Barbecue tradition at the LBJ Ranch
Johnson family caterer and cook Tillie Hahne shares her memories
For a big party at the LBJ Ranch during the 1960s, the Hahne family served thousands of plates heaped with barbecue and sides. At night. Without full electricity.
When it was all over and the family had returned home, pater familias Kermitt Hahne turned on some music.
"Everybody was so tired," recalls Tillie Ahrens Hahne, his widow, now 91. "But they danced and danced."
From their cafe in Stonewall, the Hahnes catered scores of Johnson family events, from banquets with dignitaries at the Texas White House to Christmas affairs at the nearby Reagan House.
Later, after both of their husbands had died, Tillie Hahne (say it like "Donny") worked for 11 years as a cook in Lady Bird Johnson's household and sometimes traveled with the former first lady.
Saturday, the grand LBJ Ranch barbecue tradition will be revived by Friends of LBJ National Historical Park to salute the centennial of Lady Bird Johnson's birth.
Tillie Hahne, though active and alert, won't be catering. The Salt Lick was drafted for those duties. Yet she hopes to attend.
"I've never missed a one," she says. "That's one place where I get to see everybody."
The relationship between her family and the Johnsons goes back more than 100 years.
Tillie's grandparents immigrated to the United States and settled in Stonewall in 1862. Her mother's ranch bordered that of Sam Johnson, the former president's father. The future president's parents regularly stopped overnight on their way to Austin, then a journey of two days by wagon from Stonewall.
"I heard about the Johnsons all my life, even before I knew them," says Tillie Hahne, who remembers when U.S. 290 was a gravel road. "LBJ was our neighbor. He was our friend. We didn't know what to think when he became president. It took us a while to get used to that. We never thought him as any different."
Her father, Alfred Ahrens, born in 1892, nurtured the culture of German Texan barbecue, and passed along his secrets to his son-in-law, Kermitt. At 5 a.m. on Saturday mornings, the family stoked mesquite coals in a hole that was covered with wire fence. Later, they made primitive pits from rebar and chicken wire.
"When it came to cooking, my dad was a perfectionist," Kermitt and Tillie's son, Gary Hahne, 68, says. "Everything had to be just right."
The Hahnes married in 1942, then bought a service station on RM 1 in 1947 and later added a cafe. Johnson, always campaigning, stopped there often. The Stonewall Cafe moved to downtown Stonewall in 1955 after U.S. 290 was paved.
The Hahnes had catered some weddings and other social events, but the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 altered Stonewall and their business drastically.
"In the days after Kennedy died, workers installed telephone and telegraph lines nonstop," Gary Hahne remembers. "I served coffee to the workers all day and all night."
The Hahnes opened the Stonewall Motel to house the newly arrived Secret Service agents, pilots and the press. Accustomed to more sophisticated amenities, the newcomers grumbled about the town of a few hundred citizens, with its one service station, one cafe and one grocery and dry goods store.
"I will make them learn to love Stonewall," Gary remembers his father saying. Kermitt threw regular parties for the part-timers.
One Christmas, the Secret Service brought their wives down from Washington for a Christmas party of 300.
Eventually, the outsiders began to call Stonewall "home." They even tipped the Hahnes when the Johnsons were headed to the ranch so they could make preparations. "We were never supposed to tell anybody," Tillie Hahne says. "They'd say ‘We're coming home. Save us a room.'"
One of the motel rooms was designed for The Associated Press with a special dark room in the back. Kermitt kept the discarded photographs and later gave them to his son, who plans to display them at his White House Winery near Navasota.
On Sundays, the press regularly ate in the car with their cars facing the highway so they could zip to follow the president's motorcade on the way to church.
A Fort Worth barbecue firm had catered some of the earlier bashes. Yet in 1969, former President Lyndon Baines Johnson took Kermitt aside, and said: "I want to make you the most notable barbecuer in Texas."
LBJ stuck to his side of the deal, giving Texas-themed party after party, until his death in 1973.
Tillie Hahne, who now lives in a Fredericksburg senior village, worked directly for Mrs. Johnson as a cook and housekeeper after her husband died in 1980.
(A half-dozen other cooks worked for the Johnsons at the ranch, at their Austin residences and at the White House over the years.)
The staff adapted their menus from multi-author books like "Potluck on the Pedernales," "Houston Junior League Cookbook" and "Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cookbook."
The staff kept a red binder of recipes they called "The Red Book." Later, when a few of those collected recipes were published, "The Red Book" was credited, to Tillie Hahn's amusement, as if it were an actual cookbook.
"Tillie was known to sometimes serve the Johnsons and their guests with curlers in her hair," says Mrs. Johnson's executive assistant, Shirley James. "It never fazed the president and Mrs. J. when she did!"
It was the mass barbecues that everyone remembers. The Hahnes served chicken, beef, cabrito, deer, wild turkey and domesticated turkey. Instead of brisket, they specialized in steaks measuring 1 3/4 to 2 1/2 inches thick.
"One time we served 13 kinds of meat," Gary Hahne says. "LBJ always wanted something different."
"We served a lot of turkey thighs," Tillie Hahne says. "It was cheaper than beef."
