A few weeks earlier, our group — Jared Barber and Joel Thorman live in Kansas City, Mo., I just outside D.C. — decided to celebrate getting vaccinated. Like the rest of the world, we’d spent the previous year isolated and in fear amid the coronavirus pandemic. We’d said no to almost everything: to crowds, restaurants and friends.
We chose Austin as our trip’s destination and decided to say yes to some of what we’d missed. To travel, impulsiveness and joy. To another bottle of Lone Star and slice of fatty brisket. To reacquainting ourselves with the glory of sharing a sticky, messy table with strangers.
When we arrived at Snow’s, our last stop, it was clear that our idea of a Texas barbecue road trip wasn’t exactly unique. We parked our comically large rental truck a few blocks up and stepped into line. Joel was customer No. 230, and he held our places while Jared and I set off for a glimpse of Snow’s celebrity pitmaster.
At least around here, Tootsie Tomanetz has been famous for decades. She’s 86, a woman in a male-dominated industry, and Texas Monthly has twice named her barbecue as best in the state — which pretty much means it’s the best worldwide. Last summer, Netflix featured Tootsie on “Chef’s Table: BBQ,” elevating her profile at a time when everyone felt particularly alone and reminding us of the things we once took for granted.
Now here we were, and there she was: shoveling coals into a pit and mopping sauce onto thick cuts of pork shoulder. We pushed deeper into what felt like a dream. People clustered together, free beers opened at daybreak, a cat on a leash. When I introduced myself to Kerry Bexley, the owner of Snow’s, I didn’t offer an elbow bump. I shook his hand. Jared told him about our previous three days. Kerry told us about his past 14 months.
“It’s just a relief,” he said, “to get back into some normal activities.”
A few minutes later, Kerry excused himself to open his restaurant. The aroma of oak smoke and various meats wafted from inside. It was about to be sliced and stacked onto butcher paper and trays. I chatted with other patrons, including a group of five who’d arrived at 1 a.m. and were first in line. Knowing it’d be hours before our turn, I tried to silence my envy as Kerry emerged.
“Y’all about ready to get this started?” he asked, and a few minutes before 8 a.m., he swung open the door.
On March 10, 2020, I sent an invitation to friends for a crawfish boil at my home. The pandemic still felt like a faraway threat, with 1,000 reported cases in the United States. The timing of my email now seems breathtakingly stupid, with 33.5 million Americans having contracted the coronavirus and more than 600,000, including my Aunt Teresa, dying from it. A similarly ignorant follow-up email postponed our gathering until “June(ish),” when all this would surely be behind us.
Instead, spring 2020 became about food and supply shortages, the summer about mask discipline and political polarization, the autumn and winter an endurance test of isolation and grief. Like thousands of people, my friends and I tried to distract ourselves, often by cooking. Jared, our group’s best cook, experimented with homemade pasta and mixology. Joel tried to sneak vegetables into the meals for his two young sons. By the summer, I had turned to barbecue.
I bought myself a big smoker for Father’s Day and watched how-to videos by Aaron Franklin, the Austin-based pitmaster. I ordered glazes, injections and elaborate dry rubs with things like brown sugar and garlic powder, even activated charcoal. My first briskets were unevenly cooked and over-seasoned, but the bark and smoke provided what travel restrictions and common sense prevented: temporary escape, if only in my imagination.
I made notes about which techniques worked and which didn’t, and I tinkered with temperatures and cooking times. Low and slow or fast and hot? Fat cap up or down? Butcher paper or foil? I tried it all, and if the leaner flat was perfect, the fatty point would be chewy. If the point sliced like hot butter, the flat dried out and crumbled under the weight of a knife.
Our family tries to reduce our meat consumption, particularly red meat, and our 4-year-old daughter is mostly pescatarian. But a hobby is a hobby, and I threw myself into it entirely. I froze leftovers and dropped chunks into ramen or made sandwiches. I handed out thick slices to neighbors and wrapped cubes in butcher paper for friends to pick up. I smoked ribs for birthdays, a brisket for July Fourth, even crab legs for Thanksgiving.
