Remembering A BBQ Legend, Lee Chambers of Luling BBQ
We started our BBQ tour at Black’s in Lockhart, Texas. This is Central Texas just south of Austin. We are in Caldwell County where the citizens make sure you know that it is recognized as the Barbeque Capital of Texas by the State House of Representatives. Five of the top 50 BBQ establishments in the state reside in this county. In Texas, there are thousands who think theirs is the best.
You have to start with two family names, Schmidt and Black. The Schmidt's began as Kruez German Market established in 1900. Smitty took over and is the father of sibling rivals. The sister stayed to maintain her fathers legacy at Smitty's and the brother built a BBQ Emporium he named Kruez Market.
Their menu is as simple as it gets. There is no electricity used in the kitchen of Smitty's. Beans are cooked in a big old pot with a propane burner. Other than the beans, what most get is their choice of pit smoked meats served on a butchers sheet with no sauce, and no sides other than a hunk of cheese, some pickles, jalapeno's, onions, saltine crackers and slices of bread.
Don't forget the Big Red! It's been the drink of choice for years.
Kruez Market is currently #1 and has ranked among the highest rated places to feast ever since a feud between big sister Nina and little brother Rick led to a parting of the ways. Schmidt showed up one morning took a wheel barrow full of the last remaining embers from big sisters pits and rolled it down the streets to his new BBQ Palace. It is said that there was only one other occasion when the pit fires went out at Smitty's. Other than that, the pit fires have burned continuously.
Rick wanted to start his mega BBQ event center with those historic burning embers but left his sisters coals at Smitty's pit cold.
Suited businessmen regularly arrive by the car loads to eat caveman style where there is nothing left but bones and paper.
Do the Caldwell Shuffle!
I am riding shot gun with Sheriff Dan Law. We will spend the next two days together and will eat at each of the BBQ legends during that time.
Each owner will bring me plates ( or in some cases sheets of waxed butcher paper) filled with some of everything.
Each is certain that not only is their BBQ the best, but also their potato salad, cold slaw, beans, sausage, and even their choice of pickles.
They will watch to make sure I taste and appreciate every item and I end up with leftovers enough to fill the fridge of my buddy in New Braunfils. Keith Vogel is forced to make room by sending me home with several pounds of outstanding venison sausage.
Between the stuffings Dan and I make the circuit of his sheriffing responsibilities. The big man is as gentle and considerate as he is determined and protective. He comes from a long line of Texas lawmen.
Sheriffs, Texas Rangers, Highway Patrol, and police officers are his uncles and cousins. I am getting a chauffeur driven tour of history and the law, spiced with the many people who spot the big man with the stetson and a badge with a star.I envision a Bonanza remake with Dan playing Hoss Cartrite.
Sheriff Dan Law is the youngest to ever serve as the President of the Sheriff’s Association of Texas. His football career succumbed to knee injuries, but I can clearly see that 6’5” frame chasing down quarterbacks when I see him nimbly cross the street in front of Black’s to help an elderly lady out of her car. He walks her to her destination as gently as if she was his own.
When he returns to introduce me to the Black’s they are standing in the middle of the quiet street. He is welcomed like a favorite son of the county.
Norma Jean Black has served us a bit of everything on the menu and I have to request a doggie bag for the rest of the ribs, sausage, and that Brontosaurus Bone they call a beef rib. You can mail order their famous sauces. I got Norma Jean’s Sauce. http://www.blacksbbq.com/store/default.aspx
A couple sit at the adjoining table. I observe them sit down with a tray of brisket and ribs with some slices of bread. They are visiting from the east coast as they celebrate their 50th anniversary. They were married just before he was to be shipped overseas. She was driving him to the base and they had married on the way. They had very little money!
They saw a market open as they passed through Lockhardt and went in to find out what was the most food they could buy for the least money. So the Blacks heard the young newlyweds plight and put together a picnic travel basket that was their first substantial meal as man and wife. It included brisket, sausage, a bonus rack of ribs, bread, cheese, and peppers. All of this was strange fair to the easterners.
They recalled pulling off the road and having that picnic under a shade tree. Their they delighted in this simple picnic and they are simultaneously telling me the story. I can tell that they have told it a hundred times.
That generous picnic was all they would eat over the next few days and they never forgot Black's and that basket with some cobbler and other little sides that had secretly been included.
By the time I meet them, they had been there for a day (being young again). They've already eaten lunch and dinner the day before and this time they only order brisket and ribs with bread for lunch. They are now making a list of all the food they plan to have shipped to their home for a family anniversary celebration. There is nothing left on their plate but bare rib bones.
This is a long planned private journey for this pair and they are reliving the poverty of the beginning of their lives together. Now, they are well off and are about to spend the cost of their first house to order a BBQ extravaganza delivery to compare with the order once sent to the White House for a Texas BBQ. Friends, children, and grandchildren are eagerly awaiting their return. Black's will always be a precious part of their live.
Norma Jean is my hostess and is wife to Kent Black. They along with their sons operate the longest continuously family owned BBQ smokehouse in Texas. In their own way, they are legendary and also rank in Texas top 10 and opened in 1932.
