The Tejas Cookers, under the leadership of Travis Lemos, won the 2014 Top Prize for barbecue ribs at the Houston Rodeo World Championship Bar-B-Que Contest.
The name Tejas refers to the first peoples of Texas who, living around Houston and East Texas about 11,500 years ago, developed highly organized civilizations. Known as the “Hasinai” or “Tejas” chiefdom, they were powerful into the seventeenth century (La Vere, 2004). Tejas Cooker, Travis Lemos, says “I love my heritage, my family, and friends.”
The competition at Reliant Stadium was fierce at the 2014 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Contest, Feb. 27- March 1. Hundreds of barbecue pits, flamed and smoked in the Houston sun where more than 400 of the state and the nation’s Top barbecue teams competed for that coveted grand prize, what the Houston Rodeo brands, “World Champion.” It was the Tejas Cookers who, with their Barbecue Ribs, took the trophy.
The striking element in their style of cooking is cultural. It’s all wrapped up in family, friendships, history, ritual and hospitality. You can’t just take the food separate from hospitality. You’ve got to take the whole cultural, community context, and that surely makes the food more delicious. “I love the ‘atmosphere’ of barbecue” says Travis.
Travis explains that “Tejas” is an ancient word that means friends and allies. When I approached the Tejas Cookers Tent at Reliant Stadium, Alfonso (Al) De La Fuente, one of the three original Tejas Cookers team(they are nine now) described the cookers as close friends and relatives from Houston and nearby Stafford. Travis is the President and the Vice President is Alex Gutierrez from Houston.
“We love to help the community, and Rodeo raises money for scholarships,” says Lemos. He repeats, “We love the livestock show and rodeo because they raise money for scholarship. It’s the biggest social event of the year.”
Travis learned his championship skills from his dad, Duke Lemos, whose barbecue skills kept him busy around town cooking for the extended family and friends. With his father, Travis participated in other barbecue teams but kept saying to his father, “let’s do our own thing.” Travis finally did so in 1993 when he started Tejas Cookers. His dad, Duke, is the Executive Chef of the group.
Travis says that his own culinary approach is grounded in the tastes of his mother’s cooking. “Momma’s home cooking: picadillo, carne guisada, homemade tortillas, and, of course his dad’s barbecue and ribs.” He says his mom used chiles, Jalapeños, and always a molcajete.
The tradition of cooking meats on an open fire and in wrappings is one handed down over thousands of years here in Texas, and the Tejas peoples developed culinary techniques that included making sausage, braising, roasting and steaming. They were highly skilled pottery makers and used bowls and dishes to both cook and serve meals. The various names used for sectors of this extended civilization include Caddos and Hasinai. The Spaniards in Mexico had received news about the Caddo city-states of East Tejas, as noted in a letter written in 1676 by the bishop of Guadalajara:
“a populous nation of people, and so extensive that those who give detailed reports of them do not know where it ends. These [who give the reports] are many, through having communicated with the people of that nation, which they call Tejas, and who, they maintain, live under an organized government, congregated in their pueblos, and….They have houses made of wood, cultivate the soil, plant maize and other crops, wear clothes and punish misdemeanors, especially theft.”(La Vere, 2004) (Bolton 1912)
Tejas Cookers are not afraid to explore new avenues. This year they accepted a request from Glazer’s Distributors to hold a wine tasting event that would pair their barbecue with wines from Chile and Argentina distributed by Excelsior Wines. As with most Texans, and certainly among Mexican American families, it’s obvious that barbecues don’t traditionally include wines. Texans and Tejas folk like iced tea, BEER, agua fresca, soft drinks. When Glazer’s invited me to attend the wine tasting event as a VIP blogger, I was readily interested: trying new things can be delicious.
We tasted 2 whites and 3 reds, Casillero Del Diablo (Chile) and Trivento (Argentina) vineyards among them. They were selected by JR Trevino, CSW, District Manager of Excelsior wines for central and south Texas. The variations were interesting, delightful and demonstrated, again, the fabulous character of wines from Chile and Argentina. The Trivento Eolo Malbec, 2010 was a particularly nice discovery for me, since I don’t normally order Malbecs at restaurants. I certainly will now. This one is wonderfully rich and complex, with elegant floral aromas. Brilliant. JR, Excelsior, let me take a bottle home with me.
Among the Tejas cookers and volunteers, I did not see any wine tasting at all, but the invited guests from hotels and hospitality surely did enjoy, as I did, the broad range of flavors, textures, and character presented. So, when the Tejas Cooker volunteers served me a beautifully grilled ribeye steak with a lush Cabernet, I just forgot about everything and enjoyed the wonderful pairing, thinking to myself, “I don’t want to take notes, I just want to eat and drink.” But, actually, my thoughts were about whether wine at barbecues among Texans and Tejas communities will become integrated into what Travis calls the “atmosphere” of barbecue.
After all is said and done, I find it intriguing that wines are dialoguing with communities of Native Americans and others.
The ancient architectures and language of the Tejas peoples who lived on the land where now stands Reliant Stadium are lost in time. But the people themselves and their culinary customs live on, and the Tejas Cookers prove that delicious food never dies.
Travis says that they want to share their recipes and their methods. “Its so good to know someone else can cook just as well as you do. It’s time to start teaching people what you know.”
This is the recipe and method for Tejas Cookers World Champion Barbecue Ribs:
Take off the back, the silver skin of the ribs. With the spices, lightly coat the sides and don’t rub, just press down, on the meat. The special rub is his own blend and it is called Tejas seasonings. (He will gladly share it, so leave a request on the Tejas Cookers FB page). Then go ahead and cook for 3 hours at 275 F. Then you pull off the meat to wrap, using honey and light brown sugar on both sides. Put the meat side down, wrap in foil for 1 ½ hours at 275 F. Then when you take it off, let it rest for 45 minutes to an hour. Then coat it with your favorite bbq sauce. Serve warm.
Congratulations and thank you for your generous spirit, World Champions, Tejas Cookers.
La Vere, D. (2004). The texas indians. College Station: Texas A & M University Press.
Bolton, Herbert. “The Spanish Occupation of Texas, 1519-1690.” The Southwester Historical Quarterly. no. 1 (1912): 1-26.