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All We Can Eat
Posted at 07:30 AM ET, 11/22/2011

Smoke Signals: A state (or city) of grace


Snow's BBQ: Something to be thankful for. (Jim Shahin for The Washington Post)
Just as that first perfect bite is perched at your mouth, someone — probably your aunt — says, “And what do you have to be thankful for this year?”

You want to reply, I would be thankful if you didn’t always ask that question.

It’s not that you aren’t thankful. It’s just that you have such a hard time expressing yourself. Besides, what everybody else says will be better than what you say.

The forkful of gravy-drenched turkey and dressing remains suspended in air as you consider. Your mind races. You can almost see the fingers whizzing through the card file in your mind.

Thankful. Thankful. Thankful.

Ah, here’s one: Health! Naaaw, everybody says that.

How ‘bout…family. Jeez, man, can’t you do better than that?

Okay. All right. Don’t panic. Friends! No, no, no. Feels like you’re on the “Family Feud.”

You put the bite of turkey in your mouth, start chewing. Buys time.

As you eat, you ponder: Know what I’m really thankful for? That Saturday morning in central Texas last August, driving the two-lane blacktop ‘round country bends under a pop-art sky on your way to catch a meal at Snow’s BBQ before it runs out of food around noon.

Sometimes bleached beige, sometimes green, the farmland laps to the horizon, which, unobstructed by trees, goes on forever. Mesmerizing, that drive. Not breathtaking, like the Grand Canyon, or jaw-dropping, like the Maine coast. Just clean and simple and so gorgeous.

You swallow the bite and scrunch up your mouth to indicate you are about to answer.

That drive says something about your love of place. Not just that place. The rich farmland surrounding the Mississippi River just outside of town. The flat plateaus and wrinkly mountainous terrain of North Carolina. The surprising city of Kansas City, on the bluffs overlooking the Kansas and Missouri rivers. Every place with the power to speak to your deeper self, the self that will drive to the ends of the Earth in pursuit of the indescribable joy that comes with encountering the sublime.

On that particular morning, you had just come from Louie Mueller Barbeque in Taylor, which is why you’re running so late. Though you pulled up too late for ribs, you don’t care. You get the last of the brisket.

Shoot, you didn’t really care about the ribs anyway. Out here, it’s all about the wood-smoked brisket, an expression of the place as surely as Bordeaux wine tells you something about the French region where the grapes are grown.

It’s cattle country, Texas is. And in its toughness, brisket is the truest expression of the land. Coddled for long hours by woodsmoke, it yields, finally, to a depth of flavor that, without the adornments of sauce or even much of a rub, expresses the miracle that happens when you’re not looking, the transformation in a closed pit of that tough slab of beef to a succulent wonder.

Sitting at a picnic table under that sky, chatting with Tootsie Tomanetz, the white-haired pitmaster whose wrinkled face attests to a hard life, and chewing a bite of her brisket, so luxuriant and rich it’s distracting, you know this is a moment to give thanks for.

“Well?” your aunt says.

You know what you’re going to say. Something about barbecue or the beauty of the land or family or friends or health or maybe seeing your son after a long time away or sitting with your wife on the porch as the twilight fades to night or listening, or something else entirely, that takes you to a place — and by “place” you mean not necessarily an actual physical place — but anyplace that gives you pause. For that, you are grateful.

You pause, dramatically, because you are ready. And the table is listening.

“Yes?” your aunt says.

“What do I have to be thankful for?” you answer, at last. “I dunno. My health, I guess.”

You take another stab at the gravy-drenched turkey and stuffing.

Tofurky, Texas, or Barbecue, Texas? Recently, Tracy Reiman, PETA executive vice president, offered to prepare a full-course vegan Thanksgiving dinner if Turkey, Texas, would change its name to Tofurky for the holiday. The Alexandria-based Pork Barrel BBQ responded by asking the town to change its name for the day to Barbecue, Texas, and offered to provide $1,000 in donations to local charities. Pork Barrel created an online poll for people to vote on their preference. I’m no political pundit, but I smell a landslide.

New restaurant divulges opening date. A PR team for Memphis Barbeque issued a release after last week’s Smoke Signals item about the near-impossibility of getting information about the restaurant. The latest: It is opening on Dec. 1 in Crystal City. It’s run by the father-son team of Memphis natives William George (dad) and Chris George (son). The pitmaster is Redrick Rayborn, formerly a manager at Corky’s Ribs and Barbeque in Memphis. Along with Memphis-style “wet” and “dry” ribs, the menu includes such unconventional items as beef brisket with mixed greens, roasted tomatoes, candied spiced pecans and panko-crusted goat cheese. Now you know.

By  |  07:30 AM ET, 11/22/2011

Categories:  Smoke Signals | Tags:  Jim Shahin

 
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