"The influence of meat on the brain-stem" might be a paper, submitted by myself, to the Royal College of Physicians -- if I wasn't too fried to write it. There has been a lot of meat going into the Ozersky system in recent weeks. Half a dozen episodes were worthy of Slashfood chronicles, and would have been, had they not been succeeded within days by other, equally meat-tastic adventures. I had meant to tell you about my Steak Symposium In a Strip Club; A Visit By the Baron of Bacon, a tale of pigs and madness; What The Pit-Man Told Me, a romance; and other meat-related narratives. I still might. But now something is around the corner that's so big that I will have to blog it over several days.
I'm going to Texas tomorrow. To eat barbecue in the Hill Country.
I'll flying to Austin in the early morning, part of a crew of four committed carnivores, including a famously meat-centric chef; one of his lieutenients; and the city's top competition barbecuer. Our itinerary is a monument to intrepid gluttony.:
1. City Market
2. Luling BBQ
1. Fuschak's Pit BBQ
1. The Salt Lick
1. Louie Muellers
1. Southside Market
2. Crosstown BBQ
1. Coopers Old Time (below)
Tuesday: 7am flight back
I am a little apprehensive about this trip. As I've written before, I think that barbecue is best enjoyed in an atavistic way; this kind of concentrated feeding is more suited to a strasbourg goose than a regular person who enjoys barbecue. But what man with a love of smoked meats can possibly be unstirred by this roll call of names? "That man is little to be envied whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona," wrote the immortal Samuel Johnson, two hundred years ago. Could the same not be said of these towns, Luling and Llano, Elgin and Austin, whose names represent the pinnacle of barbecue to the entire world? This trip will call forth all my powers, both of composition and digestion -- and I feel shaky on both counts. But I'm going forward, queasily thrilled in that old familiar way, and with the following questions on my mind.
1. Will any of the great texas barbecues live up to their billing?
I've eaten a lot of very barbecue over the years. The stuff that is prepared in competitions by the top teams, in particulary, comes very close to what I think of as barbecue's ceiling. Personally, I think there is still room for barbecue to improve, and I have a few ideas I mean to put in practice some day. But within the traditional confines of Texas barbecue, the best and starkest in the world, how good can this barbecue be? The greatness of the Hill Country lay in their complete reliance on the smoky arts: sauce is an afterthought for these people. To me, that conspicuous mastery of sauce of which Kansas City and Memphis boast show why they are not the barbecue capitals they pretend to be. Anybody can make a tasty sauce, or a spicy rub, just as anyone can make a pulled pork butt that tastes good when chopped into a million pieces and sunk into a vinegar bath. Great barbecue should speak for itself. But what will it say to to me?
2. Will I be overawed by the buildings themselves?
Like all urban Jews, I am filled with wonder and reverence when I step into a red state. I assume that every Texan will be a he-man, ready to floor me with a single ox-stunning blow if I step out of line. Likewise, I am only too ready to assume that a weathered and portly old pitmaster, insisting on the excellence of his product, must be right and my own sense are wrong. Add my lifelong love of old-timey, obscure things, and my judgement might go out the window. If I had just discovered Katz's, and it served me a mediocre pastrami sandwich, would I even be willing to accept it?
3. How good is Texas brisket, really?
The Hill Country gets a pass on its pork, since it's generally understood that beef is the name of the game. But will the beef deliver? R.U.B. has been doing incredible things with its burnt ends, those twice-smoked cubes of deckle which wise barbecuers serve straight up, rather than mixing it with tasteless, bland brisket flat. I need the Hill Country briskets, particularly the legendary ones like Kreuz's and Louis Mueller's, to exceed the very high standard set by RUB.
4. Can oak or pecan be as good as hickory?
Texas barbecue is generally cooked with oak -- either post oak or red oak. (No real barbecuer of consequence would consider cooking with mesquite, which burns too hot and tastes too strong for long slow smoking.) Rarely, as I understand it, do Texans cook with hickory, which to me is the barbecue fuel non pareil. This is where I need to open my mind, and drop my preconceptions and prejudices. Oak can never taste like hickory. But it's possible that it could taste, on its own merits, as good. This is a distinction I need to bear in mind. But the questions still gnaws at me. Can oak be as good as hickory?
5. How much barbecue can a person eat?
Even I, Mr. Cutlets, has when all is said and done a finite capacity for smoked animal fat. By the tenth barbecue in twenty-four hours, and not even halfway through the tour, will we still be able to summon up the gusto necessary to appreciate something great? Even a date with Tera Patrick would be wasted on a spent, effete playboy; I must be worthy of great barbecue, even when barely able to walk.
It occurs to me that many of these questions are about myself, rather than the barbecues I am about to investigate. This might be a sure sign of narcissisism. But it also suggests how much of myself I am putting into this trip, and how badly I want to be worthy of it. You can smoke out whiskey, and you can smoke out women -- but can you smoke out weakness? I guess we'll see.