Local barbecuing is 190 years old

This year marks 190 years of recorded barbecues in Daviess County.

We don’t know who or when the first barbecue fires were lit in the community that calls itself “The Barbecue Capital of the World.”

But they were apparently already common when Elder Reuben Cottrell, a pioneer evangelist, was invited to speak at the Fourth of July barbecue here in 1834.

That was the first time they were mentioned in local histories.

In 1977, two years before the International Bar-B-Q Festival — now BBQ & Barrels — began, I interviewed the chief cooks at 13 parish picnics.

They had a combined 250 years of experience in the pits.

And they were cooking 40 tons of mutton, 8,000 chickens and 3,100 pounds of pork for their parish picnics that year.

The county’s oldest barbecue dynasty that year was founded by Elisha Payne at St. William Parish in Knottsville in the 1870s when he was a teenager.

His great-grandson, Bill Payne, was the chief cook at the parish in 1877.

And Elisha Payne’s great-great-grandchildren were working in the pits.

Joe Bittel was 70 that year and was retiring as the chief cook at SS Joseph and Paul Parish.

He had learned to barbecue mutton and make burgoo as a 15-year-old at Rome in 1922.

He believed in cooking meat from scratch for eight to 10 hours.

Modern cooks, he said, were too lazy to make the dip the old fashioned way.

There was a big debate then between those who cooked the meat on the pits and those who parboiled it and then put it on the pits to add flavor.

David Warren had been head cook at St. Alphonsus Parish for 18 years.

He was a parboiler.

He and his crews boiled the meat for three or four hours before putting it on the pits.

Then they cooked it for 60 to 90 minutes before starting to dip.

Tom Wathen at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish said he learned the trade from his father.

The parboiling kind of ruins it, he said.

His team cooked the meat for 16 hours before serving it.

Herman Mills at St. Mary of the Woods Parish had been introduced to barbecuing by his father-in-law when he got out of the armed services 30 years before.

His dip recipe was at least 50 years old.

Dan Thompson had been cooking for 15 years, since Precious Blood started having picnics.

Stephen “Judge” Higdon at St. Lawrence waited until he was 63 to start cooking.

His father had been a barbecue chef for 35 years.

Al Johnson at St. Pius X had been cooking for eight years.

The secret, he said, was in the dip and in having patience to cook the meat just right.

Frank Schadler Jr. had been cooking at St. Elizabeth Parish for 32 years, starting when he was 15 and helping his father who was the chief cook.

Eddie Smith at St. Peter Parish had been cooking for 15 years.

The family tradition dated back to his grandfather.

Leo Murphy at St. Augustine had been cooking for 15 years.

“My uncle used to cook a long time ago,” he said. “I guess I just inherited it.”

Harold Louis Ebelhar was a third generation cook at St. Martin and had been cooking for 10 years.

The barbecuing was done by teams of 30 men.

But there were no women cooks.

Some worried about the future, saying there seemed to be a lack of interest among younger men.

They still say that today.

But the tradition has been part of the community for nearly two centuries.

Here’s hoping it continues.