethnographic [End Page 95] study, it focuses on the people who make it happen; its essays and first-person accounts describe life in a culture as proud of its barbecue as Louisiana is of its gumbo. With the help of those 11 graduate students, Engelhardt’s book endeavors to explain what this regional food has meant to Texans and to celebrate their contributions to the food that has become an institution. Early in the introduction, using the metaphor of the “potluck” meal, Engelhardt explains how her group of 12 came together for this project through the request of Luke Zimmerman, president of the Central Texas Barbecue Association. Zimmerman’s goal was to find a way to preserve the stories and the ways behind the culture of barbecue in that region. Engelhardt’s potluck grew from that request and metamorphosed into a project that, unlike books consisting mainly of barbecue recipes and restaurant suggestions, attempts to recreate the experience of sitting in barbecue establishments and talking with their proprietors. This said, there are no recipes to be found in this book; rather, the moving stories behind the subjects of the book fill that void.

One especially interesting thing about this collection is that it does not seek to define the precise criteria that qualify food as barbecue. Instead, Engelhardt leaves it to her subjects to decide what makes their food barbecue, whether it takes three hours or 18 hours to prepare. In terms of organization, this volume (unlike Engelhardt’s metaphor of the potluck dinner) is a carefully laid out, poignant piece of barbecue history that lends ethnographic accuracy, regional flair, and historical theories to this little-understood but highly recognizable style of preparing food. In an insightful essay in section 1, “Food and Foodways,” Engelhardt and Lisa Jordan Powell provide a historical account of how barbecue came about in central Texas. Referencing cookbooks, literature, and interviews from the Texas Works Projects Administration concerning barbecue in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these writers supply details on why brisket became the Texan fixture that it is today, and the role it played among African American, Jewish, and Mexican settlers alike.

Section 2, called “Ideas of Place,” works to identify how the idea of “place,” a concept often central to literature and folklore of the American South, influences, changes, and creates barbecue styles. Its essays discuss the importance of the economic geography surrounding neighborhood barbecue establishments, and a sidebar illuminates the significance of barbecue on the silver screen. Section 3, “Dreaming of Old Texas and Original Barbecue,” traces the roots of barbecue back to Spanish influence and the Spanish word barbacoa, which...