Greetings from the Meat Mine: a Weekend in Central Texas

Some place names uncannily match the place. Like when the great flatness of Central Texas, land of barbecue and jerky, boasts a Chew Road. I recently traveled across the middle of the state with my in-laws, and plenty of chewing was on the agenda.

When we emerged from the air-conditioned car into the 105-degree heat of Luling, it felt like we had walked into a barbecue smoker. We found breezes unwelcome, since they felt like someone was blowing a hairdryer on us. Such temperatures brought us closer to the slow-cooked goods at City Market, where we waited in line for brisket, ribs, and sausage. The line winding through the dining room eventually led us into City Market’s inner sanctum: a small, enclosed chamber, housing the pit, surrounded by reams of butcher paper and walls yellowed with layers of smoke and grease. The air hung heavy with the musky scent of meat. In this dark, windowless room aflutter with busy cashiers and pit posses, it felt like we were somewhere in a tunnel deep in the earth, mining brisket.

We arrived back at the surface with a heavy lode of spoils.

A black and white photo of an oil derrick hung on the wall above our booth. Oil is not normally something employed to spur one’s appetite. But this is Texas, after all. Back outside, the smell of crude oil met us on the sidewalk, even though no pumpjacks—except for old ones in the schoolyard painted like birds—stood nearby. Just as the scent of a wharf might burrow into the psyches of those who have grown up on a bay, I cannot help but to imagine how ingrained oil has become to rural Texans. I’d have to admit that smelling crude oil in its unrefined state—one could even call it a natural smell—is not nearly as offensive as that of truck exhaust. Crude oil itself betrays little of its ability to encourage investors to behave like rabid gluttons; or its ability to hang entire countries by the nuts. Nonetheless, it is a scent I will always associate with sucking tender meat off rib bones in Luling.

The scent gently trailed off when we arrived in Austin for a little live indie rock before we queued up again the next day, this time at Franklin Barbecue.

Lining up outside Franklin Barbecue, Austin

Waiting in line at 10am for barbecue on Sunday? Shouldn’t at least some of these folks be at church? Oh, I get it. Barbecue is their religion. And so we waited for three hours for a crack at Franklin’s stash, only to manage making off with a little brisket and the last half of a sausage link. Even though it was just a half of a link shared between four of us, it was enough for me to realize that it was one of the best barbecued sausages I’ve had—a lascivious offering of tender meat and soft, integrated fat, with a casing that popped when I bit into it.

Barbecue queuing tip: always be nice to the folks in front of you. Why? We chatted with a few ladies in front of us (what else can you do for hours?), and when it was finally their turn to stand before the owner himself, they learned that he had only one sausage link left. So the ladies decided to split it with us. Likewise, we split the remaining pound of brisket with the guys in back of us. Politically, Austin is a progressive enclave of blue in a conservative red state, but barbecue has the power to unite us all.

But let’s not get all warm and fuzzy. We were in a place where you don’t want to wander off in the fields without wearing bright clothing. In search of beef jerky at Buc-ee’s back in Luling, we had to navigate aisles of hunting outfits, extra-duty hitch joists (to hang your kill from the back of your truck), and jugs of “Ooey gooey concentrated” Pig Out wild beast bait.

At last, we found the jerky counter. I felt that kid-at-candy-store sensation in front of the dozens of selections under glass: sausages, jerky, and meat sticks fashioned from every critter unfortunate enough to set foot or hoof in Texas—cow, pig, turkey, elk, deer. While New Yorkers cherish their wine bars, yogurt bars, juice bars, even hummus bars, Texas counters it all with a jerky bar.

It’s a pity that their sweet ‘n’ sour jerky was the only flavor tender enough to eat without difficulty. Their venison sticks fared better, reminding me of leaner, spicier Slim Jims. Even better, their juicy elk and pork sausage inspired me to consider procuring my own ooey gooey beast bait so I could make my own. Or perhaps mine my own. There is so much meat in Texas that it seems like it may very well come up from a pumpjack or a mine. That’s convenience. Unsettlingly impressive convenience.

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About OmnivorousTraveler

Darrin DuFord is a travel writer, mapgazer, and jungle rodent connoisseur. His writing has won numerous awards and has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, BBC Travel, Gastronomica, Roads & Kingdoms, Narratively, and Perceptive Travel, among other publications. He is the author of Breakfast for Alligators: Quests, Showdowns and Revelations in the Americas (released in July 2016) and Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car, silver medalist in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards.
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