Traveling Barbecue Road
Visiting from Germany, Central Texas barbecue has won me over
By Takis Würger,
4:15PM, Wed. Oct. 3, 2012
I confess: until this summer, I had never seen a brisket. I'm German, you see. Where I am from, cooks throw brisket in a machine called a masticator because they do not know how to cook it to make it tender. All my life, I thought barbecue stood for a sauce that tastes like sweet, artificial smoke. Then, two and a half months ago, I came to Texas.
On the first day, my host-family took me out for dinner to a restaurant where a dangerous looking guy called Art (Art Blondin of Artz Rib House)cooks ribs. To be honest, I was thinking I did not care much for ribs, but what do you do on your first day in a foreign country? Right, you suck it up. And that is exactly what I did. The meat was so tender, that I just sucked it off the bone. The potato salad was also so creamy that you could eat it with a straw. For the entire dinner I remained silent. After gnawing the bones dry, I asked my host-mother: “Was that barbeque?” And she said: “That was just the beginning.”
So, for the last 10 weeks I have been on a journey. The path I traveled was covered with butcher paper and grease, the places I passed were littered with bones. In the end, my road took my straight into meat heaven. I traveled the road of barbecue. This is my report.
I live above Barton Springs in South Austin, so there are two barbecue pits within smelling distance. At Green Mesquite, the brisket tasted like a piece of greasy carpet and at Uncle Billy’s Brew & Cue, I could not concentrate on the meat because water from a fan kept dripping onto my plate. I knew, if I wanted to understand this culture, I had to find an insider to guide me. The Austin Chronicle’s food critic Virginia Wood became my guide. If you like her writing, you should consider stalking her in real life, because she is probably the nicest person I have met in Texas. And she knows meat. She told me: “Go to Lexington, go to Snow's, then you’ll understand.” And so I did.
I arrived on a Friday night. Texas Monthly had rated this place the best barbecue joint in the state four years ago. The pitmasters are 77 years old Tootsie Tomanetz, her son Hershey, and a guy called Snow. I had asked Snow if they would let me spend the night with them preparing the meat, and he said: “Sure.”
The first thing Tootsie Tomanetz told me was that she was proud of her German roots and that maybe her good feeling for barbeque lies in her genes. Now, let me tell you about the German relationship to barbeque: It does not exist. Whatever you might have heard about the Germans or Czechs (or do you spell that Txczech?) bringing barbeque to Texas, it is wrong. We do not do barbeque over there in Europe. We smoke meat, yes, it is almost always pork belly, and we smoke all the moisture and beauty out of it until it becomes what we call Räucherschinken and Italians call Prosciutto. I do not think that Americans have a word for it. You can only chew it if it is sliced thinly. If Germans try to smoke beef, it gets hard like a brick and you could actually kill somebody with it if you threw it.
Well, I left Tootsie Tomanetz in the belief that my ancestors have had something to do with smoking brisket. As a German, you do not have too many things to be proud of from the past, so I thought being proud of a heritage that is a fraud is okay in this case. Tootsie showed me the machine she makes the brisket in. It is a smoker Snow had built. It has 20 thermometers, and it looks as if you could use it to dive down to Earth’s core. However, this night we used it to refine 83 briskets.
The night was long and the mosquitoes were huge. I think I got exposed to West Nile virus at least eleven times. I was impressed that Tootsie’s son Hershey was able to drink an entire box of beer without getting drunk, and one time I almost fell asleep staring into the pit, risking to fall forward and to become a piece of meat myself. But at 8 in the morning when Tootsie started balancing the briskets out of the heat, she plucked off tiny bits of fatty skin and gave them to me. I ate the skin, and I almost screamed. It was a complex taste, salty and peppery, but not aggressive, and it was so nice in my mouth that I did not want to swallow it. It was beef candy.
I had a kilogram of brisket for breakfast that day. I hugged Tootsie good-bye and thought I had had the best barbeque of my life. I was wrong.
When I visited Franklin’s Barbeque in East Austin, I thought I had gotten there early. I lined up at 11:15am. At 12:15pm, I had a sunburn. At 1pm, I got into the door and was ready to kill for a pound of brisket and ribs. I had scheduled an interview with Franklin for 2pm, and at this point, I was sure that I was going to beat him up for letting me wait for so long. I secretly made the plan to just destroy him in this article, no matter how his meat would taste. Then, at 1:15pm, I bought a pound of fatty brisket. I’ve learned a nice little abbreviation during my stay in Texas. You guys use it for all kinds of things even when it does not make any sense. But in this case, it did. OMG!
The brisket was so moist and fatty that it melted in my mouth. I forgot the waiting and my burned nose and became one with the meat. When I finally met Aaron Franklin for the interview, I was so stunned that I did not really manage to ask him any meaningful questions because my mind was still paralyzed by the taste of perfection. I just uttered: “Thank you. I will see you soon.”