The barbecue was fine, occasionally even good. But as winter arrived, it no longer replaced the emptiness I felt. It wasn’t the food itself I missed. It was the shared table that, amid a bubble of chatter and laughter, shuts out all else.
As we waited for Jared to arrive, Joel and I stopped for a snack at CM Smokehouse, a food truck inside a beer garden in south Austin. Its specialty is a Taco Bell-style brisket “crunchwrap,” and though it lacked tradition, it packed an uppercut of flavor: pico de gallo, crema, tortillas made with beef fat.
It was Cinco de Mayo, and we were surrounded by a strange and jarring phenomenon: people. Mostly maskless. This was before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance for vaccinated Americans, and Joel and I walked in with face coverings. We talked about how weird it all felt, then eased our doubts with another Dos Equis.
Jared landed, we picked him up in the Ram, and we continued to eat. We drove 20 minutes south to Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ for breakfast tacos: a tortilla holding a slice of brisket point atop potatoes and a runny egg. We meandered through Hill Country, stopping at a brewery in Johnson City, trying to prepare our stomachs for a big lunch in San Marcos.
We talked about the previous year, and how different life seemed since our last trip together in May 2019 — and since my wife and I lived in Kansas City, where we all met. We moved away in 2012 and have relied on getaways like these as routine maintenance for friendships and the reinvigoration of inside jokes and memories. Particularly amid the isolation of the past year, I have increasingly felt distance growing between these friends and a part of my life I’m trying to hold onto.
Now almost a decade later, each of us with families and jobs and bills, it gets harder each year to justify these excursions. There are many reasons we should discontinue them and move on. But with our lives evolving, that’s precisely why I think these trips — and their restorative power — are so important.
As we drove, my friends ridiculed me for how terrible I was at parking the giant pickup. We sang along with Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. We’d laughed up an appetite by the time we reached Hays County BBQ — though perhaps not so much that we required the four pounds of meat we ordered. The brisket, cooked for roughly 30 hours, smelled of post oak and tasted of black pepper. The brisket flat was slightly dry, so I added a touch of sauce and wrapped it in bread alongside pickles and onion. It was spectacular.
“How is everything?” a voice asked.
Jessie Miranda had been clearing a nearby table and noticed that I’d sauced the brisket. Jessie is Hays County’s pitmaster, and he spends 16 or so hours every day flipping, adjusting and monitoring dozens of briskets with his apprentice Davey Valdez.
Though we complimented his fare, Jessie nonetheless disappeared behind a counter and returned with three slices of the point. I twisted off a chunk with my fingers. Expertly cooked brisket is almost overwhelmingly rich, closer to a big spoon of buttercream than a hunk of steak. The bark is peppery and firm, but the center just dissolves. It’s an act of culinary wizardry, a sensory assault, and I knew immediately this was the best barbecue of my life. Jessie just stood there and smiled.
Beyond full, he motioned for us to follow him for a peek inside the mythology. There are no intricate dry rubs like the ones I bought last summer. Just salt and pepper, Jessie says. As Jessie talks, showing us a topography of burn scars on his hands, Davey reveals a technique I’d never heard before. After 15 or so hours of cooking, they remove the briskets from the pits and refrigerate them. After seven or eight hours, they go back on the grates, unwrapped, for seven more hours. This, Jessie says, is how they prepare and serve upward of 135 briskets a day.
A decade ago, Jessie had no one to teach him these tricks. He was out of a job and offered temporary work at Hays County for minimum wage — just a chance to prove himself. He’d do exactly that, becoming a cook, then pitmaster and general manager. His food helped turn the restaurant, Jessie says, into a $2.5 million-a-year business. He’d bet on himself and won.
Then last year, the restaurant closed for 41 days. When it reopened, Jessie and Davey had no idea how much to cook or if anyone would show up. One hundred thirty-five briskets became 13 to 15 some days, and the place felt on the brink of collapse amid a crisis that shuttered more than 100,000 restaurants. Jessie’s eyes flood when he says that everything he’d built had been shockingly fragile.
