Great Barbecues of Texas: City Market in Luling
By the time Luling was founded in 1874 as a station on the Galveston, Harrison, and San Antonio railroad, it was already one of the wildest towns in the Wild West, frequented by outlaws like Sam Bass and John Wesley Hardin, with a red-light district on the edge of the municipality known as Dogtown.
The town was apparently already a hodgepodge of streets and ill-constructed architecture, and one visitor noted the penchant of local businessmen for misspelling signs, including "Squar Meals at Reasonable Figgers." Apparently, you were never very far from a saloon, either.
A couple of stories circulate as to how Luling was named. One is that it was the name of the wife of J.H. Pierce, the president of the railroad that had just been laid through town. A more colorful story concerns a Chinese railroad worker named Ling Lui, who remained in town to run a Chinese laundry. His long pigtail caused townspeople to make fun of him, and one day he cut it short and changed his name to John Chinamen because people were always asking him if he was a Mexican.
Once oil was struck in 1922 (the event is still commemorated with an oil derrick atop a limestone pillar next to the railroad tracks downtown), the town became known for the stench of sulphur and petroleum chemicals, though agriculture was still one of Luling's economic mainstays--so much so, in fact, that it became known as the Watermelon Capital of Texas, which is still commemorated to this day with a beauty contest to appoint the town's "Thump Queen," referring to the practice of knocking on the melons with your knuckles ("thump 'em") to see if they're ripe or not.
Luling usually has two or three barbecues in operation, but one is older and has persisted longer than all the others: City Market. This grocery turned barbecue still retains its stock of groceries in the front of the premises, with a glassed-in area at the rear containing the closed pits. You can see the pitmaster and his minions scrambling around the smoky rear room. As usual, barbecue is cut, placed on butcher paper, and weighed for vending in the rear, and then brought to the grocery counter in front pay for the meat and also buy your sides (dill pickles, jalapenos, cole slaw, potato salad, and pinto beans that are so plain, they barely contain salt).