Pickles, Onions, and White Bread

They're Always Free (Except at Smitty's)

by Daniel Vaughn · December 22, 2016
Sandwich assembled by Jonathan Shaw at Stanley's Famous Pit Bar-B-Que in Tyler

In the second season of 24 Hour Restaurant Battle,* it was a battle between fajitas and barbecue. A Texas barbecue couple, Michael and Katie Hunt, were in contention for an investment to open their concept if they impressed the judges. When Katie served a plate of smoked sausage to head judge Scott Conant, a Connecticut native, he bristled at the pickles and raw onions on the plate. “She said that this is a traditional garnish,” adding, “I’ve never seen this before.” Floridian Tim Gannon, co-founder of Outback Steakhouse and creator of the Bloomin’ Onion agreed. “There’s nothing worse than a raw onion.”

We Texans disagree. Raw onions, dill pickles, and cheap white bread are as common in Texas barbecue joints as barbecue novices are in Florida. Conant must have never stepped foot into a barbecue joint in Texas before his comment because those onions come standard with barbecue plates in these parts. So do the pickles and white bread. It’s a trio that we love in Texas, and we expect it for free (except at Smitty’s in Lockhart where they’ll weigh your pickles and charge you by the pound. Seriously.). But where did the tradition come from?

Pickles Story 01

The common assumption is that this tradition started when pickles and onions became the de facto side for barbecue in the old meat markets. Barbecue was a side business for butchers, and they weren’t much for whipping up a batch of slaw. With their hot barbecue, customers ate what they could easily buy off of the shelves of the store. That would include raw onions, avocados, tomatoes, jarred pickles, and hot sauce. This 1917 ad from the Magnolia Grocery, which served “hot barbecue daily” in Fort Worth, is a good example of the inventory of a market at that time. If you can read it, you’ll see among the canned vegetables and dried pasta that the only things you could eat off the shelf are oranges, onions, and a variety of pickles.

Magnolia Grocery FW 1917

That certainly explains why those simple yet timeless garnishes would have been popular in those days, but is that really where the tradition started? After a bit of digging, it seems pickles and onions were already quite popular in the non-retail realm of public barbecues. In 1899, the Fort Worth Morning Register described the barbecue at the sheriff’s convention held at the stockyards. “There was an abundance of chickens, mutton, veal, yearlings and ham,” along with “Tomatoes on ice, pickles, bread and butter, coffee, and onions.” It was a similar scene in 1911 as reported by the San Antonio Express: “6000 pounds of meat, 3000 loaves of bread, one barrel and a half of onions, three barrels of pickles, twenty bushels of Saratoga chips, one barrel of radishes.” Saratoga chips are just potato chips, which were on trend in the early twentieth century. Radishes are a unique choice (I might have to try that), but there again are the pickles, onions, and bread.

Even further back was an 1895 article entitled Al Fresco in Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly. Martha McCulloch-Williams was a writer and an early barbecue enthusiast. “[M]an might certainly make something jollier, more full of frolic savor, than a barbecue, but certainly, up to date, man never has done it.” That’s how she began the description of a barbecue held in “Boiling Spring,” which may have been in her native North Carolina or adopted home of Tennessee. Even outside of Texas, there were those onions and pickles. “From end to end there are piles of bread…There are pickles besides and platefuls of fresh cucumbers mixed with sliced onions.” The entire account is worth reading, if only for her description of the outhouse situation at a nineteenth century southern barbecue.

Pickles Story 03

More accounts of public barbecues in Texas note the inclusion of pickles, onions, and bread, like the ones in Plano and Abilene in 1916. There’s also one in 1918 where “the next thing of importance was the best barbecue imaginable, with plenty of sauce, pickles, onions and bread,” as described by the Temple Daily Telegram. I guess what barbecue joint owners nowadays would like to know is why everyone expects them to be free.

“As my father says, ‘It’s not free, it’s included in the price,’” Keith Schmidt of Kreuz Market in Lockhart told me. Still, all those pickles, onions, and white bread cost plenty. And don’t forget the saltines. At Kreuz they offer either bread or crackers, and it costs $900 per week to carb up their customers.

Bread $500
Crackers $400
Pickles $110
Onions $60
Total $1,070

I talked to a number of other barbecue joint owners in Texas to see what free garnishes cost them every week. Joseph’s Riverport Bar-B-Cue spends $300 per week, and here’s the breakdown on a few others:

Fargo’s Pit BBQ in Bryan
Bread $131.03
Pickles $66.74
Onions $15.96
Total $213.73

Stanley’s Famous Pit Bar-B-Que in Tyler
Bread $250
Pickles $200
Onions $60
Jalapenos $60
Total $570

Franklin Barbecue in Austin
Bread $861.96
Pickles $296.76
Onions $88.62
Total $1,247.34

Pickles Story 06

Note from Aaron Franklin

Franklin even sent me a breakdown of how much they spend per hour of operation on these items (above). That’s a lot of bread, and a few 5 gallon buckets of pickles every day. What kind of pickles, I’m not sure. Franklin is mum on his choice saying he’s afraid of pickle shigging, but everyone else I talked to used Best Maid, from Fort Worth. That’s likely the flavor of pickles you know and love, but there have been plenty of joints who are now making their own pickles. Micklethwait Craft Meats in Austin, The Slow Bone in Dallas, and Flores Barbecue in Whitney have some of my favorite.

Pickles Story 02

Artisanal or not, dill pickles are the perfect foil for fatty smoked beef. When I had a discussion with a pitmaster about how many beef ribs I could eat, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever really finished one by myself. I went to Pecan Lodge the next day and got a whole beef rib. Alternating a bite of beef and bite of pickle, it was gone before I knew it, and I still had room for greens. Pickles might be more than a garnish after all. Pickles might just be medicine.