He takes a breath, steels himself, and continues. This restaurant, he says, was among the lucky ones. In March, following dueling catastrophes — 11 months of covid-19 and February’s devastating winter freeze that caused widespread power outages — customers had enough. They started filing back, and now Jessie motions toward the dining room.
“They’re tired of being at home,” he says.
The next day, we ventured south to Luling and Lockhart, both known as “capitals” of Texas barbecue. We tried to pace ourselves, merely sampling from the four joints we visited. Jared made a scene because I dared order turkey. We carried to-go cocktails around a courthouse square so ornate it feels less like Central Texas than some village in Eastern Europe.
Sitting near us at Luling City Market was a large family packed into a cramped room. They used sticky, licked fingers to pass plates and offer nibbles to children. Almost no one wore a mask, and by now it no longer felt jarring or like some act of political defiance. Our masks were in our pockets, too, and Texas was an ideal place for a post-vaccine trip — not just because of the food and open spaces, but because it was like being thrown into the post-covid deep end.
“We needed this,” said Joel, who’d go on to joke about becoming a staunch anti-masker. “The first time you didn’t think about the damn pandemic really at all.”
A little later, we directed the Ram north and east. Requiring a break from smoked cow, we stopped at a roadside crawfish boil off Highway 21. We had stuffed chiles in Bastrop and dressed longnecks (beer bottles rolled in salt, margarita-style) in Caldwell. We bought camping chairs for Snow’s, spent the night at a cabin in a cow pasture, patted the head of a chocolate lab named Puddin’.
We’d planned only our lodging, and after a year, I had almost forgotten how exciting — and necessary — spontaneity and variety can feel.
On our final day, Jared’s alarm sounded at 5:30 a.m. and an hour later we were charging through the darkness to Snow’s, eager to place ourselves as far ahead in line as possible. There’s an interesting mythology surrounding Texas barbecue. Not only does every cook have their own techniques and secrets, but seemingly every smokehouse here has a long wait — which intensifies demand, which then adds to the wait.
But the line here wasn’t a burden. It was a party, with new friends joining from around the globe. The couples behind us were from Hungary and the Pacific Northwest; the family in front of us from Colombia. We all talked, mask-free and without social distance, as we inched closer to the patio. I traded stories with the man in front of me, 32-year-old Daniel Serrano, and we used each other’s phones to take group photos. We didn’t bother reaching for hand sanitizer.
Occasionally Kerry would amble down the line to announce that certain offerings were running low, and when they’re gone, they’re gone.
Though his business was booming, I wondered what his past year had been like. A few days after our visit, I called and asked. Kerry told me he’d been nervous throughout 2020 — though not so much because of finances. Snow’s kept shipping barbecue throughout the pandemic. But Kerry was afraid of getting sick, and his star attraction and chef, Tootsie, is an octogenarian with a weakness for handshakes and hugs.
When the restaurant reopened two months after the Netflix episode, 400 customers were in line. A two-hour wait before the pandemic was now five, and the first person on the patio arrived the night before.
Around 10 a.m., Kerry announced that side dishes were sold out. By the time we stepped onto the patio a little before noon, Snow’s was out of chicken and pork ribs. There was plenty of brisket and pork steak and sausage, though, and Jared ordered some of everything. I drew playful jeers for pausing on a ramp to photograph our glistening bounty in the sunlight, and I shrugged and continued toward the open-air dining area.
Jared and Joel reached for sausage first, but I went for the brisket again. Its bark salty and dark, the center was so tender the meat fibers separated into mesh. It was perfectly seasoned, with a deep smoke ring and a slight crunch.
When I looked up, I saw the two couples who had been in line behind us. They were sharing a table, and they all high-fived one another before sitting down. Next to us was the family from Colombia, and Daniel saw me and nodded. I walked over, patted Daniel’s shoulder, and offered my hand. He shook it and asked what I thought.
I told him it was almost indescribably good. But I confessed that I had no idea if it was because of Tootsie’s mastery or because I was just so hungry. We decided it was a little of both, and that we’d finally made it to the end, sitting down to a reward at the end of a terribly long line.