Populations, necessities, and tastebuds can reshape culinary mountains over time, but rarely does an entire genre of barbecue become almost entirely lost. This is why finding a semi-forgotten barbecue style listed on a menu in the middle of Bakersfield felt so damn weird. I first encountered deep pit beef, a slow-cooked, shredded affair that originally emerged from actual in-the-ground pit cooking, at PorkChop and Bubba’s BBQ, a popular strip mall restaurant on H Street. With a population of nearly 400,000, this Kern County city, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, seems to punch above its weight when it comes to barbecue. Dozens of area restaurants here — from Tex-Mex spots to all-day buffets — serve some version of smoked meat, including deep pit beef.
Meat markets, fair vendors, and caterers around here have been specializing in deep pit beef for decades, usually in a modulated way more suited to the restaurant world than to the traditions of the genre. The folkloric style exists elsewhere, too: There’s a restaurant-turned-food-truck, Junior’s, in northern Idaho that serves deep pit beef as part of its mostly California-style barbecue menu, which also features tri-tip.
While the traditional version of deep pit beef hides in plain sight on the menus of a few dozen mostly old-school barbecue restaurants across the Central Valley and into the quieter recesses of small-town California, it’s more often represented in a modern, if not diluted, way from its rustic origins. Californians love traveling for barbecue, so much so that the whole state just got a smoked meat writeup in the New York Times, which raises the question: How did an important regional style, once so popular at community celebrations and small-town annual festivals, all but disappear? And what’s helping it hang on here, deep in the rural recesses of America’s most populous state?
Also, what the hell is deep pit beef, anyway?
Barbecue, in its many permutations of fire, smoke, and animal flesh, is more than just a timeless human tradition, key to global population growth and food preservation. It’s also a semi-unwritten guidebook that offers diners a window into all kinds of techniques and family traditions, based simply on when and where they are in the world. For many in the U.S., the prevailing image of restaurant barbecue is probably the Texas stuff, with beef links and ribs and brisket packed together on a tray, though in the Carolinas some people go a lifetime eating only barbecued pork as part of a deep-rooted whole-hog tradition. Sauces change, cooking vessels change, and wood types change, all depending on the region and the ingenuity of the person who’s slow-cooking the meat. Like wine, barbecue carries terroir and personality, those discernible differences that a place and a people make in the final product.
If there is a prevalent and historic regional barbecue style for California, it has to be the oak-smoked tri-tip from Santa Maria, nestled in the state’s rural Central Coast. The lean, triangular muscle cut is little used for barbecue outside California, and even here it’s often served as part of a rich sandwich with sauce and coleslaw, instead of as a standalone meat on a platter like more traditional ribs and brisket. The area’s pinquito beans and enduring Portuguese linguica sausages are a vestige of the state’s pre-frontier days, when European ships dating back to the 1500s (and in some cases even earlier) began to arrive along shorelines, colonizing huge swaths of land and in the process uprooting native populations and foodways. Early explorers, pioneers, and imperialists arrived — along with northward groups coming from Mexico, including proselytizing missionaries — with stores of food and men eager to bend the land, and its native people, to their will.
They, along with the many vaqueros, Latinos, and Californios in this coastal cattle-producing region, built the earliest traditions of Santa Maria-style barbecue, complete with its own bespoke pit style and adherence to red oak as fuel. And while these centuries-old traditions remain today at places like Cold Spring Tavern outside Santa Barbara — and at the Gold Land BBQ pop-up here in Los Angeles — the legacy of deep pit beef is even, well, deeper.
Earth ovens, a kind of catchall term for the global tradition of cooking animals and plants using heated pits in the ground, are among the oldest ways that humans have safely cooked and consumed animals. They take some technical skill to create, including heating rocks or coals and dressing down the animal for cooking, and often require a lifetime to master. They can be found in cultures worldwide — from the imus of Hawaii to the lovos of Fiji to the barbacoa pits of Mexico and the Caribbean, not to mention the green hills of Ireland and the floodplains of China. In his groundbreaking book Black Smoke, Adrian Miller notes several types of early, mostly pit-style Indigenous barbecue setups, calling them “foundational” to what Americans traditionally know as barbecue today.
And while the pits themselves have mostly all disappeared from the California landscape — save for California’s enduring and resourceful barbacoyeros, who keep regional Mexican pit cooking alive in California — the slow-cooked, earthy menu item known as deep pit beef still lives on.
As with Santa Maria-style barbecue, this historic below-ground cooking style leaned into the availability of cattle and land across the sweeping grasslands of Central California, including the coastal hillsides and rich agricultural San Joaquin Valley. (To get a sense of the openness of the land that belonged to the Chumash, Tongva, and Kawaiisu native peoples for thousands of years before European and American settlers showed up, simply head to the Carrizo Plain west of Bakersfield.) It’s no surprise that deep pit beef continues to have a presence in this place where cattle and land are still such an important part of everyday life. Still, you’ve got to know to look for it.
In historic cattle-raising regions like Texas, Argentina, and California, beef has outplayed pork and goat in homes and on restaurant menus over the centuries, though it proved harder to cook in hand-dug pits because of its size. Instead, deep pit beef relied on halved or quartered cows (and sometimes on even smaller primal cuts) seasoned heavily with salt and sometimes fragrant local herbs like sage — similar to the way America’s Indigenous peoples cooked elk, deer, and other animals in pits in the ages before conquest.
For deep pit beef, huge chunks of coastal oak would be burned down to coals and mixed in with heat-radiating stones at the bottom of squared-off pits. The large sides of beef, commonly wrapped in wet burlap to keep them from charring too heavily (and to soak in more smoke flavor), would then be lowered into the smoldering pits. A cover — pure earth, sometimes grasses, and later on an actual lid — was then placed over the pit; the beef inside cooked for hours or even days at a time, depending on the size of the animal. Once cooked, the beef is exhumed, unwrapped, and hand-shredded before being served on a plate with such traditional sides as beans and coleslaw, breads, and tortillas.