The trio of pickles, onions, and bread can also turn a lonely sausage link into a meal. There’s nothing like a sausage wrap when you’re eating on a budget, and 3/4 of it is free. Pickles and onions also give a chopped beef sandwich some crunch and zing, and they improve any barbecue photo that may otherwise be awash in beige.

Pickles Story 04

All those pickles, onions, and white bread might be free for the customer, but go easy on them if you can. As Texas BBQ Treasure Hunt previously noted, “if you don’t eat them or grab more than you really need, that is money thrown into the trash.” So, if you don’t like white bread or onions, tell your meat cutter not to bother including them. Go easy on the pickles too, unless you’re going to eat them. And if you’ve got a couple beef ribs on your tray, then I’d suggest to load up on those pickles because you’re going to need their magical powers.

* The show ran on the Food Network for only two seasons in 2010 and 2011, so don’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of it.



    Jim Washburn says:

    I’ve always preferred soda crackers to bread. At Kreuz Market in Lockhart they are always fresh from a long stack package like comes in the 1 lb. box. The one in Bryan serves the little packets of two crackers each, which must be much more expensive, and half the time they are stale.

    Mark says:

    Scott Conant famously hates raw onions. He was a frequent judge on the Food Network show Chopped.

    When cooks presented him with dishes containing raw onion he would often have a little tantrum.

    Jim Washburn says:

    Oh, and a couple more things: I love the raw white onion, but I don’t like this new trend of chopping them into little pieces. Just a good thick slice or wedge, please. Also, City Market in Luling used to keep a jar of wonderful whole full-sour pickles on the counter. (Whole pickles cost extra everywhere.) Was really disappointed when they quit carrying them for lack of demand.

      Michael Gibbons says:

      I am sorry to hear those whole pickles at City Market have gone–Have not been in over 20 years–Have to get back before the take the links 😉

    Mark Walters says:

    I’ve never been much of a fan of white bread, but jalapeños, onions and pickles make a less filling side to the protein. But nothing accentuates BBQ better than an ice cold Lonestar.

    J. Carr says:

    Love the pearl onions @ Cury Market!

    J. Carr says:

    That should be City Market

    KFJames says:

    The vinegar from the pickles helped digest the fatty barbeque… and you can make a poor boy out of the leftovers for lunch.

    Joseph says:

    I’ve been eating pickles and onions with BBQ since my grandfather would bring it for lunch on Friday. He would always get a whole dill pickle and we would cut it up. Smolick’s had the best sausage in a heavy casing served with a thin sauce. I always looked forward to staying with my grandparents during the summer school break because my Grandmother would make the potato salad and fresh beans to go with the BBQ. The early 60’s was a good time to live in the little town of Kenedy…

    SG says:

    In Far West TX’s burgeoning bbq biz, Come And Take It serves chili macho as one of the ‘free’ garnishes. It’s a wonderful accompaniment and I hope it catches on elsewhere!

    Jeff says:

    Next year y’all should do a piece on free pinto beans, ex. Cooper’s and Opie’s in central Texas …

    Deb says:

    In my travels I have found that Texas is the only place where pickles and jalapenos are green veggies. Gotta love it!!

    Randy says:

    Just a couple of notes.
    1) Tim Gannon (co-founder of Outback Steakhouse) may have been the creator of the term “Bloomin’ Onion” but the dish itself predates Outback. I don’t know where it originated at but (I’m pretty sure) it was served by Copeland’s (N’awlins area restaurant chain begun by Al Copeland, the founder of Popeyes) as an “Onion Mum” before Outback began (circa late 80’s).

    2) As a non-native Texan I have been impressed with the TX BBQ culture. I revel in it. It’s a national culinary treasure. That said, I’ve often wondered why only (or mostly) white bread is served in TX BBQ joints. I say this with fear-n-trembling but a joint that would offer “catheads” (a term used for biscuits in the rural south) would be a huge upgrade over traditional white bread.
    If you doubt me on this, let a joint offer a loaf of bread next to a platter of catheads and see which one empties out first. Ok, I realize that there are logistical, etc concerns for a joint to do so but BBQ and catheads go so well together.

    Hope you had a Merry Christmas and wish you a happy new year.

    burt says:

    Hey Daniel, you finish it by saying to hold the pickles if I still have beef ribs. “And if you’ve got a couple beef ribs on your tray, then I’d suggest to load up on those pickles because you’re going to need their magical powers.” what do you mean?

    Boyd Harris says:

    I’m currently living in Texas but originally come from Boiling Springs, NC and the 1895 description is pretty spot on. Course in NC, barbecue is strictly pork. Not that I’ll turn down Texas beef. They still serve sweet pickles and raw onion, along with the white bread, in NC also. Most of the time, you can also get some barbecue slaw, which is like regular coleslaw, but mixed in with the barbecue sauce.

    Ken says:

    I too, being from California, love central Texas BBQ and it’s the style I most often do on my smoker. But I have never understood the allure of tasteless white bread with BBQ. Sure, I get the over the decades it was a cheap an easy side to give away. But of all the breads that CANNOT stand up to BBQ, cottony white bread would be at the top. Same goes for those tasteless cottony hamburger buns they use so often at BBQ laces (all over, not just Texas). Now don’t get all up in my face about this…But I was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area (and no, I’m not some liberal!) and most of the bread I ate as a kid was hearty sourdough, rye, and maybe a bagel now and then. Basically, bread that has flavor and could actually hold BBQ meat on it!
    So I have to agree with the comments above (or below)… I’d rather have the crackers (as I did when I was there), and I’d rather be charged for some decent bread, or cornbread, or a biscuit. But I do like the onions and pickles!!

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