What Christopher Columbus Has to Do With Barbecue

He has history with smoked meat, at least according to Heywood.

Have you ever wondered where the term “barbecue” originated? Yeah, me neither. But the truth is, our old buddy Christopher Columbus had something to do with it. While he was wandering around the Atlantic Ocean trying to find India, he happened upon a Caribbean island he decided to name Hispaniola.

Later that night after a mixer with his crew and the indigenous tribe that inhabited the island, Chris dropped by the chief’s place for a nightcap.

He happened to notice that his host had a unique method for cooking meat. It was slow-cooked over an indirect flame created by lighting some type of green wood. The flavor of the meat was so good that he wanted to stick around and open a restaurant, but his crew finally talked him into leaving so they could go discover America. However, the Spanish sailors did manage to give this new cooking process a name. They called it “barbacoa,” which over the years eventually morphed into “barbecue.”

Ever since then, people who live in certain areas of the country argue that they have the best barbecue. The supposedly four best areas are known as the “barbecue belt” and include Carolina, Kansas City, Memphis and Texas. And Fort Worth has some of the best barbecue restaurants in the state. There are three that I have frequented the most, and they’ve become iconic. Back in the ’50s, my dad used to take me to Jetton’s, which was located in the medical district. Walter Jetton had opened his first restaurant in 1946, and by the time I ate there, he had already anointed himself “King of Barbecue.” He became the favorite caterer of Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson. Angelo’s restaurant also became hugely popular when it opened in 1958 on White Settlement Road. The thing that some of you may remember about both places is they had sawdust on the floors. And not just a little sawdust. It was deep. If something fell in it, just forget about it. You weren’t ever gonna find it. Years later, the health department made them get rid of it because it felt it was unsanitary. Rumor has it that while they were sweeping all that sawdust out, they uncovered over a million in lost change, 400 sets of car keys and one of the regulars that had passed out the night before. The last one’s actually not true. I was just sleeping.

The third one is Railhead, located on Montgomery Street, which Charlie Geren opened up back in 1986. It stays packed nearly every day. Because of its success, another Railhead opened in 2007 on Ranch House Road in Willow Park, just a little west of Aledo.

Now new barbecue restaurants open up in Fort Worth almost every month. A few of them are very good and may also become iconic in the years to come. But I’ve noticed a couple of things peculiar only to places that serve great barbecue: a good manager and long lines of impatient people who will wait for two hours or more just to get what they want. I was at the end of such a line in Austin a couple of months ago. An older guy was at the front of the line and about to pay. Apparently he was already nibbling on something off his tray, because he began choking and fell to the floor. Everyone in that long line just panicked. But that manager was right on top of things. He immediately sprung into action and opened another register. Otherwise, we’d have all been stuck there at least another hour.

Well, I can promise you this, I’ll be eating a lot of barbecue after reading this issue. So if you see me at one of those restaurants, come say hello. And if my eyes are shut, gently tap me on the shoulder. I’m just sleeping.

illustration by charles marsh