The first question comes from J.H. in Palestine, Texas. J.H. writes: My uncle used to rave about the "pan barbecue" he found in some little cafe in Central Texas. What is "pan barbecue"?
Dear J.H. - I think what your uncle is talking about is barbecue that is cooked in a pan of barbecue sauce in the smoker. Usually the smaller cuts of beef are used in this process as it involves really slow cooking. The idea is to keep the meat basted in the sauce at all times during the cooking process. The temperature has to be kept rather low to prevent the sauce from scorching. If a sauce that did not contain any sugar was used, the temperature could be raised to speed up the cooking time. If I remember correctly, mutton was the meat of choice for pan barbecue.
Another Texas reader, this one is R.J. from Dallas, asks: I recently moved to Texas from California, and I am surprised to find a barbecue cafe on nearly every block in every town in Texas. How do you tell just by looking if the cafe has barbecue worth trying?
Dear R. J.: A good question. You can tell a lot about the quality of a barbecue cafe just by looking. First of all, it has to be painted red. Most of the time it will be in an older building. Look for the wood pile. If you find a neatly stacked pile of hardwood, you know the business has pride in its work. Beware of so-called barbecue cafes that have no wood pile. More than likely the meat is cooked elsewhere and just warmed here. Also, a pile of bed slats and old furniture behind the building is a bad sign. If the smoker is not visible from the street, ask to see it before putting your money down. The smoker will be in full operation at all times the establishment it open. There will be lots of smoke stains on the smoker and everything else in the area. If the operation has a commercial smoker that is fired by gas and uses one little log of wood to smoke a ton of meat, it's not going to pass muster. If there is lots of chrome and plastic inside, it bodes ill. A good barbecue joint will have lots of wood exposed and picnic-style dining tables. If your meal is served in a Styrofoam plate, take off two points. If it's served on butcher paper, add three points.
The classic Texas barbecue cafe of which very few survive, were simple wooden structures. They had wooden windows that opened to the outside and had screen wire over the openings. You entered through a sagging screen door, or placed your order through a hole in the screen. All that was served was meat, bread or crackers and onions and pickles. Any such remaining structure is worth a try. Last one I saw in operation was in Bartlett, Texas.
A burning question comes from J.O. in Cleveland, Ohio. J.O. asks: Why do Texans think it is such a sin to put beans in chili?.
Dear J.O.: I'm not really sure how this got started. I do have a theory though. I think the original chili consisted of just meat and spices. There have always been a lot of really poor people in Texas. These folks had to eat whatever was at hand. After the Civil War, there were thousands of wild cattle in South Texas. The poor people could get beef for the price of a bullet. Being a frugal lot, they didn't waste anything. After the tender cuts of the beef were consumed the tougher, aged cuts were made into stew or soup. Some kind soul found that tough beef stewed with chili peppers and other wild seasonings made a good meal. These folks didn't have any beans to put in their chili.
Later, when times got better, someone discovered that beans and chili were very compatible. Also, around this time beef became more expensive than beans. A pound of beans cooked in a pot of chili could feed a lot more people for a lot less money. As the popularity of chili grew and spread throughout the world, beans were included in the recipe. The majority of chili recipes call for beans.
But us quirky Texans insisted on having our chili "the way mama made it", without beans. When the chili-cooking competitions started in the late 60's and early 70's, it was written into the rules that Texas chili contained no beans. My songwriter friend, Kent Finlay, wrote the chili anthem titled "If You Know Beans about Chili, You Know that Chili Has No Beans".
Another East Texas reader, B.B. from Tyler asks: How about a recipe for fried squirrel.
Another depression era delicacy. First of all, as soon as possible after the squirrel is deceased, remove the contents of the body cavity. Wipe it out good with a clean cloth or a handful of dried grass. Pack in another handful of dried grass to let air circulate and cool the meat. When you have as many as you need, remove the skins, heads and paws. Put the meat on ice for the trip home. Cut the critters into frying size pieces and soak in salt water overnight. When you're ready to cook them, pat them dry with paper towels, season with salt and pepper, and dredge in flour. In a large, lidded skillet, brown the meat on all sides over a hot flame. When everything is brown, reduce the heat to a simmer, put the lid on and let it steam for an half-hour or so until fork tender. Drain on more paper toweling. Serve with mashed potatoes and cream gravy. Mmmmm.