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Food | Travel

Roots of central Texas barbecue run bone deep

At the family-owned Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas, a pitmaster slices brisket seasoned only with salt and pepper. The meat is served on butcher paper with side dishes - and without sauce. At the family-owned Kreuz Market in Lockhart, Texas, a pitmaster slices brisket seasoned only with salt and pepper. The meat is served on butcher paper with side dishes - and without sauce. (Karoline Boehm Goodnick for The Boston Globe)
By Karoline Boehm Goodnick
Globe Correspondent / February 23, 2011

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LOCKHART, Texas — Barbecue might be even more American than apple pie, but you don’t hear folks running around announcing that something is as American as barbecue. Barbecue is complicated and diverse, and a very personalized way of cooking. “Everybody does it, and everybody has an opinion,’’ says Keith Schmidt, 41, third-generation owner of Kreuz Market here, about 30 miles southeast of Austin.

Lockhart, population 13,000, was heralded by the state Legislature as the capital of Texas barbecue. Texans don’t mess around when it comes to cooking meat. The Lone Star State has countless proprietors located in spots as varied as rundown shacks, hangar-sized barns, and airport food courts. In Lockhart, there are four major barbecue places: Black’s, Smitty’s Market, Chisholm Trail, and Kreuz Market. Every year, more than 250,000 people drop in to the town just for a taste of what made it famous.

Nineteenth-century German and Czech immigrants brought with them Old World traditions of family-owned butcher shops offering both fresh and preserved meats. The men were thrifty business owners, selling their more expensive steaks to local ranchers, and smoking less desirable cuts or grinding them into sausages for the region’s farmhands, sharecroppers, and cotton pickers. No-frills Lockhart barbecue has its origins in these storefronts. Without the fittings of a restaurant, lunches consisting only of smoked meats and crackers were served up simply, without sauce.

My friends, Austin residents Traci and Adam Vahrenkamp, bypass several options for barbecue in the capital and head to Lockhart. Adam, a Tennessee native, was reared on ribs and pulled pork. Traci hails from St. Louis, the home of sticky sauce and pork steaks, but both consider themselves to be beef and sausage ring converts. While Traci was in business school, Adam explored Hill Country barbecue from Austin to Elgin to Lockhart. They like to take out-of-town guests to experience central Texas barbecue from the pits at Kreuz. “BBQ is deeply embedded in the Texas culture,’’ Traci tells me in an e-mail. “Kreuz delivers a true Texas BBQ experience by serving delicious brisket on butcher paper, no forks, and amazing side dishes.’’

While good barbecue brings many visitors to this small town, there is nothing quite like the allure of a family feud. Edgar Schmidt bought Kreuz Market from the first owner, Charles Kreuz, in 1948. Schmidt ran the operation until 1984, when he sold the business to his sons, Rick and Don.

In 1999, Rick was unable to come to terms on a new lease with his sister Nina, who owns the building and land. Rick and son, Keith, kept the Kreuz name but were forced to set up shop on the outskirts of town. Nina and her son, John Fullilove, stayed on South Commerce Street and established a business called Smitty’s Market, named in honor of her father. While the alleged feud may have spurred business, the current generation has buried the hatchet. “His [John Fullilove’s] mother and my father can’t stand each other, but I don’t have a problem with them,’’ says Keith Schmidt.

The classic offerings of brisket, shoulder clod, and sausage are supplemented with prime rib, pork ribs, and chops. According to Keith Schmidt, the key to success is “Keep it simple . . . start with good meat . . . only season with salt and pepper.’’ Central Texas pitmasters usually use a locally grown oak, known as post oak. Lockhart is situated at the tip of the Post Oak Savannah, a region in which the trees grow quickly and abundantly. Unlike mesquite or fruit woods, post oak provides “a generic smoky flavor and lets the meat come through,’’ says Schmidt.

Consistency is the linchpin of sustainable continuity. “People keep coming back because it’s the same,’’ says Schmidt. San Francisco resident Rick Rocha, born in 1958, grew up in San Marcos, 20 miles from Lockhart. The grandson of Mexican cotton sharecroppers, Rocha recalls weekend trips to Kreuz Market, which his family called “La Marketa.’’ When in Texas, Rocha goes directly from the airport to Kreuz or Smitty’s, guaranteeing that he won’t miss out on the sausage that he enjoyed as a child.

Likewise, his mother fills her carry-on with Lockhart links every time she visits him on the West Coast. “It’s ingrained in you,’’ says Rocha. “If you grow up eating it, you just keep going back.’’

Kreuz Market, 619 North Colorado St., Lockhart, Texas, 512-398-2361, www.kreuzmarket.com

Smitty’s Market, 208 South Commerce St., Lockhart, Texas, 512-398-9344, www.smittys market.com

Karoline Boehm Goodnick can be reached at kgboehm@yahoo.com.