Daily Archives: February 24, 2016

San Antonio Rodeo

We arrived in San Antonio to find our campground nearly full, and it was not until Dad spotted a poster that we figured out why. The rodeo was in town. In fact, it was being held at the fairgrounds just down the street. We had lucked into a campground within walking distance of the largest indoor rodeo in the country.
The main event didn’t start until 7, so we had some time to kill. I had no idea what team penning was, and it took me a while to figure it out. As far as I can tell, there are a bunch of calves or heifers or some small and agile kind of cow at one end of this big corral, and cowboys on horses begin at the other. All the cows have numbers plastered to their sides, and once the man in charge calls it out, it’s the cowboys’ job to separate out three bovids with that number and herd them into a smaller pen. The team who does it fastest wins. It was quite entertaining to watch, and I was amazed by how young some of the people doing it were. There was a girl who couldn’t have been older than eleven, wearing a sweatshirt that said, “Jesus, take the reins.”DSCF5404

We missed the pig races, and the petting zoo had a line out the door, but the Texan wildlife exhibit was open. A lot of the animals there actually made their main residence in Mexico or even South America, like the ocelot and coati mundi, who we got to watch eat the zookeepers hair. Even cuter than the prairie dogs was the racoon snuggling with an armadillo.

This rodeo didn’t only have bucking broncos, but bmx biking as well. A bike, without a mad mind of it’s own, is much easier to control than a horse, and the level of maneuverability was spectacular. An aerial trickster flew high into the air over a rather scared-looking volunteer, while another performer spun around like a ballerina with a bicycle. DSCF5426

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Walking into the stock show was one of the oddest experiences of my life. I’d seen 4-H shows before, but only bunnies and some goats. Never had I walked into a room filled with hundreds of cows. The variety of breeds and the variations inside that category was nearly as impressive as the sheer quantity of biomass in that building. At a show pen, little kids showed off animals they could barely reach the shoulders of. Everybody watching in the stands seemed very enthusiastic about how their kids placed, but I was more interested in climbing to the top of the bleachers to look out over the rows upon rows of cattle.DSCF5446

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Inside the swine barn I learned how you move a pig. It doesn’t go on a leash or a lead. It is simply guided by a switch. Presumably it has to be trained first, but even so, it was amazing how calm and controlled they were. Almost tripping over a pig was added to the list of odd experiences I was having that day.DSCF5461

By the time we’d found the least disgusting option (a corn dog) in a food court of donut burgers and deep fried oreos, it was time for the actual rodeo to start. We came in during the middle of the prayer, which was a truly odd experience. It was followed by a rendition of the National Anthem which was surpassed in awfulness only by the one from the Donald Trump rally in Eugene.

Bronco busting, both with a protective backboard so you won’t snap your spine and without, is insane. Watching it, I couldn’t help thinking about Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmaron, which was, and still is, one of my favorite movies. I simply don’t understand how we didn’t come to see anyone killed that night.

More hilarious and adorable, was mutton busting. Small children riding sheep. That pretty much says it all. They didn’t have a saddle or anything, and we’re just expected to grab the sheep by the wool, and hold onto it with their legs as it ran panicked across the arena. The finale, where all the kids were put on a sheep and let loose at the same time, was absolute mayhem.

I don’t understand bull riding at all. Unlike bronco busting, which serves to break a horse to make it tame enough to ride, it doesn’t seem to serve any purpose. No reward, then, unless you’re completely insane or an adrenaline junkie, and a very high risk. Bull riding has been called “the eight most dangerous seconds of sports” and I’m inclined to agree with that assessment, and add “the most insane.”

However, it is kind of fun and horrifying to watch. Roping and bull wrestling at least serves some purpose, and know I understand the expression “to take a bull by the horns.”

If you ever stumble into a rodeo like we did, don’t hesitate to go. Kids will love it, although you’ll probably end up waiting in the ridiculously long petting zoo line, and they might be upset if they aren’t signed up for mutton busting. Oh, and look out back of the cattle barn for the cow showers.DSCF5469

Barbecue and the sublime

DSCF5368Peter:  I first learned about barbecue from reading a Calvin Trillin article in the New Yorker.  Trillin is one of the best food writers ever, and having grown up in Kansas City, he extolled the primacy of Arthur Bryant’s, with which I fully agree.  (One of the readers of this blog from KC characterized our search for barbecue on this trip as, So you’re looking for the second best barbecue place in the country?)   Trillin also used to write “American Stories” in the New Yorker, which were frequently about crime.  For me, the best Trillin articles were the ones which combined food and crime, such as one I vaguely remember about a convicted felon who made the best fried chicken.

On this trip, I have been writing about architecture, while Greta blogs about food.  We do overlap in our interests sometimes – I always care about the food, and every once in a while, we see a building that Greta admits is kind of interesting.  But we have never before written a blog post together which combined architecture and food;  we’ve mainly been eating in cheap places with good food, and the architecture has not been noticeable.  And with barbecue, there is a fundamental rule on the inverse relationship between the quality of the barbecue and the establishment:  the grubbier the joint, the better the barbecue.  (A corollary states that the quality of the barbecue is also related to the number of smiling pigs that can found around the place, but that’s another post.)   We have driven past many a barbecue joint, given it the once-over, and decided it just looked too nice.  The architecture is just a sign for the food, with no
significance beyond that.