After this experience, I had to go to Boston where I ate lobster, but all I could thinks of was Texas and barbeque. I do not become addicted easily; I do not drink a lot, I don’t smoke. But in this case, I think I felt some signs of withdrawal. One night I woke up shaking and thinking of a mountain of smoked meat. When I came back to Texas, I went to Black’s in Lockhart where I had the first beef rib of my life and silently cried tears of joy into my potato salad. I also tried Ruby’s BBQwhere I had an extremely tasty chopped barbecue beef sandwich.
Then Virginia Wood asked me if I wanted to accompany her to the Texas Monthly BBQ Festival. She told me to come hungry. I skipped breakfast that day, but that was not enough. There were supposedly the 21 best pitmasters in the state participating in the event. They all had their specialties and you could eat as much as you wanted. I gave it everything I had, I ate like a maniac: skipped the sides, skipped the sauce, skipped the bread, since a Texas girl in a bar once told me sauce and sides are for people who do not know how to handle the meat. I wanted to handle the meat. But after two hours of hard work, I gave up. (To read Takis' interview with Texas Monthly food editor Pat Sharpe, go here.) I do not know how many different meats I sampled that day, but in the evening, Virginia wrote me an email saying she was in a meat coma. I could not answer because I had turned into a piece of meat myself.
I had to take a couple of days off the meat track. A detour really, which was necessary anyway because my girl friend, Mili, visited me. She is a vegan. Actually, she eats organic meat every three months but mostly eats tofu, tempeh and veggies. However, there was still one more barbecue place on my list: John Mueller’s barbecue trailer on S. First Street. I told Mili that Mueller is supposed to have some wonderful baked squash and persuaded her to go with me. Before I went, I decided to call John to ask him whether he might have time for a little interview.
“Yes”, said a deep angry voice at the other end of the line.
“Hello, Mr Mueller I am a reporter from Germany, I wondered if I could come to your trailer and eat some meat today”, I said.
“Yes”, the voice said.
“I wanted to come at noon”, I said, “Do you think I might ask you a couple of questions about barbeque.”
There was a daunting silence. Then the voice said: “If you try to talk to me at noon, I will probably stab you in the heart.”
I hung up.
I decided it might be safer to let some days pass and go there undercover. When we stood in line (just 10 minutes), a bulky looking man came up to me and said: “Comb your hair next time before you come here.” And he gave Mili and me a can of Lone Star. I think that was John Mueller. I do not wish to meet him any closer than that. I prefer to worship him without ever getting to know him because I do not want to risk getting to know his butcher’s knife. I will worship from a distance.
At this place, on a wood bench, God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost visited me in form of a pound of brisket. It was the Revelations of John, indeed. Eating the brisket felt like biting into the tree of life with a bark made of pepper and salt covering the softest, moistest, most savory piece of cow that ever touched my tongue. It took my breath away. I considered jumping into the pit because I knew in that very moment that never again would I feel this harmony and peace more clearly because I realized: Redemption does exist and it is served on butcher paper for $6.99 for half a pound in Austin, Texas.
Mili watched me closely. She ate some squash. Then she said: “Es riecht gut, darf ich mal probieren?” It smells good, may I try? She picked a chunk of brisket, an end piece, dripping in fat. She ate it. And that is when I knew that John Mueller is a prophet and his pit is his church. Mili ate his meat, a vegan ate his meat. John had made her a convert. I smiled. And I asked her: “So what do you think?” She did not open her mouth, she just kept on chewing.
I am going back to Germany this week. I was told that there is a device called a stove top smoker and I am considering taking one back home with me, although I know I will never be able to imitate the wonders John fulfills with his smoker. Even if I had a a real smoking pit, owning a pen does not make you Picasso.
Texas has changed my life. I realized that barbeque is not about filling ones stomach, but about enjoying ones life. I know now that Austin is weird and wonderful; I saw the Hill Country and I shot a gun; I had the first apple pie of my life and saw the most beautiful sunset. I learned not to mess with Texas.
I was allowed to share the table with you. You let me look into your pits although I came to you as a foreigner and had nothing to give. I was a granted a chance to see how much hard work and passion you all put into a piece of raw brisket to turn it into a smoked piece of happiness. I saw dedication, sacrifice, and glory. Even if customs confiscates the stove top smoker, I will take this spirit home with me. I will never forget. Thank you. I will miss you, Texas barbeque, my love.
[Editor's note: Takis Wuerger is a globe-trotting journalist for the German hard news magazine Der Spiegel. He has been attached to The Austin Chronicle for the past three months through a Burns Fellowship. We now consider him an honorary Texan.]