Saturday, March 31, 2012

Texas/Tenn. BBQ

We grew up in Texas but never really had any great BBQ. The distinguishing characteristic of some Texas BBQ is a sweet, possibly tomato-based sauce. So most places selling "BBQ" in Texas slather on this kind of sauce to cover up tough/dry/not tasty meat. Many, many years later we ended up in Nashville for a conference and were lucky enough to eat at a Whitt's BBQ. It was a revelatory experience.

At Whitt's the menu was pared down to such fundamental elements that a Spartan or Ramone could have considered it overly basic. The pork shoulder was pulled out of the rotating smoker drums and handed over with only a cup of slaw and a pack of Sunbeam-brand hamburger buns to accompany it. But with one taste we were converted and continue to evangelize its quality with great fervor. Here was meat. Slow cooked long enough for the flavor and texture to crescendo into something that could stand on its own. The only sauce available, or for that matter conceivably necessary, was a thin, clear vinegar that served only to complement the pork. We shuddered at the flashbacks to the overpowering molasses-based candy sauces of our youth. Never Again, we vowed.

Now we live in Central Texas, also well known for its BBQ. In Austin, it is possible to eat authentic BBQ within the confines of Fake Texas. However, you must be independently wealthy or underemployed enough to weather the iPad/Twilight length lines surrounding Franklin BBQ. Luckily, several suitably excellent BBQ places are a short drive from Austin, although all of them require Joseph Conrad-style descents into Real Texas. We went to City Market in Luling. The BBQ here was also excellent. The ribs had been cooked so long the cartilage was edible; the brisket even more tender. Sauce was tangy, not very sweet, and served on the side.

However good the BBQ was at City Market, it is not the food that haunts us. It was the carnival of mainstream America that we remember most. This being good BBQ, the line snaked around booths and tables, stretching all the way to the door. No matter where one stood, one was bound to be in the way of someone else. Those of us in the line were hungry and grumpy, and those eating did not even seem to be enjoying it. Having long ventured past the point of fullness, additional meat slid robotically down their throats, punctuated by complaints over the booth size and the 2 block walk for parking. Their physiques wordlessly communicated their relationship with food. Like trying to rekindle a failing marriage by booking a weekend at the honeymoon suite, a trip to City Market seemed less about eating great BBQ than about gorging on it and hoping something good would happen. As penance to the food gods for years spent worshiping false, drive-thru idols, it was hoped that consuming cartoonishly large piles of authentic Texas BBQ could remind one of what it was that was actually pleasurable about food in the first place.

The real vignette that will stick with us from this trip happened after we exited the restroom into the short, narrow hallway where people waited to use the restroom. As we reached for the door to leave this hallway, it flung open, careening towards the face of an elderly woman with no other place to wait than its swingpath. We caught the door a few inches away from the woman's nose and informed the man and son on the other side of the woman's presence. We held the door so that she could move out of its way. The man's cryptic reply: "Well we have to get in there somehow". At once we were transported back to the Texas of our youth. The kind of Texas where hitting a woman in the face with a door was acceptable collateral damage if it meant your progeny could wait in line to urinate a mere 5 seconds sooner. The kind of Texas that in a split second will invert its popular doctrine of "personal responsibility" into its insidious, goateed twin of "schadenfreude at the expense of poor folk". Exclusionary "country clubs" and middle-school Football coaches who look in the mirror and see Zeus feel comfortable in this Texas. In short, this was the kind of Texas that Drinks Your Milkshake, Stands Its Ground, and Votes Republican.

Mainstream, "real" America is especially sensitive to perceived elitism towards it on the parts of urban, coastal liberals. To its credit, as a self-described East-coast, overeducated Yuppie, we definitely felt elitist to many of the people eating at City Market that day. Which is why when we finally emerged from the the smoke room victorious, we ate outside and drove the fuck back to Fake Texas.

1 comment:

Roberta said...

Sounds like the bathroom line experience left you scarred. The description of the eatery scene reminds me a bit of the old "trough and brew" skit from SNL. It sounds like it might be a good place to get BBQ to go.