It was, if I remember right, in one of Claud Cockburn’s sparkling autobiographies that I first became acquainted with the notion that, for the traveler, nothing is so satisfying as coming upon a place and finding it to be exactly as one expected.
I’ve driven long highways and backroads to adventure in America, and though more often than not in recent years the town that presents itself so pleasingly on a map turns out to be but a swift blur between Pizza Hut, Applebees, KFC and like monuments to commercial leveling, I still approach each destination with keen anticipation. Ah, the regional architecture, the funky motel and well-considered signage, the enticing thrift shop, the toothsome snack: it is as if the whole scene awaits, the object of my projection, just down the road.
Sometimes it does. I had just entered Lockhart, a little town about 30 miles south of Austin on Route 183, and the scent in the air, all smoke and roasting meat aloft with the freshness of spring, signaled that the Barbecue Capital of Texas would deliver on at least some of its promises. In truth, the aroma was probably just a lucky accident. Although the town, given its capital status by two separate decrees of the state legislature, has three of Texas’ best barbecue restaurants, the source of my first delight on this particular day were movable smokers, hauled into the town square for a Cinqo de Maio festival and gaily tended by expert amateurs in slow-cooking, Anglos and Chicanos whose day-jobs are with the ranches or granaries or small businesses of the town. I wasn’t to discover this until later, though, so I turned into the parking lot of Kreuz Market with an exaggerated sense of certainty.
Kreuz is the oldest and youngest barbecue spot in Lockhart, oldest as a business, youngest as an establishment of brick and tin, a dissonance that quickly presents the diner with deep questions about the linkages of place, pleasure and the pit master’s art. Kreuz is owned by Rick Schmidt, who inherited it from his daddy, Edgar (Smitty) Schmidt, who’d bought it from the family Kreuz, who’d opened a meat market in 1900 and started stuffing sausages and smoking meat as a kind of afterthought, a way of using up scraps and preventing spoilage. When Smitty died, in 1989, he somewhat perversely left the business to his son but the building that housed it to his daughter, Nina. No one would say exactly what fueled the feud between brother and sister, but in 1999, having been denied the opportunity to buy the old place or take a long-term lease at favorable rates, Rick carted away fire from the old pits on South Commerce Street and paraded it up a few blocks to his new place on Route 183.
Kreuz Market today is a theater of controlled fire, a vast warehouse-like space whose focal point is the eight great pits forming a kind of low proscenium within which the drama of slow-cooking occurs. Workers in white outfits with the red Kreuz logo move about deliberately on their stage, adding fresh logs of post oak to the open fires, lifting the lids of the pits, these cabled to long iron weights which ease the job and, with the pits’ brick chimneys, create a stunning industrial backdrop to the action of transferring sausage links from hotter to cooler places in the pits, removing beef shoulder clods or brisket, pork chops or ribs to the cutting block for preparation for waiting customers.
Viewed from one of the tables in the dark cavernous space that I’ll call the smoke room (as opposed to the bright air-conditioned, more cafeteria-style room, where most people ate, or to the screened picnic-table areas running the length of the building on either side), the workers appeared engaged in a cook’s pavane-all movement, pause, movement and silence. Rick Schmidt said he designed this place in his head between 1 AM and 5 AM over months of thinking about what it was he needed. He was thinking about the food but also the future. In fifty years, when the brick and iron will all have a patina of smoke, when everyone might move about less weighted down by retrieved souvenirs from daddy’s place and the burden of comparison, this place will be a marvel.
The sausage already is. Mostly beef, with 15 percent pork to give it that essential flavoring fat, and salt, pepper and maybe a secret spice or two, the links are a deep mahogany color, firmly packed, dry in a way that seems good for you as you polish off bite after bite. Being a daughter of the kielbasa (which I have found only in my natal home of Buffalo to have the proper balance of garlic to the all-important majeranek, or marjoram), I didn’t think much of Kreuz sausage at first. Too subtle, too staid, but why did I keep turning away from the brisket and pork rib to have another taste? Why were people lining up to buy boxes of 25 for $30? This is deep meat, its intensity strengthening in the eating, hooking you like an unexpected love.
I ate the succulent, meaty rib, packed up what was left of the disappointing brisket and drove to the town square, where little girls in long, bright skirts were twirling about in what was called typical Chiapas style to what sounded an awful lot like the “Mexican Hat Dance”. Later they would crown the king and queen of Cinqo de Maio, tykes of 4 and 5 years whose ascension to the throne was based on their facility (or their parents’) at raising money for the Chamber of Commerce. The little queen hauled in an astonishing $5,000-plus; her king only a little over $1,000, though the announcement of the king’s name, it was said, was “the moment we’ve all been waiting for”. This crudity of commerce aside, there was a sweet ease to the whole affair, the people of Lockhart dishing out their watermelon and home-made barbecue or tortillas or funnel cakes against the backdrop of a recently restored Victorian courthouse and the bracketing streets of local businesses, none more than three stories high, none with a name a stranger could recognize, all weather-beaten but bushy-tailed and retaining their Old West architectural accents.
Smitty’s Market is one of them, and from the moment I approached I felt the force of what Rick Schmidt had lost. People on the square told me the business was the really valuable inheritance, the building being just real estate. Somehow they didn’t think too much about real estate’s fundamental magic for transforming symbolism into bankable substance. Nina Schmidt Sells, who drove her brother out and jumped into the barbecue business with her husband and son, knew a thing or two more. Smitty’s Market is one of those places a movie set scout would imagine and then find here exactly to specification. From inside near the pits the long narrow hallway was lighted by scattered sunbeams coming through the double screen doors. Natural chiaroscuro , it illumined the rough benches along the walls where knives once hung by chains for communal use.
