Thursday, July 20, 2006

Texas by the turn signal light: Day 2

The battle of Plum Creek barbecue
After what in track and field is called a “false start,” it was wheels-up at 8 a.m. and the clean and shiny Ford Escape – newly betrothed to the credit union – headed south to its first set of stops.
No trip on Interstate-35 (which is all torn up by construction, barriers and other huge pieces of fallen tire, concrete and pavement) would be complete with a quick run into the Czech Stop in West, Texas. It looks like a Shell station from the outside, but there is a constant line of customers almost 24 hours each day.
That’s because thousands of people gobble up thousands upon thousands of delicious kolaches, which are made by loving hands and which settle in appreciative stomachs. All kinds, from fruit filled, to cream cheese, to sausage. Under a buck and worth every penny for every bite.
And during daytime, the bakery is open for strudel, bundt cakes, fresh breads and cookies. Exit 353 on I-35, north of Waco (south of Hillsboro) and you can’t miss it.
Nor should you.
But our main destination was Lockhart, south of Austin and easily the barbecue capital of Texas.
Now there are several outstanding individual barbecue sites that can proudly challenge the Lockhart faithful. In Eglin, just up the road from Lockhart, Southside Market and Barbecue, 1212 U.S. Highway 290 West, produces a special sausage (called “hot guts”) that must be eaten to be believed. They’ve been doing it since 1882 so they’ve got the hang of it.
Up State Highway 95 north of Elgin is the city of Taylor, home of the fighting Ducks and the Graceland of barbecue joints – Louis Mueller’s Barbecue, 206 W. Second.
Not only is the brisket among the best things you’ll ever taste, plus top-notch sides, but it is the facility itself that speaks (not reeks) volumes about Texas barbecue. It’s an old building and years of barbecue smoke clinging to the walls.
But the barbecue capital of Texas is Lockhart, in the final analysis by Texas Monthly, and there are three super dispensers of pure Texas barbecue. The battle always rages about which one is best and so long as man (or woman) eats, the debate will be ongoing.
Black’s Barbecue, 215 N. Main, is located in a more traditional sit-down restaurant setting not unlike Spring Creek or Shady Oaks. The Edgar Black family has been cooking its barbecue since 1932 and advertises itself as the oldest purveyor of barbecue “by the same family.”
That IS important because the other two emporiums have been at odds for the last seven years. Once upon a time, the Schmidt family ran the only other competitor in town, the legendary Kreuz Market. But the sister got into a dispute with the brother over expansion at the original site, she broke away, kicked him out and opened Smitty’s at the original Kreuz locale.
The new Kreuz Market, 619 N. Colorado, is like four times the size of the old joint and you can’t smoke. All you can do in enjoy the very, very best barbecue in Texas.
For you novices, there are certain rules. First, meat is served on butcher paper, not plates. Second, there is NO barbecue sauce; you don’t need it. There is no silverware; you eat with your natural set of forks, alias your hands. No credit cards, only cash. There are sides (they are separate) and desserts, and even souvenirs.
Finally, the menu is this: beef brisket, (by the pound), beef sausage (by the link), pork hot links, pork chops. That’s it. No chicken, no schlock and they have been cooking it in those huge wood-fire pit ovens for more than 100 years.
The other “family” rival is Smitty’s, 208 S. Commerce, and it’s housed at the old Kreuz site, near the Caldwell County Courthouse. The daughter and grandchildren of Edgar “Smitty” Schmidt have kept the tradition and style of this Texana institution. Again, no plates, just butcher paper; no sides and nothing fancy on the menu.
And the building is as old as time itself and seems like the perfect place to spend a few minutes enjoying a perfect cooked and cut piece of barbecue.
Our journey then had a successful interlude in the historic town of Gonzales, where my wife, Jodie, confirmed the existence of a family relative (a doctor on her mother’s side) that was part of the Texas Revolution in 1836. In fact, she found his gravesite in the Gonzales Masonic Cemetery and was happy as a genealogical lark to have documented his final resting place, plus many of the subsequent generations.
Making one’s wife happy is ALWAYS a good thing. And, hell, no chocolate was involved!
But being so close to years of memories made me alter the pathway of the Escape and it went south to see what had become of an old home …
You can’t go home again when it isn’t really there
For nearly 13 years, I lived in a dusty, often-malodorous (because of chicken rendering and processing plants) town in South Texas. Nixon is located 30 miles from everywhere and really close to nothing.
It was, and probably still is, a minimum-wage community; fueled by a manual labor job market and a population which was, at best, 50 percent literate in English or Spanish. And I owned, operated, wrote and delivered the local newspaper.
Each day was basically the same – make sure there was enough money in the post office box in the morning to make a deposit that afternoon to keep the doors open the next day. This tightrope-walking kind of existence lasted for just over 13 years until I got tired of walking. My feet, my head and my heart all hurt.
I left … literally walked away without any method to take the back copies, or office furniture, or memories with me. I didn’t look back because I had to look forward.
And I stayed away until today. And it was a good thing, too, because staying, or returning for periodic visits, would have only broken my heart …more.
Nixon, as I drove around for almost an hour to observe, had not changed much at all and that was sad. It was still a city of less than 2,000 people and it looked like it had no life at all. The local bank still closed at 3 p.m., the old furniture store had closed and became a Dollar General, which in turn moved to the highway, leaving one of many shells in the “central business district” – such that it is. The original bank structure, built around 1910, sat empty, long after Mrs. Billings left her “dry goods” store.
A new post office sat across from the medical clinic and a Mexican restaurant had occupied the old post office – one could only use the imagination SO much. The chamber of commerce was empty, the Western Auto was a thing of the past and the family-owned appliance store was converted into a video shop.
The Lions Club building is now the town library and city hall hasn’t changed one iota. But none of the people I knew were there. Their names seemed to be erased from the city’s visible history.
I couldn’t stop and ask if people I knew were still living. I really wanted to be invisible. My wife put me out of my misery.
“Can we go now?” she asked. “It’s getting hot.”
“Yes,” I answered. “We can go … for good.”
Tomorrow, on to Goliad and then the Riviera of Texas – Corpus Christi.

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