Interview By Jessica Dupuy
This November, The Salt Lick barbecue restaurant releases its first ever cookbook—revealing not only some of the key secrets to its great barbecue, but the culinary story behind the iconic landmark as well. Having spent six months uncovering old stories and family recipes while driving the back roads of Driftwood with Salt Lick owner Scott Roberts, cookbook author Jessica Dupuy visits with Roberts once again about pride, passion and pits.
Jessica Dupuy: The book is called The Salt Lick Cookbook: A Story of Land, Family, and Love. When readers start to flip through the pages, they’ll find there’s a lot more in it than just barbecue. Why isn’t the whole thing about barbecue?
Scott Roberts: Because there’s more to the Salt Lick than barbecue. Without the history and everything else that you see in the book, there would be no Salt Lick. The rest of it is the foundation of the Salt Lick. It’s the roots. It is everything and everyone that taught me and my family about quality, about caring about where you come from and about how to be friendly.
JD: Your dedication at the beginning of the book is to women who have played a key role in your life. What made you want to dedicate this particular book to them?
SR: Once we got to the end of writing this book, it dawned on me that I’m really just a messenger for the past, present and even future people who have been involved in this story. Without these unsung, heroic people—not just the ones in my life, but throughout Texas history—there wouldn’t be Texas as we know it today. There are thousands of women throughout our state’s history that have helped create the backbone for what this state is all about. The women in my life have played an integral role in the development of myself and my family. And it came to my mind that no one else had ever said thank you. This book is my “thank you” to them.
JD: When you started thinking of recipes you wanted to include from your grandmother, Roxie, and your mother, Hisako, which were some of the ones you absolutely had to have in the book?
SR: Fried chicken, biscuits and homemade sausage. The homemade sausage is one of the first stories I shared when we started this book. So many memories are wrapped up in the process my aunts and uncles took in spending almost an entire day to prepare a whole hog and use some of it to make sausage. I can remember the colors, the temperature, the air. I can remember the smells of the fall season. And though I can’t remember the exact words, I can still hear the talking. Once we finally got to sit down and eat, we weren’t just full on food—we were full on the whole experience of being together with family.
JD: You helped build the Salt Lick from the ground up, starting with the pit. How has your experience with the growth of the restaurant informed you about Texas barbecue as a cultural cuisine in Texas?
SR: Barbecue is not just about the flavor; it’s about the memories that are created through the process. That’s barbecue. When you decide to host a barbecue at home, it takes time…and during that time, people socialize. They don’t text, they don’t e-mail. They play with the fire, they cook and they tell stories together. That time draws people to interaction and, at the end, you get to enjoy that food as part of a community of friends or family. That’s what people really like about Texas barbecue. And that’s what we try to share at the Salt Lick.
JD: Is there a best barbecue in Texas or is that just an impossible statement?
SR: I don’t know how you could ever find one barbecue that millions of people all thought was best. The term best is subjective. Barbecue is such a personal thing. Some people will love what you do, and others aren’t going to like it at all. It doesn’t matter how many smoke-filled tears you put into it, that’s just how it is.
There’s good barbecue, and there’s not-good barbecue. But, of the good that’s out there, I’m not sure that there’s really ever a best. My thoughts on what I like change all the time. Sometimes I like it one way; some days I like it a different way. Sometimes with sauce, sometimes longer on more direct heat. Given how my own personal tastes change, how can there be a best for everyone?
JD: What did you learn in making this book that you didn’t expect?
SR: All of these stories came up that I hadn’t thought of in years. I learned that I had more history behind me than I knew; that there were more people who deserve credit for what the Salt Lick is today. I also learned that everyone has vision but in order to get quality, it takes twice as much work as you envisioned it was going to.
JD: In the introduction of the book, you say that people always ask you what the key ingredient to good barbecue is. What is it?
SR: In order to make good barbecue, you have to be committed to a long process, you have to pay attention to small details and you’ve just really got to want to be in heat and smoke. So the key ingredient to barbecue is you and the passion you have for making it great.
DRIFTWOOD: A FAMILY HISTORY
An excerpt and recipes from The Salt Lick Cookbook: A Story of Land, Family, and Love by Scott Roberts and Jessica Dupuy.
Published by Salt Lick Press. Distributed by UT Press. Designed and Produced by Pentagram.
What does it take to make a great dish? Many might say the secret is in the ingredients, the technique, or a heralded recipe passed on from generation to generation. Those elements are all important. But the true answer is in the land and the people who care for it. It’s the land that inspires the people. That’s what my family taught me while growing up on our acreage in Driftwood. In the center of the land is a family restaurant, recognized more for its food—juicy brisket and ribs, fresh potato salad and coleslaw, signature barbecue sauce made from a century-old secret recipe, and peach cobbler that will send your eyes rolling to the back of your head—than for the story behind the food.
The restaurant is the Salt Lick. And though it’s certainly a place that reveals a story about great Texas barbecue, it’s really more about a love affair. If it weren’t for my family’s love for Driftwood, it would never have existed.
