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Holy Smoke

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You have your holiday traditions, and I have mine. For the past two years, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I’ve abandoned my family with the in-laws in Austin and driven 75 minutes east to Lexington, where Snow’s Barbecue serves up what has been acclaimed by consensus as the best brisket in Texas.  Judging from all the Priuses and Land Rovers I’ve seen parked outside the restaurant, I’m not the only one making the trek from Austin. Because Snow’s is open only on Saturdays and only until they sell what they’ve cooked overnight, you have to get there by 9:30 a.m. to be certain you’ll be served. Some people might consider having to download their protein at such an hour an inconvenience, but I think of it as the world’s best brunch.

Snow’s follows the hallowed Central Texas tradition of smoking meats for hours over low, indirect heat from burning oak. The entrepreneurs who perfected this method around the turn of the 20th century were butchers who, in the days before refrigeration, cooked what they couldn’t sell before it spoiled. At first they sold barbecue as a sideline. Many were recent immigrants from Central Europe, which is why their descendant restaurants have names like Kreuz Market and Louie Mueller Barbecue.

Tootsie Tomanetz, the pit boss at Snow’s, springs forth from this tradition so totally and so perfectly that if she didn’t actually exist her name would have had to be invented by J. Frank Dobie. Tomanetz is an alchemist. The way she transforms a tough cut of beef, a few spices, and a pile of wood into transcendently tender flesh seems to violate any number of the laws of the natural world. When Texas Monthly plucked Snow’s and Tomanetz out of obscurity in June 2008, deeming the restaurant the best barbecue purveyor in Texas, the photogenic 73-year-old pit boss became an instant celebrity.

The stories that form the core of Republic of Barbecue were collected before Ms. Tomanetz’s discovery. But almost every other Central Texas barbecue purveyor is included here. The book, which grew out of a graduate American Studies seminar taught at the University of Texas by Elizabeth S.D. Englehardt, isn’t an exhaustive history of the regional barbecue tradition, although it includes lots of inside information that will have to be considered when that tome is written. It’s closer to an ethnography, an anthropological omnium gatherum of information about a particular regional culture.

“We all need to eat,” Englehardt writes. “Shouldn’t food, then, be a window into who we are as humans?” The question animates every page of Republic of Barbecue, which is foremost a collection of oral histories from the men and women who ply the trade, and the men and women who love them for it. The authors’ definition of “Central Texas” is a bit elastic, and one could quibble with a few of the narrators they included—and excluded. Purists will sneer that several Austin restaurateurs interviewed for the project fall short of the artisanal ideal. On the other hand, the interview with Rick Schmidt, owner-operator of Kreuz Market in Lockhart (and therefore one of the purists’ patron saints), points out the omission of his sister, Nina Schmidt Sells, proprietor of nearby Smitty’s Market and, since 1999, Rick Schmidt’s main competitor.

It isn’t overly grand to compare the Schmidts to the protagonists of a Greek tragedy. In 1948 their father, Edgar Schmidt, bought the original Kreuz Market and its cathedral of a brick building, constructed in 1924, from the Kreuz family. When Edgar died, his sons ended up with the business, and his daughter held title to the building. Uh-oh. Rick Schmidt takes it from there in Republic of Barbecue: “Most of the stories that came out about it, they called it a feud between my sister and I, and it wasn’t a feud. She just said, ‘I’m not going to sell it to you; I’m not going to lease it to you more than five years; and that’s it. What else you want to talk about?’” Kreuz Market moved up Highway 183 to a new building, and Nina Schmidt Sells opened Smitty’s in the old location. In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that my heart and my taste buds belong to Kreuz Market. I have never patronized Smitty’s, but it seems unfair that Republic of Barbecue would not include Sells’ side of the story. (If the authors attempted to interview Sells, I missed their mention of it.)

It’s a rare omission in a book that includes interviews with legends from Ben Wash of Ben’s Long Branch Barbecue in Austin to the late, great Bobby Mueller of Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor. Profiles of men like Ronnie Vinikoff, the thoughtful operator of a sustainable forestry business that supplies restaurants in the area with cord upon cord of post oak, and Don Wiley, a Buda barbecue pit entrepreneur, round out the collection and make it truly distinctive.  And just when you think you’ve contemplated all the angles on Texas barbecue, the authors introduce you to people like May and Horace Archie, who run the Church of the Holy Smoke (really!) in Huntsville. The restaurant’s profits help keep the adjacent New Zion Missionary Baptist Church viable. Republic of Barbecue lives up to the tradition it documents and celebrates. Like a great brisket sandwich, it satiates but leaves you hungry for that next bite off in the future. May I step up to the counter and place an order for a second volume? It could be titled, Overnight Smoking Success: The Story of Tootsie Tomanetz.

Todd Moye teaches U.S. history and directs the Oral History Program at the University of North Texas in Denton.