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A Look Back at the Dicey Days of Beef, Before Brisket Was King

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KUT News
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Brisket's hot now, but it wasn't always the hip, award-winning cut of beef it is today.

Pitmasters across Texas may have mixed feelings about Aaron Franklin winning the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southwest this week, but it does mark the first time the prestigious culinary award’s honored a barbecue pitmaster.

But brisket, for which Franklin is well known, was not always so revered. This Wayback Wednesday looks back on the days before beef became haute cuisine, when you used the whole cow because you had to, not because you wanted to — back when beef was used for everything from "beef tea" to bread pudding.

Back then, classic barbecue cuts like brisket were hard to keep, and when Austinites referred to "brisket," it was often in reference to brisket of a sheep, which, given the size, was considerably more convenient to cook. So the rest of the cow, in one form or another, more often than not ended up on plates.

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Credit Briscoe Center, via Portal for Texas History
A primer from the Democratic Weekly Statesman on keeping beef fresh.

Proof is in the Pudding

Perhaps one of Austin's earliest beef-requisite recipes is Mary Slater's brown bread pudding recipe from 1813, which was given to Mary Austin, the mother of Stephen F. Austin. It requires equal parts bread, "Beef Suet," or tallow, and currants. Add a splash of booze (brandy), some cream, three eggs, boil it for an hour and you're good to go — if you're into semi-beefy puddings.

A Pressing Matter

This recipe courtesy of the Telegraph & Texas Register from 1852 requires about a week of preparation, some saltpeter and some parsley. The recipe for "pressed beef" is essentially the same as that for beef jerky, though it's made from even tougher cuts.

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Credit Briscoe Center, via Portal for Texas History

To See a Man About a Dog

In 1846, when customers went to the market for beef, they had to really take their butcher's word for it. Still, butchers weren't always being forthcoming about their wares.

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Credit Briscoe Center, via Portal for Texas History

Judging by this Texas Democrat write-up, it's not clear if this eastside butcher unwittingly killed a dog and brought it to market, wittingly killed a dog and unwittingly brought it to market, or wittingly killed a dog and was scolded by an old woman for bringing it to market to sell it as beef.

Whichever the case, it seems butchers had to be pretty on point with their meat identification skills back in 1846.

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