“Grand Barbecue!” read the headline announcing a large gathering for Senator Sam Houston in the Texas Banner. This was back in 1847, so it’s apparent that Texans have been eating and enjoying barbecue for a long time. And as this is the time of year when we celebrate Texas Independence, I can’t think of a finer way to honor our brave forefathers than by eating barbecue.
This year marks the 175th anniversary of Texas’ fight for freedom from Mexico. Now, if you can recall back 25 years to the 150th anniversary, we all learned a new word—sesquicentennial. Well, apparently there’s also a word for 175th—terquasquicentennial—which is quite a mouthful. As it took me almost a year to figure out how to say sesquicentennial when I was young, I reckon I’ll figure out how to pronounce terquasquicentennial in time for the bicentennial in 2036.
But enough about words, let’s get back to that barbecue. Sam Houston State University has a recipe on its web site for Sam Houston’s favorite barbecue sauce. When I first saw it, I scoffed and figured it was a fake document trying to capitalize on this Texan hero's good name. But the thought of this barbecue sauce from the 1800s intrigued me, so I did some research.
First, I was curious if people ate barbecue sauce back in the 1800s; I learned that sauces were indeed used to baste the meat as it cooked over the fire. Then I wondered if all the ingredients listed in the recipe were around during Sam Houston’s lifetime. Save for chili powder, which wasn’t sold until the 1890s, the other ingredients—such as Worcestershire sauce, pepper sauce and ketchup—were available while Houston was alive.
I was thrilled. Perhaps this recipe for Sam Houston’s favorite barbecue sauce was actually the genuine article! But no matter its authenticity, the recipe would be useless if it didn’t taste good. So, I made a batch and put the recipe to work.
I followed the recipe closely. In a nod to keeping it true to Houston’s time, however, I used crumbled chile pequins instead of chili powder—as the pequins are not only Texas’ native chile pepper, but it’s likely that Sam Houston would have had access to them, as well. The recipe also called for pepper sauce. I used Tabasco, which didn't come to market until six years after Houston died, but there were other pepper sauces both sold and made at home during his life, so it’s likely that Houston would enjoyed the bright heat of pepper sauce, too.
As the sauce bubbled on the stove, I dipped my spoon into the pot to taste this concoction. It was a good, solid tomato-based barbecue sauce—a little sweet, a little tangy and a little fiery. Satisfied that it was edible, I slathered the sauce on some ribs and then held my own grand barbecue.
This time of year, Texans enjoy taking special note of our state’s rich history. And if you’re celebrating the road to Texan independence, I can’t think of a finer way than by enjoying what may have been Sam Houston’s favorite barbecue sauce.
Happy Texas Independence Day!
Ribs with Sam Houston’s barbecue sauce
For the ribs:
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 racks St. Louis ribs
For the sauce:
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
¼ medium yellow onion, grated
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 cup ketchup
¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
¼ cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons paprika
4 dried chile pequins, crumbled
1 tablespoon dry mustard
2 teaspoons water
Salt and black pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 300 and line a large roasting pan with foil.
Mix together the salt, black pepper and cayenne and then sprinkle the ribs with the seasoning. Place the ribs meat-side up in the roasting pan. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 1 1/2 hour.
While the ribs are cooking, make the sauce. In a medium pot, heat up the vegetable oil on medium-low heat. Add the grated onions, and while stirring cook for 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 more minute. Stir in the ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, apple cider vinegar and hot pepper sauce. Add the brown sugar, paprika and crumbled chile pequins. Mix together the dried mustard with 2 teaspoons of water to form a paste, mixing until smooth. Stir the mustard into the pot.
Bring the pot to a boil, then turn the heat down to low, cover the pot and simmer for 10 minutes. Take off the lid and stir. Place the lid back on and cook for another 10 minutes. Taste and add salt.
After an hour and a half, take the ribs out of the oven, open up the foil, and spread both sides of each slab with the sauce. Place back in the oven, meat-side up, and cook uncovered for 30 minutes.
After 30 minutes, take out the ribs and spread more sauce over them, and cook for 30 more minutes or until ribs are desired tenderness.
At this point, place the ribs under the broiler and cook for 4 minutes or until the sauce is caramelized.
Yield: 4 servings
Note: I made these with chile pequins because I reckoned that’s what would have been available to Sam Houston back in the day, but feel free to substitute a 1 tablespoon of chili powder if you prefer.
The barbecue sauce recipe was adapted from one found on Sam Houston State University’s web site that was first published in The Early American Cookbook by Dr. Kristie Lynn & Robert W. Pelton.