“Texas Monthly” (Emmis Publishing)
Calvin Trillin ruminates about Texas barbecue, and a recent Texas Monthly article purporting to list the top 50 joints. I’ve never been a huge fan of BBQ, Texas, or any style, but I’ve eaten it enough times, and have stopped into many a shack on the highway between Austin and East Texas.
In discussions of Texas barbecue, the equivalent of Matt Damon and George Clooney and Brad Pitt would be establishments like Kreuz Market and Smitty’s Market, in Lockhart; City Market, in Luling; and Louie Mueller Barbecue, in Taylor—places that reflect the barbecue tradition that developed during the nineteenth century out of German and Czech meat markets in the Hill Country of central Texas. (In fact, the title of Texas Monthly’s first article on barbecue—it was published in 1973, shortly after the magazine’s founding—was “The World’s Best Barbecue Is in Taylor, Texas. Or Is It Lockhart?”) Those restaurants, all of which had been in the top tier in 2003, were indeed there again in this summer’s survey. For the first time, though, a No. 1 had been named, and it was not one of the old familiars. “The best barbecue in Texas,” the article said, “is currently being served at Snow’s BBQ, in Lexington.”
I had never heard of Snow’s. That surprised me. Although I grew up in Kansas City, which has a completely different style of barbecue, I have always kept more or less au courant of Texas barbecue, like a sports fan who is almost monomaniacally obsessed with basketball but glances over at the N.H.L. standings now and then just to see how things are going. Reading that the best barbecue in Texas was at Snow’s, in Lexington, I felt like a People subscriber who had picked up the “Sexiest Man Alive” issue and discovered that the sexiest man alive was Sheldon Ludnick, an insurance adjuster from Terre Haute, Indiana, with Clooney as the runner-up.
An accompanying story on how a Numero Uno had emerged, from three hundred and forty-one spots visited by the staff, revealed that before work began on the 2008 survey nobody at Texas Monthly had heard of Snow’s, either. Lexington, a trading town of twelve hundred people in Lee County, is only about fifty miles from Austin, where Texas Monthly is published, and Texans think nothing of driving that far for lunch—particularly if the lunch consists of brisket that has been subjected to slow heat since the early hours of the morning. Texas Monthly has had a strong posse of barbecue enthusiasts since its early days. Griffin Smith, who wrote the 1973 barbecue article and is now the executive editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, in Little Rock, was known for keeping a map of the state on his wall with pushpins marking barbecue joints he had been to, the way General Patton might have kept a map marked with spots where night patrols had probed the German line. I could imagine the staffers not knowing about a superior barbecue restaurant in East Texas; the Southern style of barbecue served there, often on a bun, has never held much interest for Austin connoisseurs. But their being unaware of a top-tier establishment less than an hour’s drive away astonished me.
[From Letter from Central Texas: By Meat Alone: Reporting & Essays: The New Yorker]
Trillin asked Evan Smith how come Snow’s came to be chosen number one.
He did acknowledge that his decision to name a No. 1—rather than just a top tier, as in the previous barbecue surveys—came about partly because everyone was so enthusiastic about Snow’s product but partly because its story was so compelling. Smith himself was not in a position to confirm the quality of the product. Being from Queens is not the only handicap he has had to surmount in his rise through the ranks of Texas journalism: he has been a vegetarian for nearly twenty-five years. (The fact that he is able to resist the temptation presented by the aroma of Texas pit barbecue, he has said, is a strong indication that he will never “return to the dark side.”) As a longtime editor, though, he knew a Cinderella story when he saw one. It wasn’t just that Snow’s had been unknown to a Texas barbecue fancy that is notably mobile. Snow’s proprietor, Kerry Bexley, was a former rodeo clown who worked as a blending-facility operator at a coal mine. Snow’s pit master, Tootsie Tomanetz, was a woman in her early seventies who worked as the custodian of the middle school in Giddings, Texas—the Lee County seat, eighteen miles to the south. After five years of operating Snow’s, both of them still had their day jobs. Also, Snow’s was open only on Saturday mornings, from eight until the meat ran out.
[also the Texas Monthly piece on Snow’s is worth a glance for the photos, provenance and bona fides…]