If you visit again, we will go get real barbecue, as in Lockhart, at Kreuz’s – which won’t be open long, by the way, so come back soon. The place styles itself after purgatory, a place where you get to enjoy your meat only after surviving the hot smoky hell of the pit area, where you get to enter the land of Big Red and Eskimo Pie, after you first endure the blast of the open-wood fire and breathe the black greasy smoke and watch the minions of the Meat Lord saw and hack some poor sinful critter.
It is enough to provoke a spontaneous examination of conscience right there, while you stand in line. They weigh your meat, then present you with your sausage and brisket and pork chop on huge sheets of brown butcher paper with the ends tucked and rolled into a bowl or a canoe or a temporary kind of barrel; they throw on top a loaf of white bread and plastic knives and a package of crackers, your only utensils, and then you pass through the glass doors to the other side, where at a short counter you can add beer or soda, pickles, onions, jalapeños, slabs of cheese, and hot sauce. And that is all you get, because you don’t need any more.
A couple of years ago, the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee wrote in Granta: “America typifies the triumph of the common people in their historical drive for animal protein, and Texas is, in this respect, the capital of America. The Texan family sitting down to a meal of chicken and fried steak [sic] with french fries on the side is making up, atavistically, for European forebears who had to make do with milk and bread.” I guess it takes a foreigner to see Saturday afternoon at Kreuz’s as a triumph, where you sit down with your meat and beer at long tables in the high-ceilinged room, sometimes with people you don’t know, big families, three generations, no tourists and everybody belongs, sort of like a church picnic except that you’re all sitting before heaped piles of meat with a wordless carnivore joy. Kreuz’s is the capital of the capital of America.
But I think that Coetzee, who survived a year in Texas as a vegetarian, got one thing right: meat, as an intrinsic triumph, requires a certain roughness, so that the absence of forks and plates makes you more than charmed, you get justified. This meat is release, a reward for the simple fact of your appetite. So you don’t talk for a while, but eat and watch a girl slap her little brother’s shaved head over and over to get the wet, fleshy smack sound just so. You look at the photos of the slo-pitch softball teams which helped civilize the frontier. You make brisket sandwiches heaped with onion and you play footsie with your new friend who is wearing your t-shirt and you are wearing hers. The cold rush of Pearl beer and, later, Blue Bell ice cream, certifies your arrival. For all this your hands get greasy. Triumph.
Coetzee was right about something else: to write well about meat, you can’t be eating. No writing makes me hungrier for meat than Joseph Mitchell’s 1939 New Yorker piece, “All you can hold for five bucks,” about New York’s old beefsteak tradition. Mitchell’s prose drips and slathers in such a restrained fashion that even his description of a chef cleaning mold off an aged steer shell always makes me hungry enough to renounce my dinner. Beefsteaks were events thrown by political candidates and labor unions, though Mitchell describes how, after suffrage, political parties hungry for women’s votes invited women – by 1939 ruining the tradition, some said, since women demanded “the addition of such things as Manhattan cocktails, fruit cups, and fancy salads to the traditional menu of slices of ripened steaks, double lamb chops, kidneys, and beer by the pitcher.” He attempts to reconstruct the old-school beefsteaks, where men ate steak with their hands, drank beer, sang songs, and wiped their hands on their aprons. Mitchell stands in the kitchen or roams among the diners, evidently not eating the whole time, because his story imparts his own growing meat hunger: “Each waiter had a couple of the cardboard platters on which bread had been arranged. As he went by the table, he held out the platters and the chef dropped a slice of the rare, dripping steak on each piece of bread. Then the waiter hurried off.”
One other thing about barbecue: the best barbecue is, by definition, in a place too far to drive for dinner. I think the best barbecue is from Raul’s, a little place situated at the northern end of the small West Texas town of Fort Davis, seven hours away from Austin. I manage to eat there once a year. Everyone in West Texas seems to cook their own barbecue; some late Saturday afternoon if you drive around Fort Davis or Alpine, a town twenty-five miles south, you will see a smoker fired up on every driveway. It is also true that you will find the best barbecue where everyone barbecues at home – in order to stay open, he has got to be good.
Raul is a jovial, older Mexican man with a bald head and big round eyes. At his place, the pit and the eating area are separated by a thick wall, and Raul stands on the pit side and takes your order through an opening the size of an ice cream truck window. It is so hot on his side of the window that the ice (for ice tea) is on the dining side. When Raul takes your order, his face is often streaming with sweat and his voice slightly cracked so that you wonder what penance he has taken upon himself. If he doesn’t take your order, his wife can do it, though you will have to speak Spanish to her. She will bring out your meal to the little room with three picnic tables crammed against the wall, and on the television there is either a Univision telenovela or a baseball game. Sometimes she will sit and watch TV as if she’s in her own living room, and maybe she is. She also looks reluctant to return to the other side of the window.
On Sundays, families in church clothes crowd into Raul’s. It’s another capital of the capital of America, where Raul’s version of triumph is to serve only one item, which you also eat with your fingers. It is a brisket sandwich, and though it comes in three sizes, it counts for one item. The meat is moist and rich, never salty, and the sandwich a good-size portion of it. It’s never tough, so you bite through it and never drag away half the sandwich’s insides. You can also order hot sauce on your sandwich which Raul will tell you he makes himself and is very hot, and it is, and it is also very good: crushed jalapeños and salt and vinegar. A sandwich arrives on a paper plate with pickle, and you can also buy Lay’s potato chips. At Kreuz’s, your meal resembles carnage in front of you when you’re done, but at Raul’s, you get a halo of thick white paper. On the wall hangs a sign, “Saturday=ribs,” but Raul has trancended ribs.
Michael Erard is glad for the end of Lent, so that everyone can go back to eating whatever they want.
This article is partially funded through a grant from the Austin Writers’ League, in cooperation with the Texas Commission on the Arts.