Neither Smitty’s nor Kreuz provides forks; their predecessors never did, and if food was good enough to eat with your hands a hundred years ago it’s good enough today. In place of the communal knives, which the board of health yanked as insufficiently sanitary, the servers give diners a plastic knife. At both Kreuz and Smitty’s they lay out the meat on red/brown butcher paper announcing, “Here is your plate; here is your silverware.” But the communal feeling remains strong at Smitty’s, because it just seems natural to eat in the bright tin-roofed 1970s-era cafeteria room, and just seems natural to sit down near other diners and mix it up.
The two fellows I sat with had driven 200 miles from Corpus Christi just to eat at this place. One a longshoreman, the other a government worker of few words, both black Texans with a nice nonchalance about small towns and long distances, they had played golf earlier in the day and thought, “Man, some barbecue would sit right right now.” There are closer places, but they like Smitty’s. They were eating their meat with sauce.
There are purists (the Kreuz establishment among them) who regard sauce as an abomination. Barbecue is about two things and two things only, Rick Schmidt had told me: meat and smoke. Lockhart’s barbecue, he said, owes everything to the post oak savannah that surrounds the town and supplies the wood that gives the meat here its distinctive flavor. With the right seasoning, the right pits, the right indirect fire and the right meat, no self-respecting barbecuer would want to cover up his handiwork with sauce. Sauce, therefore, is the trimmer’s companion; and they don’t push it at Smitty’s either, though you can ask for it from behind the dining room counter. I tried it, a too-thick, too-tomatoey condiment that oppressed the meat. And the meat was swell: the beef shoulder, leaner than brisket as a cut, but here more tender than Kreuz’s brisket, more flavorful, richer in every way, as if fire and time and pits with a hundred years of barbecuing in their bricks, had made up for what fat couldn’t supply. The sausage wasn’t as good, though. Lighter in color, greasier, less dense and in tougher casings than Kreuz’s, it was satisfying but not sublime, more like what you’d have in the backyard and be happy for but not bother about remembering.
The place is the thing, the bonhomie of the Smitty’s staff, the way they hang around at the end of the day eating and drinking beers by the pits, the pleasure of the big dining room with the long tables and chance conversation. Who would think fluorescent lights could be so welcoming? Especially side-by-side the romantic shadowy hall and the blackened pit area, both of which are also open for dining. People who don’t work at Smitty’s but hang around the pits talking with their pals can tell you the history of the place, point out the rail running from the back door to the butcher shop up front where they used to hoist the sides of beef, and which still operates as a meat market, proud of its age in porcelain and time-glossed wood. John Fullilove, Nina’s son who runs Smitty’s, is sweaty from the heat but he and the other pit masters will pause for a chat with people, ask about the meat, take mental notes, proving that when it comes to barbecue the experience matters as much as the product.
For plain beef-and beef is the ultimate in Texas barbecue-neither Kreuz nor Smitty’s could match Black’s BBQ, on North Main Street off the square. Forget the sausage, which is legendary because LBJ flew hundreds of pounds of it to Washington for a barbecue on the Smithsonian grounds back in the 60s. At Black’s on this particular day all I could taste in it was smoke. The brisket, though, was extraordinary, a perfect conspiracy of fire and fat, seasoning and time, a fine cow and a fine cook. Black’s, which has been in business since 1932, bills itself as the oldest barbecue in Texas continually owned by the same family. As ad copy goes it’s a bit of a mouthful, and would be irrelevant if the meat weren’t exceptional. But the family is interesting. Edgar Black, who took over the business from his daddy in 1949, promptly desegregated it, and went on to petition in his church for an integrated Lockhart school, pool and Little League, all of which he helped to achieve. For this reason alone Black’s may have been the quintessential-politician LBJ’s choice to bring barbecue to the Washington political set, and it’s reason enough from a state where more than these three barbecuers vie to be called the best.
They have sauce at Black’s too if you want it on the side, and it is not a mistake. Made by Edgar’s wife, Mary, it’s thin and vinegary, though not too much of either, with highlights of citrus, red pepper and cumin. The meat didn’t need it, but didn’t suffer from the merest hint of it either. Black’s is all about choices. You can have your meat on paper without a fork, or you can have a plate and fork and sides. Kreuz and Smitty’s give the impression that they’ve given in to sides-beans or German potato salad or sauerkraut or cole slaw, which you have to eat with a spoon-but would prefer that if you want anything to accompany the meat besides squishy white bread or crackers you ought to be happy with such traditional fare as a chunk of cheddar cheese, an avocado or tomato, a thick onion slice or a variety of pickles. I certainly was, sampling only the pickles (a girl on a meat-eating road trip has to pace herself). But customers were lining up for full plates at Black’s, and though I found the dining room of individual booths removed from the pits and the smoke the least desirable of the three, it’s good, I thought, that there’s enough variation to keep all of the town’s barbecue buzzing.
With a population of only 11,000, Lockhart alone could never support its restaurants. Someone has to drive those 200 miles, or in my case 90, just for lunch. Every year more than 250,000 people make the trip, letting Lockhart be Lockhart.
JOANN WYPIJEWSKI, a regular CounterPunch contributor, can be reached at email@example.com