Central Texas is home to many barbecue dynasties, and Lockhart’s Black family is among the most famous. Of course, their story isn’t one without obstacles: their iconic smokehouse and restaurant started almost by chance, and at one point, was threatened (although a bit indirectly) by the Houston oil industry.
The Black’s history in the annals of meat-smoking dates back to the late 1920s just outside of Lockhart, where Edgar Black Sr. owned a few head of cattle. The Great Depression was hitting him hard, so when the federal government came calling and offered $1 for each cow, he considered taking it. But when he found out the cattle were to be shot on-site and left to rot, he turned down the offer, went to a friend who had a building in Lockhart, and on a handshake agreement, opened a meat market and grocery store, instead. This is how Black got into the barbecue business—through a somewhat side-door approach.
“Refrigeration during the 1930s consisted of purchasing fifty-pound blocks of ice from the local ice plant,” explains great-grandson Barrett Black, a fourth-generation member of the family who now runs the business. “When the meat [in the market] started to turn, they would either make sausage or smoke the meats to get a little more shelf life out of them. Barbecue in those days was very inconsistent, because the cuts of meats varied from day to day, as did the recipe for the sausage.” Edgar Sr. got a lot of practice making barbecue, thanks to the short life of ice in Texas heat.
Edgar Jr. eventually felt the pull of the family business, too. “After serving in the U.S. Navy, marrying my grandmother Norma Jean and graduating from Texas A&M, my grandfather, Edgar Jr., was offered a job at Exxon in Houston,” Barrett says. “[Edgar Sr.] talked him into coming back to Lockhart…for just a couple weeks…to help run the businesses so he could have a little time off. Those two weeks turned into sixty-five years.”
Edgar Jr. made some important changes to the business—he was one of the first purveyors in the country to begin smoking and selling specific cuts of meats—namely brisket—instead of just whatever the meat market had available. “He also standardized our handmade sausage recipe that we still use today, which contains trimmings from our briskets with a touch of pork,” says Barrett. “I always remember him telling me, ‘If the meat’s not good enough to sell at the meat market, then it’s not good enough to put in our sausage.’”
Another important early decision was to desegregate the dining room. Barrett says that many asked, “Where are the [black people] going to sit?” To which his grandparents would respond, “Wherever the hell they want.”
“Through [involvement in] the Lockhart Chamber of Commerce and Kiwanis Club, my grandfather leveraged his influence there to help desegregate the local Little League, schools and swimming pools” as well, says Barrett.
Norma Jean also made important changes. She’s credited with developing the sides, which were slowly introduced to the menu, as well as the barbecue sauce that now bears her name. Black’s didn’t offer sauce with their meats for the first 40 years, but Barrett says his grandmother came up with the recipe after “many folks from up north started asking for sauce. She spent over a year testing various recipes until she landed on what we still serve now.”
Currently, Barrett’s father Kent is the pitmaster. Like Edgar Jr., Kent still uses locally sourced and aged post oak wood and premium cuts of meat, including certified Angus briskets. “We have the responsibility and privilege to carry on the family traditions,” says Barrett. “We’ve been given many amazing gifts from the generations in the form of recipes and cooking techniques, and an outlook on life. We’d see it as a waste and act of selfishness to not try to share what we’ve been given.”
Barrett just celebrated his ninth year working in the family business, with accomplishments that include a website that allows the company to ship barbecue to all 50 states, and a recent trip to Amsterdam where he was invited to teach Texas barbecue techniques. He’s also overseen expansion to locations in Austin and San Marcos, and is about to close a deal on a fourth location. But he’s quick to give credit where credit is due. “My grandparents built Black’s Barbecue into what it is today,” he says. “They worked side by side for sixty-five years…and still liked each other! They had a passion for barbecue and a dedication to the craft way before barbecue was cool. Their hard work, dedication and struggle are the only reasons the original Black’s Barbecue is where it is today.”
“Some folks call and ask if they should come to our Austin location or go to Lockhart,” Barrett continues. “We always encourage people to go to Lockhart. The barbecue is the same, but how often do you have the chance to walk on the floors of four generations of pitmasters and eighty-five years of satisfied guests? We have so much history in Lockhart that you can only fully experience by making the trip.”
By Claudia Alarcón • Photography by Melanie Grizzel
Find out more at blacksbbq.com or call 512-524-0801 (Austin) or 512-398-2712 (Lockhart).