The roots of the Salt Lick restaurant run deep, but they didn’t begin in Texas. They began in North Carolina in 1847, with the birth of my great-grandfather, James A. Howard. He served a brief time in the Confederate War and ended up as a surveyor in Desoto, Miss., long before the original open pit was ever built in Driftwood. In October 1874 Howard married a young but determined 20-year-old orphan, Sarah Madora Mitchel, whom most people called Bettie. (Most of the family called her Mammie.) She told him that she couldn’t promise to ever love him, but that if he would marry her and take her to Texas, she would raise his kids and be good to him. Howard took her up on it. Within a week of their wedding day, the two left a land that they loved in search of a place they could love even more.
They weren’t alone. After the Civil War, a wave of Southerners from the Carolinas, Georgia, and Mississippi headed for the wild frontier of Texas. James and Bettie joined friends John A. Garrison and his wife and two sons, as well as Bettie’s brother John, on November 2, 1874, on a boat across the Gulf from Biloxi to Indianola, Texas. From there, they spent a few days assembling a wagon before heading west to find a place to settle.
Together they began a journey that would spark a family tradition and love for the land passed on through stories, family recipes, and the countless plates served at the Salt Lick restaurant today.
Along the way, James and Bettie camped beneath the stars and cooked meals based on what little supplies and natural resources they had. Texas was largely unsettled at the time. Fresh water and outposts for garden-fresh produce were few and far between, leaving the best options for food in potatoes, onions, cabbage, vinegar, and spices, all of which kept longer than most other vegetables. The quick and easy cabbage salad, or slaw with vinegar and spices, as well as the warm potato salad mixed with onion, salt, pepper, and vinegar were simple, flavorful, and sustainable for the settlers. The recipes my family used then have been preserved for generations and are virtually the same that we serve at the Salt Lick today. There was no mayonnaise; there was no celery or pimento. They used what would last and kept recipes simple.
For meat, they hunted along the way or cooked beef they would buy at market. Cooking over an open campfire wasn’t always easy, and there was little time and few resources to brine or marinate meat to tenderize it. They relied on an age-old method of cooking developed by Native Americans. “Earth berm,” “earth hearth,” “burned-rock middens,” and “pit cooking” all refer to the method of cooking slowly over indirect heat to tenderize, cure, and flavor meat. The method included seasoning and then searing meat on an open flame to seal in the juices. Oftentimes the cooks would use a metal grate that they carried in the wagon as a grill surface held up by small makeshift rock walls. If the wind was blowing wrong, they would build an earth berm to hold in the heat and smoke. They could keep the fire going while moving hot coals to one side of the grate. The meats were set along the wall of the pit and left to cook for an extended period of time. As the settlers moved throughout Texas, they used different woods available along the way. Eventually, they began using live oak, which ultimately became their wood of choice for its density and smoke flavor.
That is how much of Texas barbecue originated. Though indigenous people around the world have used similar methods for cooking, barbecue as we know it in Texas is a conglomeration of Native American berm cooking from the Northeastern coast all along the Southern barbecue belt into Texas. Mexican vaquero cooking, richly influenced by bolder spices, was brought to Texas with the onset of Spanish exploration and later cattle ranching. To this day, the Salt Lick relies on the same open pit method used by its original settlers in conjunction with the modern and more commonly used cast-iron pits. We still feel the open pit is more traditional. As my father would say, “There weren’t any bumper hitches on the wagons to haul around closed smoker pits.” Our barbecue and the sides we serve reflect the methods and resources my great-grandparents used on their journey to Driftwood. As you’ll soon find, the legacy of their journey to this part of Texas is revealed every day at the Salt Lick restaurant.
While Roxie made large flat biscuits, Hisako made light fluffy ones. Having spent so much time between their two houses, I find it difficult to say which were my favorite, but these were pretty hard to beat, smeared with butter and my mother’s homemade jams.
5 cups unsifted flour
¼ cup sugar
3 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1½ teaspoon salt
1 cup shortening
1 package dry yeast
2 tablespoons warm water
2 cups buttermilk
Sift dry ingredients together, then cut in shortening. Dissolve yeast in warm water, and add to buttermilk. Then add to dry ingredients. Cover and refrigerate (will keep several weeks). Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Roll amount to be baked to 1 inch thick on slightly floured board. Cut and place on greased sheet pan; grease biscuit tops. Let stand 1 to 2 hours to rise. Bake for 15 minutes. Makes 3 dozen.
ROXIE'S PAN GRAVY
Roxie made this gravy in the pan after she finished frying different meats. It is very versatile. In the mornings you can crumble sausage into it and serve over biscuits. At lunch and dinner it is great over chicken-fried steak or venison. On Sunday, when it is made in the fried chicken pan, it is good with hot buttery mashed potatoes.
For 1 cup:
2 tablespoons fat (meat drippings)
1½ tablespoons Gold Medal Wondra flour
1 cup cold water or milk
Salt and pepper to taste
Remove frying pan from heat and pour off fat (do not clean pan); measure amount needed and add back to pan. Add flour, and stir into fat. Pour in cold liquid. Stir to blend thoroughly. Return to heat, and while stirring constantly bring to a boil. Boil for 1 minute. Season to taste and serve.
Pan gravy tip: When you make cream gravy, the best way to keep from forming clumps is to use very cold water or milk and to stir vigorously. You may have to try it a few times to get it just right. As they say, practice makes perfect.