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From the Shtetl to the smoker.

April 05, 2017

For the first 21 years of my life, brisket only existed in my world as one thing, the main course at Passover.

While red meat was served rarely in my house growing up, our annual Seder always included a hulking mass of beef chest, cooked simply with onions and carrots and slathered in ketchup and Coca-Cola. Not one to be fussy in the kitchen, my dad would just toss the brisket into the oven and leave it to braise for hours, until it was super-tender all the way through. It was simple and delicious and there were always tons of leftovers, which I think was intentional (my dad always cooked a brisket large enough to feed twice as many people as we ever had over). That, or brisket always happened to be on sale when he purchased it.

During the summer between my junior and senior years of college, though, I took an internship in San Antonio, where my uncle introduced me to the manna-from-heaven that is smoked brisket, my first taste coming at Smitty's Market in Lockhart, TX, the tiny town that is recognized as the barbecue capital of the known universe. 

I remember walking into the shop and being encapsulated in smoke as the pit master opened the top of the smoker to flip the briskets and ribs. Whatever color the halls had once been painted was long gone as smoke and soot covered the walls like salt and pepper on the brisket's crust. After sitting down, my uncle brought over a smorgasbord of meats to try, including ribs, smoked turkey, and sausage. However, it was the brisket, the glorious black pepper encrusted, smoke ring adorned brisket that blew my mind wide open.

A few years later, I ended up moving to Austin and living, conveniently, between two of the city's most prized barbecue outlets, Franklin Barbecue and Micklethwait Craft Meats. One day, as I enjoyed some brisket with far too many pickles and ample hot sauce at my disposal, I remember thinking, "How did brisket get here? How did it go from being a slow-roasted staple of Eastern Europe to the prize of Texas barbecue?" These are important questions that need answering.

People eat brisket all around the world, from Korea to Vietnam to Pakistan to Italy. It's cooked differently everywere, but in the United States, brisket gained fame as the largest jewel in the crown of Texas barbecue, while continuing on as the staple for many Jewish families' yearly Seders. Why does this cut's popularity endure in these two contexts? The simple answer is it used to be the cheapest option.

Ashkenazi jews have eaten brisket during Passover for a very long time and for pretty sensible reasons. Per Jewish custom, the hindquarters of the beef are not kosher, meaning that Jews have always had fewer cuts to choose from. In addition, brisket has historically been one of the more affordable cuts since it comes from a heavily worked muscle that requires a lot of time to cook. As a result, many Central and Eastern European jews ate brisket as far back as the 1700s, especially during food-centric gatherings like Passover that require a lot of food.

During the mid to late 1800s, waves of Germans and Czechs, including many jews, emigrated to the United States, many of whom made their way to the new state of Texas. According to Daniel Vaughn, the barbecue editor at Texas Monthly and self-described barbecue obsessive, immigrants and local ranchers started exchanging ideas during the late 1800s and early 1900s for how to smoke brisket. Since brisket was still one of the cheapest beef cuts available in Texas at the time, the largest beef-producing state in the country, there was a lot of brisket available. Long story short, Texas had the space for the cattle. From the cattle came a ton of beef and from that huge amount of beef came brisket's popularity, since ranchers and immigrants often couldn't afford the pricier other cuts.

That's how how brisket became commonplace in Texas, but it doesn't explain how its cooking methods changed. Traditional Passover brisket is cooked low and slow with a mix of root vegetables and some kind of assertive sauce (ketchup or soy sauce, usually). If you're careful and lucky, the brisket comes out moist and fork tender. If you're not, it comes out dry and overcooked.

The Texas smoked method helps alleviate this issue. As Franklin Barbecue's Aaron Franklin explains, by smoking the brisket with indirect heat at a very low temperature for a very long time, the fat has more time to render and the meat more time to cook at a much slower rate. This method most likely came from native tribes in Texas and Northern Mexico, which had been smoking meat directly in the earth for a very long while by the time white settlers arrived. This all resulted in a much more delicious brisket, which required less additional seasoning, hence the simple salt and pepper rub used prominently across the state. 

By the early 1900s, smoked brisket appeared on Jewish deli menus from Greenville to El Paso and then in the late 1950s, Black's Barbecue in Lockhart became the first to offer brisket exclusively on its barbecue menu. After Black's came Smitty's and then Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, and the rest is delicious history. 

I haven't gone home for a Seder in years and my parents no longer host one at their house anyway. However, a few years ago, my dad visited me in Austin and we spent one very rainy morning waiting in line at the now defunct John Muller Meat Co. We drank Lonestars before noon, breathed in the enticing meat smoke and discussed in-depth what we would order once we made it to the front of the line. Really though, we both just wanted the brisket. 

I'll never forget watching my dad take that first bite of fatty beef. His eyes and smile both going wide simultaneously. I knew that feeling, that bite that shows you there's something better out there than you've ever tasted before. After this brisket meal, there were no leftovers.