Peter: 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, and 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,
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.
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.
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).
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.
Greta: 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.