The Hahnes used a mop sauce of vinegar, bacon, spices and onions for basting, but didn't add the vinegary barbecue sauce until the meat was done. That would start off with a big can of tomato juice, which was thickened over heat.
"Dad would mix it up, set it on the barbecue pit and steam it all morning," Gary Hahne says. "The longer it cooked, the better."
During those barbecues, the Hahnes served typical Central Texas sides: potato salad, beans and cole slaw, washed down with spice tea. (Onions were always omitted for Luci Baines Johnson, who is allergic to them.)
"Spiced tea may be served hot or cold," Shirley James says. "It has always been a favorite of Johnson family and friends. Many an LBJ Ranch guest has requested the recipe."
LBJ also liked dilled okra, which somewhere along the way evolved into pickled okra, James remembers. Chile con queso was a staple, but the staff used what many Texans did back then: Rotel tomatoes and Velveeta cheese.
The Hahnes were among the first to plant large-scale peach orchards, and the Johnsons liked the fruit any way they could get it, but especially in cobbler or ice cream.
Once, for a large party, the Hahnes spent a week hand-cranking peach ice cream for a week, then froze it. When they arrived at the ranch, Johnson announced: "I like my ice cream soft." So they warmed it up, which worked. Johnson: "Damn, Bird; this is the first time they got the ice cream right."
Tillie Hahne remembers that Johnson wanted to be able to see the peaches. "Didn't want them mashed," she says. "So I spooned in slices during the last step."
Along the way, Hahnes waited on myriad celebrities, including President Jimmy Carter, Carol Channing, Betty Ford, Helen Hayes, Douglas MacArthur, Mary Martin, Walter Cronkite and Sen. Ted Kennedy.
One of the Rockefellers gave Tillie an $80 tip. She needed a coat, so she went into Austin to buy one. Tillie: "I call it my Rockefeller coat."
Another time, at Lady Bird's Martha's Vineyard retreat, Tillie answered the phone. "It's Jackie Onassis." "Jackie who?" "Jackie Kennedy Onassis." "I just wanted to make sure who I was talking to."
Later in life, when Mrs. Johnson, who "ate like a bird," gave small dinner parties — meaning seating for 40 — she ordered those favorite Southern dishes from her East Texas childhood.
"When she died, I walked in the kitchen," Tillie Hahne says, holding back tears. "I stood at the sink and wondered if they have black-eyed peas, turnip greens and cornbread in heaven."
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Hahne family barbecue tips
¦ Use mesquite. It burns hotter.
¦ Boil the onions before adding to the sauce. Strain to taste.
¦ Don't put the barbecue sauce on the meat until it is done. Instead, use mop sauce while cooking.
¦ Just don't rush it. Give it time.
LBJ RANCH SPICED TEA
Pour 2 cups boiling water over 6 small tea bags.
When cool, add:
1 small can frozen lemonade
1 small can frozen orange juice
1½ cups sugar
8 cups water
1 whole cinnamon stick
Simmer all ingredients for 20 minutes on low heat. If too strong, add water. Can be kept in refrigerator for several days.
— Delma Leal
LBJ RANCH BEANS
1 lb. pinto beans
Salted bacon, cut into chunks
Salt and pepper to taste
3 Tbsp. chili powder
Pick through beans to remove any rocks or flawed beans. Rinse well and put in a large pot; cover with water. When the water comes to a boil, lower heat and add salted bacon, salt and pepper and cover pot. Simmer for 1½ to 2 hours. During last 30 minutes of cooking, add chili powder.
— various LBJ Ranch cooks
LBJ RANCH COLE SLAW
1 small head cabbage, grated
1 carrot, grated
Sweet pickle relish
½ cup Hellmann's mayonnaise
2 Tbsp. vinegar
1 Tbsp. sugar
Dash of salt and pepper
1 teaspoon olive oil
Mix the mayonnaise, vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper with olive oil and pour over the cabbage and carrot. Add a bit of sweet relish. Refrigerate before serving. Sometimes, finely chopped apple and raisins are added.
— various LBJ Ranch cooks
LBJ RANCH POTATO SALAD
10 lb. bag of potatoes
1 Tbsp. salt
1 cup celery, chopped
1 cup dill pickles, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large jar pimentos, chopped
3 Tbsp. mustard
¼ cup sugar
Peel potatoes and cut into chunks. Place in a large pot and cover with water, add salt and bring to a boil. Cook until tender but be careful not to overcook. Immediately drain and cool potatoes. To the cooled potatoes add celery, dill pickles, onions, pimentos, mustard and sugar. Mix with enough Hellmann's mayonnaise to reach desired consistency and taste. Add additional salt, if desired. Garnish with parsley.
— various LBJ Ranch cooks
Lady Bird's legacy
After the death of Lady Bird Johnson in 2007, the American-Statesman launched a campaign to raise money for wildflowers in Central Texas. So far, Lady Bird's Legacy has raised more than $136,000 for seeds that were planted on roadsides, in parks and — by elementary school students as part of guided studies — at schools. Find out more about the Legacy program and donate to keep Johnson's vision alive. Go to statesman.com/wildflowers for more information.
LBJ BBQ update