No, I didn’t walk around to the back of PorkChop and Bubba’s BBQ in Bakersfield and find a dirt pit filled with fully cooked sides of beef ready to be shredded by hand. Similar to typical carnitas preparation today, this restaurant and others serving deep pit beef work up a modified version of the original, either by slowly cooking heavy slabs of beef in commercial smokers or by using cast-iron ovens (and a bit of liquid smoke) to mimic the effect. The version at PorkChop and Bubba’s is good, but the dishes aren’t literal representations of California’s deep pit beef history.
A clarifying note to make sure the people who have read this far don’t think that I’m an idiot who’s never been to Maryland: California’s deep pit beef is not the same as Baltimore’s regional pit beef. That East Coast version features grilled top round roasts shaved thinly (not shredded), and served in sandwich form with lots of horseradish. It is more akin to western New York State’s beef on weck than California’s deep pit beef, which itself is more closely aligned with pulled pork and barbacoa. As for the nomenclature overlap, you’ll have to consult Adrian Miller’s Black Smoke for a full lesson on the naming variations behind the word “barbecue” in the first place.
Because of the time and effort involved, deep pit beef was considered more of a celebratory style of barbecue than, say, simply grilling meat over an open flame. The size of the slab used meant there was plenty to go around, too. Old newspaper advertisements and event listings from prewar Oakland to Santa Ana to Bakersfield list large-scale rodeos, community days, and plaza fiestas that featured deep pit beef “over open coals” and served “with all the trimmings,” dating back across the decades. The Chowchilla-Madera County Fair, founded in 1946, has had a deep pit beef barbecue every year of its existence, serving a reported two and a half tons of beef to some 6,500 attendees in less than three hours. (This year, as a result of the pandemic, the cook was smaller but did still take place in May.)
That effort and production costs money and takes time, two resources that are in increasingly short supply in rural America as jobs and housing keep shifting toward cities and suburbs. There are simply fewer people willing to carry on the older traditions of deep pit beef, to say nothing of the logistical hurdles of successfully convincing public officials that it’s safe to cook meat in a dirt pit.
The increasing bifurcation of America along land and population lines is nothing new, but there is a particular resonance now as political tensions boil, Western states struggle to supply water to all those who deserve it, and the pandemic leads to a housing crunch across the nation, especially in small towns. I think of this two-sided America often myself, as a former farm kid raised to work in a dairy barn. The first town I ever lived in didn’t have a stoplight, let alone a restaurant, and the way I eat out now — many meals per week, lots of vegetables, sometimes being picky about the kind of wine I want — is in many ways still foreign to my family and the people who lived in the small towns of my childhood. But there is commonality in the cooking of meat over heat, from the backyard Black barbecues of Los Angeles to the county fairs and spring festivals of a century ago. The Indigenous people these lands belong to knew as much, well before the first Europeans arrived.
In that way, I’m heartened to see that there is still a home for deep pit beef in California, even if it’s almost never cooked in its original format anymore. The fact that it still endures on menus across Bakersfield, the Sierra foothill communities, and all across the smaller corners of California is enough for me. It helps me, as I continue to search for ways to connect more closely with the land while still living in the city, to know that some of the state’s oldest foodways are still accessible down a dirt road or up a rocky path.
So where can you find deep pit beef these days? There’s PorkShop and Bubba’s BBQ, of course, plus Champs BBQ and Prime Time BBQ — all in Bakersfield — or Raven’s Deli and Glick’s & Company in the Visalia area. (Glick’s does a pit-style turkey as well). The Willow Ranch in Buttonwillow supposedly makes a mean version imbued with mesquite smoke, though I haven’t had it myself.
Several smaller rural towns and counties continue to offer some version of pit cooks today, including Eagleville in far northeast California and at the century-old rodeo in foggy Fortuna along the Lost Coast, the state’s less-accessible, rocky northern coastline. Closer to home, in Taft, California’s annual “Oildorado” celebration has historically dug pits for beef barbecue, though event planners could not confirm if the 2021 version of the fall festival would continue to offer it. In mountain town getaway of Idyllwild, a little over two hours east of LA, the Rotary Club and American Legion have held deep pit beef barbecues for years, as has Inyo County’s Eastern California Museum in Independence — though whether they will continue to do so moving forward remains to be seen. Further south in Palm Springs, the Los Compadres riding club has held a deep pit barbecue event for years, as shown above. If you don’t want to leave the couch, go find the 2014 episode of the Cooking Channel show Man Fire Food, centered around a deep pit cook at a winery north of Paso Robles.
It’s unlikely that deep pit beef will make a resurgence across California, even as the barbecue scene here continues to grow. Thankfully, greater Los Angeles has plenty of fantastic lamb and goat barbacoa to fill the void, along with top-tier Texas-sized beef ribs, hot links, and tri-tip. Each is worth its own entry into the barbecue lexicon, alongside deep pit beef and all the other regional (and sometimes forgotten) styles of American barbecue. If there’s one good thing to come from the slow disappearance of this once-popular cooking method, it’s this: Deep pit beef requires you, the diner, to go out and find it. To hunt the back roads and scour the menus, or to chase the fair and festival circuit up and down the San Joaquin Valley. That means more time spent in the great outdoors and in small cities and rural communities, instead of queueing up for the hottest pop-up in a backyard (although the meat is always worth the wait). It’s the sort of trip that’s good for you, good for the towns you stop at and spend money in, and good for California barbecue.