As an architect, I’d sometimes wondered about this.  Eating good barbecue is a sublime experience, and wouldn’t it be possible to eat barbecue in a place which was also sublime, without necessarily being too fancy (or even bourgeois)?  It seemed unlikely that this ideal existed, and then we got to Lockhart, Texas.  Even in Texas, Lockhart is legendary.  It is home to three or four superb barbecue places, and we had been advised to go there by any number of foodies and food reviews.  The big problem with eating barbecue in Lockhart is deciding where to eat.  (Some people have decided they have to try it all, but on this trip we have learned the dangers of overindulging while trying to stay on the move.)  There’s Kreuz Market, Smitty’s Market, Black’s Barbecue, and Chisholm Trail.  It all sounded great, so we decided to just roll into town and see what happened.

Driving into Lockhart from Austin on Route 130, we passed the Kreuz Market on the outskirts.  It looked like a new building, and even though we knew it was great, we just couldn’t overcome our predilections.  So we drove to the center of town, near the spectacular Caldwell County Courthouse, DSCF5367and while looking around the square, we noticed the smell of barbecue in the air.  Everywhere.  Following our noses, we came to this yard of stacked wood,  DSCF5366

and around the corner was Smitty’s Market.  DSCF5380

It was a little confusing, with the storefront on the left just selling meat and sausages, but then we found the double doors that led in to the barbecue joint.  We stepped from the bright Texas midday sun into a long, dark corridor, with a few locals in the distance.  DSCF5379

At the end of the hall, there was the glow of a wood fire on the floor, DSCF5375

and around the corner was another room, with more fires, and men tending the pits. DSCF5374

The dim light filtered through the smoke that filled the room.  The fires were laid right on the floor, with most of the smoke being drawn into hoods that led to the pits, but some rising to the roof high above.  DSCF5370

Two guys tended the pits and chopped the meat, while a woman took orders and sold the barbecue.  The menu on the wall was confusing – we were there for brisket, and were surprised to see pork ribs in Texas, but what was a cold ring or a hot ring?  We asked the guys in front of us, and they said it was the sausage – you could get it from the pit (hot), or you could get it uncooked to take home (cold).  DSCF5373

As we waited in line, the ambience of the space had its effect upon us.  The room was a sanctuary of barbecue, a dim world of fire and smoke and meat, where people carried on the primal cooking rituals of their ancestors.  It was barbecue as essence, and the elemental qualities of the architecture – space, darkness, fire, smoke, aroma, masonry, steel – induced a feeling of reverence;  the people in line were fairly quiet, and there were a few old guys just sitting along the walls.  It reminded me of a medieval church, where the sensory experience takes you out of the normal world, and allows you to contemplate the sublime.

You order, pay cash, and get your meat wrapped up in butcher paper – no credit cards, plastic trays or styrofoam boxes here.  Then you take your food through the doors into the separate dining room, where you can buy sides and drinks – the purity of the barbecue pit is unsullied by potato salad or sodas.  Passing through those doors was like moving from the sacred to the profane.  The dining room was the day-to-day world, with bright fluorescent lights, an ATM, televisions and crummy metal chairs.  But even though you had been rudely ejected into the harsh light of modern banality, you carried with you a small package that contained the essence of that other, deeper world.

DSCF5371Greta:  They did try to keep the modern world from entirely polluting the bbq, by banning forks. You could get a spoon for coleslaw and potato salad, but nothing was supposed to get between you and the meat.

And oh what meat. Why would anyone get cold rings, when they could order them hot and smoky? Why would anyone want side dishes, when there were ribs to gorge on?  For that matter, why would you devote an inch of stomach space to anything other than the brisket?

That isn’t to say the sausage and and ribs weren’t good. The sausage crumbled in your mouth once the skin was broken, exposing you to all the wonderful flavors within. The ribs rivaled BBQ Exchange’s in terms of rub, and Slap Ya Momma’s in texture.

But this is beef country, and no one has ever made brisket that could compare to this. The fat  gave it an almost buttery flavor  that at first I couldn’t tell whether was from the beef or the bread I was eating it on. It was somehow chewy and soft at once,  which allowed you to savor it longer, like bbq taffy. I’ve learned that describing the taste of beef is nigh on impossible, but it suffices to say that this was fabulous. To cover this wonder with sauce with be worse than gilding a lily, it would be a travesty of the highest order.  Not even Arthur Bryant’s sauce could improve this, and I mean that in a good way.

The small sadness I felt while eating this came from knowing unless I return someday to Texas, I will never have it again. The vegan Eugenian population could never support a truly fabulous bbq restaurant unless they also had bbq tofu, which belongs sorely in the domain of the profane.  Plus, with modern building codes and air quality regulations, another building will never be built with the same potential for greatness. There has never been a better reason to move to Texas than to gorge like a starving wolf at Smitty’s.