Smoke Signals: Happy birthday to me


Shahin saw the light of Lone Star State barbecue at Sam's. (Jim Shahin for The Washington Post)

I moved to Austin from Michigan after college in the mid-’70s and ate at a lot of barbecue restaurants that left me cold, often finding the meat tough or bland or both. This thing called barbecue, the pride of Texas? I didn’t get it.

Late one night, during a break at the burger joint I worked at, I found myself drawn by the beacon of a cheap neon sign that shone atop a small ramshackle joint that leaned into the crest of a hill. It read: Sam’s Bar-B-Que.

There was something a little intimidating about the place, but I went in. The torn screen door slammed behind me. The walls were slick with grease. The light was harsh, and there were maybe four sad tables.

At the chipped Formica counter, I ordered a three-meat plate and took the food back to work. I pulled the Styrofoam container out of the bag, opened it, took a bite and, upon tasting the meltingly tender, impossibly beefy brisket, looked quizzically at the food. This was barbecue? It was unlike any I had tasted. This meat was rich and smoky and juicy and spicy, and the zingy, velvety tomato-based sauce, ladled sparingly over the meat, rather than cover up the flavor, enhanced it, transported it.

I took another bite, this time of the rib, then the peppery sausage, then back to the brisket. I physically staggered backward and bumped against the ice cream cooler. I stared at the plate. Clearly, I was in the presence of a greater power.

I returned to eating, now ravenously, pausing occasionally to cleanse my palate with potato salad, like a barbecue sorbet.

That was my road-to-Damascus moment. Suddenly, I understood.

Some people grow up with their religion. Others convert. I don’t know if I was deprived in coming to barbecue relatively late in life or not. But I do know this: If high cholesterol be my hell, then I am damned by a love of the demon meat.

I love cooking it, wondering how this brisket or ribs or shoulder will turn out. I love finding places that knock my socks off. I love going on barbecue tours. I love the way barbecue is threaded through the American experience, from Columbus writing about it in his journal to the huge 19th-century political barbecues to the modern-day developments in competitions, technology and social networking. But, mostly, I just love eating it.

Why am I telling you this? Because this month marks the one-year birthday of this column, Smoke Signals.

Since starting it, I have been lucky enough to meet many others who feel as I do. People who are absolutely crazy about the food and culture of barbecue.

Some prefer it sauced. Others unsauced. Some champion pork. Others beef. Nearly all will argue for this region or that. But, in the end, even in this day and age of mechanized ‘cue, there remains a passion for barbecue that runs true and deep.

At this writing, Sam’s is closed. An employee was caught stealing meat from a supermarket and then cooking it at the restaurant. I have tried and tried to find something fitting or noble or just plain sympathetic about the employee’s act. I can’t. Not even the bad economy excuses the behavior.

But whatever hard times may have befallen Sam’s, I will remember it fondly as the place that changed my life. Places like it are, to me, the heart and soul of this country.

As Smoke Signals enters its second year, here is a tip of the hat to all the Sam’s you’ve gone to in your life — and to the one that resides inside you.

I thank readers for reading but especially for commenting, calling and e-mailing. Without your tips, suggestions and opinions, this column could not exist. Barbecue, it has often been said, is more than food — it is a community. I believe that. Your input helps make this column work.

Next week, I intend to examine some barbecue trends and look ahead to what the column might cover in the coming year. I would appreciate your help. Please tell me what you’d like to see the column cover. Local restaurants? National trends? Recipes? (More vegetables, perhaps?) Culture? What?

Tell me what you’d like to see, and I will include it in next week’s post. Until then, make a wish, blow out the candle and enjoy a little birthday cake — lightly smoked, of course.

Follow Smoke Signals on Twitter @jimshahin. Send suggestions, opinions, tips and news to jimshahin@aol.com.

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