Kent Black grew up with Floyd Wilhelm and Lee Hays Chambers. The men were born in the ‘30’s and were teenagers during WWII. They each had worked at Black’s as teenagers learning the art of pit smoked meats together under blankets of smoking post oak.
Each eventually perfected their own rubs and sauces. Each played with beef and/or pork mixtures for the perfect sausage. There was more room to experiment like the time spent in the smoking pits, the temperatures, and the combinations of a little pecan, mesquite, or hickory wood. The right amount of mayo or mustard in their potato salad have become part of the on going argument of which is the best overall BBQ experience. Cole Slaw, mac and cheese, and cobblers also ad to the confusion as to which is the best.
I am not about to try to describe the undescribable taste of meats fresh out of the pits after hours of love smoked into them. You have to do the Caldwell County Shuffle and decide for yourself.
Chisholm Trail BBQ, Floyd Wilhelm
Floyd went on to add fresh baked bread and create one of the first and best buffet lines of assorted sides to go along with his BBQ. Calling on his German heritage, the variety of sides are rustic and wholesome.
You can thank Floyd if you love all the cobblers and pies, salads and other sides you now find at many BBQ establishments.
Floyd loves the diversity of family and friends that are loyal to Chisholm Trail. It is built to be family friendly because he wants everyone to find their favorite sides. It worked! We arrive in time for the after work rush and the line has already formed. A little league team, families, workers in suits, hard hats, stetsons and John Deere caps greet each other. The soccer moms are piling in and Floyd is sitting strategically near the end of the line bouncing up and down between hand shakes and hugs.
Lee Chambers is another part of that Texas BBQ History.
After returning from his military service Lee Chambers becomes a grocer and butcher. He incorporated a BBQ pit to deal with what was formerly considered the lesser meat cuts like ribs and briskets. Hard to imagine but the lowly cuts have been elevated to must have choices. The little guy with the big heart also took to smoking any fresh meats a grocer might carry. He smoked chickens and hams, turkeys and bacon, and of course briskets and ribs. He played with his sausage recipe for years before he settled on his signature sausage that causes loyal fans from Lockhart to drive to Luling.
Floyd and Lee especially loved the youth and so their business evolved into family friendly environments. Lee chose to run a lean operation to keep his prices down thereby insuring the young people of his community to prefer Luling BBQ.
Lee was in bad shape when I visited him. It was a real challenge to walk him out on the the street to photograph him in front of his sign. His warm smile was always present. But even in his weakest days Lee could still be found at the Luling BBQ during lunch hour to greet and watch the high school kids come in clusters for the standing student discounts.
When we meet, he is obviously weak and can barely walk. That doesn't stop him from coming to life when the high schoolers charge in. He names them to me and tells me what they will order before they do. He knows what sport they play, Names their parents and many of their grand parents who he has fed for decades. The years fade away and he is young again for that hour.
Lee Hays Chambers, 81, of Luling passed away Sunday, April 28, 2013.
Lee was born February 18, 1932 in Hico, Texas to Thomas Lee Chambers and Irene Glenwood Chambers. He served his country honorably in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Germany.
Mr. Lee was a 50 year member of the American Legion Post 177 in Luling, a member of the Luling Masonic Lodge # 179 AF&AM, and a former member of the Luling First National Bank board of directors. Lee married Patricia Ann Carney Blevins on September 10, 1983 at the McNeil Baptist Church.
Lee began learning the art of BBQ as a teenager at the iconic Black's in neighboring Lockhart with life-long friend Floyd Wilhelm who owns and operates Chisholm Trail BBQ in Lockhart.
At 37 he went out on his own and opened Chambers Grocery and Market in Luling in 1969. While operating his store he had groceries delivered upon request and many people put their groceries on credit. The little grocer carried sundries along with fresh local greens, fruits, and produce. He also served as a local butcher.
It was a natural progression to smoke meats and make sausage. He carried on the Central Texas German method of Low and Slow smoking and created his own sauce and sausage recipe.
After 25 years, the 62 year old sold the business in 1994 with the thought of retiring. But Lee was a people person. He was a jovial man with a huge love for his community. The once spry and always caring little man always tried to help people. He was very generous, and contributed faithfully to many organizations especially the Luling High School FFA Stock Show.
He was devoted to his employees and joyfully shared his philosophies and recipes for a happy life. With a genuine concern for others and for those who worked by his side he earned respect, love, and devotion from many who referred to him as “Mr. Lee.”
Retirement was not for Lee Chambers. He missed serving others. It was 2002 and after 8 years of ‘wool gathering’ a friend passed away leaving a little meat market and BBQ joint that Lee took over and operated as Luling Barbeque. His smokehouse was recognized by Texas Monthly as being one of the top 50 in the great state.
Quite the accomplishment considering there are 1000s of pit rooms across Texas.
- J.B. Blocker is a media consultant based in Collin County in North Texas. Advertise with J.B. by calling 469-334-9962.