In a cheap plastic frame, atop one of those big rectangular stereo speakers common to post-college living rooms of the mid-1970s, is a photo as meaningful to my wife and I as any in our wedding book.
The picture is of a tree of a man, whose cowboy-hatted head comes to the top of the door he stands in front of. He’s wearing a white, button-down short-sleeved shirt, untucked, with blue jeans and boots, as cool as a West Texas breeze.
He stands on a sun-bright patch of dirt in front of a shoebox-shaped white-stucco building, its edges and two front windows trimmed in chile-pepper red. The name of the place, seen in all caps on the outside walls, is Stubb’s Bar-B-Que.
The man standing there is Christopher B. “Stubb” Stubblefield, Sr.
From 1968 until 1984, Stubb, as he was universally known, ran his namesake barbecue joint as Lubbock’s answer to a Paris salon. Artists from the area, musicians mostly, routinely gathered there. Joe Ely. Butch Hancock. Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Terry Allen. And many, many others, as Lubbock was the unlikely incubator for an amazing talent pool that includes Buddy Holly and the Crickets, top session and Rolling Stones saxophonist Bobby Keys, Jesse “Guitar” Taylor, blues vocalist Angela Strehli and the “Godfather of West Texas Music,” Tommy X Hancock of the fabled Supernatural Family Band.
I didn’t meet Stubb until he moved to Austin in the 1980s, where he set up shop in a hotel on I-35 and in the back of Antone’s, a blues club. He liked to tell stories about growing up in West Texas, about serving in an all-black artillery unit in the Korean War, about music. And I liked to listen, especially as I devoured his meaty, charred, sauce-drenched ribs.
My first date with the woman who would become my wife was at Antone’s where, after collapsing in chairs sometime in the dance-fatigued wee hours, I fetched a Stubb’s three-meat plate and offered Jessica a rib.
“I don’t eat ribs,” she said.
I didn’t understand. How could she not eat ribs? How could anyone not eat ribs?
“The meat gets stuck in my teeth,” she explained.
This was a joke, right?
“These are different,” I said, extending the sauce-drenched rib. “They’re unbelievably tender. And the flavor…you won’t believe it. It’s worth getting stuck in your teeth. In fact, you’ll want it stuck in your teeth.”
We went back and forth until, finally, she succumbed. After taking her first bite, her eyes grew big with surprise. “That’s not bad,” she allowed.
That night, I bought a lot of Stubb’s barbecue and put it in a duffle bag of Jessica’s to take to my family in Michigan. When I returned to Austin, I packed the duffle bag with a dozen long-stemmed roses, which benefited from the additional scent of leftover barbecue.
That was in June 1985. The following April, we were married, and Stubb catered our wedding. He smoked brisket and sausage and, of course, those sublime ribs. More than the food, though, there was the man himself.
He stood there, regal, in a West Texas sort if way, all tall and straight, presiding over the food with his paradoxically quiet manner and talkative magnanimity. At the end of the ceremony, Stubb handed us a present.
It was the photo of him in front of his Lubbock barbecue joint. On the back, he wrote the following marital advice: “To You and You Man and Woman This Mess You’re Getting Into Better Last Forever. Your Friend Stubb.”
We just returned this past weekend from celebrating our 25th anniversary in Cape May Point, where we spent part of our honeymoon.
May, you probably don’t know (why would you?), is something called National Barbecue Month. I had thought I might make fun of the designation, which is a contrivance of the barbecue industry.
Then I looked at the photo and remembered Stubb, who died in 1995 (and was commemorated with a statue in Lubbock, with him holding a heaping platter of barbecue). I couldn’t help but juxtapose that little place on the dusty West Texas plains to the hoopla of multi-thousand-dollar rigs and wood-fired ovens that the marketing folks call “pits” and the fancy, high-tech accessories and the gigantic multi-billion dollar a year industry that is modern barbecuing. Indeed, Stubb’s name, sold not long before he died, is now slapped on commercial sauces sold across the country, some of which he didn’t create.
But far more than ruing a sense of lost authenticity, I saw in that photo the reminder of the beauty of simplicity. Things change. Not just in barbecue, but in life. For the most part, I suppose, that’s good. Or, at least, inevitable.
But it’s also good to look back from time to time and tip your (metaphoric cowboy) hat to where it all started.
Do you have your own story of barbecue love? Smoke Signals would like to hear it. Leave a comment below. And, as always, contact Smoke Signals with tips, suggestions, news and opinions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow me on Twitter.
Thanks to all who entered the first Smoke Signals Barbecue Sauce Recipe Contest. The winners will be announced in the Smoke Signals column on Wednesday, May 25.