Harper, Texas, is a hamlet 100 miles west of Austin, strung out along Highway 290 near the source of the Pedernales River. We sailed into town on a Sunday morning past arid hills covered with mesquite and prickly pear, with bluebonnets and black-eyed Susans blanketing the roadside. Pulling up at the two-year-old Easy Pickens—a weekends-only lunchtime barbecue occupying a rustic limestone building on the dusty main drag—we watched as parishioners trickled out of the white-spired Methodist church next door. Dressed in their Sunday best, men and women chatted as their children cartwheeled around the grassy yard.
Three smoky pits lined up like black coffins on the side facing the church. Tending them with a long fork, a kindly gentleman in a straw Stetson flashed a broad smile and raised the nearest lid, revealing glistening racks of pork ribs, bronzed chickens, a blackened brisket, horseshoe-shaped sausage links, and a pork loin that he brushed from time to time with grease from a pot inside the pit. When I asked if he had goat—we’d eaten some spectacular cabrito, a local specialty, the day before at Cooper’s Bar-B-Q in Mason—he replied, “Not today, son.”
Population 1,000, Harper is not in the part of the Texas Hill Country known for its music festivals, million-dollar estates, and Teutonic tourist traps. Situated in sparsely populated Gillespie County, where ranching is still the principal means of existence, its claim to fame is a monthly exotic-animals auction, where forward-looking ranchers stock their spreads with audad, eland, oryx, gazelle, Sicilian donkeys, zebras, black swans, pot-bellied pigs, and so-called fainting goats. These hapless creatures suffer from a genetic defect that causes them to collapse in fear when a predator approaches. A single goat is attached to a flock of sheep, and when a coyote attacks, the goat gets eaten as the sheep make their getaway.
We chose the Holy Trinity of Texas barbecue: a half-dozen pork ribs, a sausage ring, and a pound or so of brisket. The gentleman deposited our purchases on a plastic school lunchroom tray. Inside, a young woman weighed our meat ($7.99 per pound) and cut it up with an electric knife that buzzed like an angry hornet. She also sold us small cups of coleslaw and mustardy potato salad. Three competing barbecue sauces are provided in heated receptacles nearby. The first is vinegary and thin, like the kind you find at Cooper’s; the second a sweetish orange dressing similar to City Market’s in Luling; the third a tomato-driven, brick red, chile-laced sauce that ranks among the best in the state. Chopped onions, jalapeños, slices of white bread in Ziploc bags, refills of iced tea, and soupy pinto beans are furnished free of charge. Oddly, no dill pickles.
Sitting down at one of the long tables, we examined our haul. The succulent pork ribs were of modest size, delicately rimmed with fat, and smoke-ringed one-quarter of the way into the brown meat. Absolutely delicious! We were relieved they weren’t the underfatted and hammy pink ribs our barbecue posse had encountered at other places. Like the ribs, the beef brisket had been rubbed with crushed black pepper and pickling salt prior to smoking. Though not one of the behemoth specimens currently in favor, the brisket was moist and flavorful, with the fat well integrated into the meat. And the sausage was similarly exceptional—way smoky and on the spicy side. Of the six barbecues tasted this trip, Easy Pickens was the all-around best.
Our only disappointment, as we slid out of town in the direction of Fredericksburg on that glorious Easter Sunday, still licking our lips? No goat—fainting or otherwise.