I’ve confessed already, I’m a lover of meat. Given my natural preference for the finer things, it’s a crass confession. But there it is.
One of my enduring memories of Texas, the home state of my beloved, is of the great Southern tradition of barbecue. Not the backyard variety of charred sausages, sauce and bad coleslaw that we Aussies know and love. No, this is barbecue you go out for.
Known in the South by its single letter code name, Q, it’s barbecue at the pit. No chains, no illuminated highway signs, and no fancy cookie-cutter buildings. Good Q joints are never franchised; excellent barbecue takes time, one thing a McDonalds drive-thru can’t do. For the most part the pit looks like a dive. If you don’t know what you’re looking at as you drive by, you may well wonder just what goes on inside. But there’s nothing suspect here; all Southern cheer and good ol’ boys slappin’ ya’ll on the shoulder as they amble past.
Enter ‘the pit’ and you’ll come directly to the inner sanctum; semi-outdoors with a grubby floor, fly screens and gigantic barbecue drums lined up along the wall: smoking vats fired by hot coals and filled to the brim with the most enormous slabs—every cut of beef and pork imaginable—and a bunch of whole chickens thrown in ‘fur the little ladies.’ It’s an ancient art form, a religious rite: part grilling, part smoking. The aroma is intoxicating. You take a look in and choose the cut you want. The attendant lifts it out and expertly slices off the desired amount. You pay by the pound.
Once you’re plated up, you carry your tray inside for the fixins: beans, corn, mashed potatoes, potato salad, cheese potatoes, and coleslaw. There are large slices of bread too—white or wheat—to soak up the juice. And a vat full of deep red-brown mesquite barbecue sauce to slather over the lot.
The women who serve indoors all remind you of the old aunt who made the lamingtons for the family get-togethers. They call you darlin’ with the most genuine affection. Once you’re loaded and paid up, you wander through to the tables: large planks with bench seats or those mismatched chairs from granny’s house; wonky pictures on the walls and scratchy country music in the air. The place is all down-home charm.
Q pits are good! Mind you, they’re no place for the faint-hearted. This is meat territory, and a male domain. Full to the brim with old-fashioned prejudices and stereotypical images of rural masculinity. It’s not obnoxious, far from it. It’s just the way it is. Barbecue is like that. Like the backyard barbie here in Oz, this pit-mastery is a man thing. Whether at home or in the local Q joint, there’s not a sign of the women folk ‘til you move indoors for the salads and sides. But that said, there’s something authentic about the Q. It’s real.
I came across a delightful memoir of cooking in the South by Michael Lee West: Consuming Passions: A Food Obsessed Life. It’s one of those smile-as-you-read kind of books. According to West, born and raised in Louisiana, barbecue is the taste of the South: ‘It’s a noun, a verb, an entire religion served in a bun.’ Certainly, these Southerners are meat eaters like I’ve never seen before, and about their meat they can be, as West says, ‘downright evangelical.’
In places like central Texas, the rural heartland of the state and my beloved’s ‘home’, the Q pit fits, smoky tradition and history in every bite. It’s not exactly haute cuisine, but it’s as good to eat as it is to watch. It drags you in, pulls out your seat and makes you feel right at home. You gotta’ love it!