Searching for the perfect smoked sausage in the central Texas barbecue belt.
by Pableaux Johnson
originally published in Salon.com
Everybody talks big in Texas. Within the state’s boundaries, telling a tall story ranks as a citizen’s inalienable right and bragging comes as naturally as breathing or peristalsis. The former Lone Star Republic consistently leads the nation in the production of domestic hyperbole.
In a land where it’s common to “talk a man’s legs off,” silence can be a rare commodity. This is especially true when Texans talk barbecue. Every person living in the state is required by law to hold a strong opinion about their favorite barbecue joint and be prepared to defend that preference at the drop of a hat. The eternal questions of barbecue routinely spark arguments that split families, ruin long-standing business relationships and turn one brother against another. Pit bosses — the grand masters of slow smoke cooking — routinely debate the art’s finer points for hours, endlessly bragging about the superiority of their final product. (One common claim is “brisket so tender you don’t need teeth to eat it.”) But when discussion turns to hot links — the peppery smoked sausages indigenous to Texas barbecue — things get real  quiet real  fast. Ask about hot links and you enter a realm of secrecy that makes the KGB look like a quilting bee.
Unlike barbecue cuts that come right from the animal — brisket and ribs, to name two — the perfect hot link requires a good recipe as well as a vigilant pit staff. The texture of the link must stand up to hours of smoking in a firebrick pit. Spice and pepper combinations need to work with the smoke, complimenting the complex flavors of smoldering hardwood.
Among those who still make their own links, recipes (usually involving arcane spice mixtures and a specific blend of meats) remain closely-guarded family secrets. Don’t ask, because they won’t tell.
Nevertheless one beautiful spring day, our team set out to break this universal code of silence.
The goal was simple: to get pit masters talking about links — a double challenge because most pit bosses don’t drink on the job. The best hot links in the known universe are made in traditionally German Texas farm communities east of Austin. We planned to eat our way through the cradle of modern Texas barbecue in a single day, hitting six highly-regarded smokehouses and plying the pit masters for their secret formulae.
So one Monday in early April, we took to the roads of central Texas. Scattered patches of purplish bluebonnets marked the beginning of the local wildflower season. Flat coastal plains rolled gently into the Hill Country pastures, past dirt-road primitive Baptist churches and windbreak forests of post oak. Winter’s last cold front blew through the night before, and the sun made it a perfect day for driving the rural routes.
Now I like scenery as much as anybody, but on this particular trip the sights were secondary — I was much more interested in following my nose. With windows down, I flared my nostrils and inhaled deeply. I wasn’t smelling for emerging honeysuckles, or even the earthy aroma of cattle pastures. I sniffed for the sweet smell of woodsmoke. Because, as the proverb tells us, where there’s smoke, there’s lunch.
At 9 a.m., we arrived at Taylor’s legendary Louie Mueller, the pit voted “Most Likely to Sell Out by Noon” by generations of barbecue lovers. Like most true barbecue joints, Mueller’s looks (and smells) more like a blacksmith’s shop than a lunch joint. The vent stacks from the room’s two pits block the only skylight in the room, which originally served as a gymnasium in 1906.
After consuming a few nearly-perfect links, we struck up casual conversation with the pit man. As he turned heavy briskets with an equally heavy iron fork, we tried a few “safe” subjects — the weather, an upcoming fishing tournament, the economic implications of Mad Cow Disease — and slowly approached the big questions.
“So…that’s good sausage.”
“People seem to like it.”
“Yeah, it’s great. You make that here?”
“Have for years. It’s our own special recipe.”
“Hmmm… tastes like there’s a little pork in there.”
(Pause) “Can’t really tell ya.”
“It really makes the pepper stand out. Y’all use red and black?”
(Double pause) “Can’t really tell you.”
“Sure wish I knew which cuts of beef you use. . .”
His eyes slowly narrowed as he spoke very clearly: “Can’t. Really. Tell. You.”
With the last word, the smoker lid and the conversation both slammed shut. With Mueller’s secrets intact, the victorious pit man marched to the firebox, where we heard the clunk of logs and the roar of new flame.
Similar inquiries in other joints yielded nearly identical results. We spent the day driving from town to town, gradually sampling the state’s great links and getting snubbed by each pit boss we approached.
We tried just about every angle — casual inquiry, outright flattery, scientific necessity and the always popular “these sure taste like the links that Uncle Meb used to make” — all to no avail. A good-natured pit boss in Elgin reacted with a smile and a shake of the head before walking away. Later that day in Luling, after a botched “Good Cop/Bad Cop” routine, we were unceremoniously shown the door.
But for every conversational failure, we took consolation in the links themselves. At each stop, we ordered a few sausages that were taken hot off the pit and efficiently wrapped in thick butcher paper. After requesting the traditional side orders (slabs of white onion, a few dill pickles, half a loaf of pliable white bread), we found a table and let the feeding frenzy begin.
Using only our hands (considered classic barbecue etiquette), we dug into the perfect Texas finger food. Though there were subtle variations, the hot links always lived up to their name. With each bite, our taste buds responded to the rich smoke flavor, only to be smacked by glorious pepperheat. After the initial blast, the other spices (sometimes garlic, sometimes cumin) rolled over the palette in their own time, leaving our tongues to sort out the complexities. We cleansed the palate with bites of onion and pickle, then toasted the pit man with a sweet red soda.
Heaven’s found in a sausage casing. Upton Sinclair be damned.
As the day neared an end, we limped into Lockhart for a final shot at breaking the silence. At the doorway of Kreutz Market, we hit the thin haze of fragrant oak smoke that’s haunted these halls since the turn of the century. In a scene straight out of the “Inferno,” about twenty customers slowly filed into the pit room — hungry souls on their way to Dante’s luncheonette.
The action in the furnace room was split equally between a scarred butcherblock and the L-shaped pit that wrapped around the room. Piles of ashy oak logs smoldered at our feet, feeding the pits and slow-cooking the shins of the passing customers. A six-person crew bustled around their small work area, alternately shouting meat orders and wielding scimitar-shaped knives with amazing speed. The crew whittled ten-pound briskets down to burnt ends in a matter of seconds, then lowered huge concrete counterweights to lift the smoker lids. With a belch of heat and smoke, the table was magically filled again, this time with our final links of the day.
Our cashier, a woman of about 60 with the name “Hilda” embroidered on her shirt patch, wrapped our order before we could blink, leaving a solitary link on the counter for snackin’. Fresh from the pit and spiced to perfection, the first bite made me want to weep with joy. She brushed her hair back, grabbed a two-foot knife and smiled.
Time to try the direct approach.
“IT’S PERFECT!” I screamed over the clank of pit lids, “WHAT’S IN IT?”
Obviously accustomed to fielding these questions, Hilda gave the knife three long swipes on a sharpening steel before answering. Anchoring a rack of ribs to the block with a fork, she sliced the ribs apart quicker than a ninja on diet pills.
“Only two people know the recipe, and that’s me and my husband,” then a pause and a wink, “and we don’t talk in our sleep.”