Thursday, February 26, 2009

Movin' On - Taylor Cafe

We all sat in the truck. Wondering, how can that (the visit to Louis’ Mueller’s) be followed up? How can an experience like that one be equaled? Like the perfect song on an album, how do you follow it up? Its difficult, but record companies try, there is no choice. We did too.

A mere 6 blocks away from Mueller’s is the Taylor CafĂ©. The exterior gave no hint that this was the 21st century. Rustic, run down, and almost forgotten as it sits at the foot of the highway’s bypass. It’s a bar (we had been told that the beer was cold here). There were a dozen or so patrons sitting at the bar. Our stomachs were full, but our trek was more than satiating our appetites. We just set out to find BBQ experiences of Texas and this place has to be on the “must visit” list. What makes this place so iconic is their pit boss, Vencil Mares. And on this Friday, of course he was here.

We sat down, ordered up a little brisket, ribs, sausage, and some cold beers. Did find some humor in the fact that they don’t have imports there…”no Corona, no Shiner”, so we settled for Lone Star. The food came, and we all let the food perform the magic that it has for more than a half century. What makes Texas Icon BBQ special is the direct connection you have with the pit master who labored over these morsel hours before I even considered coming here.

In what seemed like a flash, Dave came to let us know that Mr. Mares would be happy to show us around. Like kids on Christmas morning, the 4 of us popped out of our seats scrambling for front row seats to take part in this Icon’s lecture. See he’s not just a pitmaster, but he’s an 85+ year old pitmaster. He’s been tending fires and cooking meat longer than any of us who were there had been alive. These are moments you take out your old fashioned reverence for your elders and come listen this man explain his approach.

The thrill of being granted the audience is quickly tempered with respect and a healthy dose of sorrow as you meet this feeble man. His hands and wrists are arthritic…he holds a twisted hand up for you to shake…you gaze into his steel eyes and genuinely thank him. Authenticity is easy to come by, the authenticity of these BBQ Icons is contagious. Fighting the urge to feel pity for this man, you listen to him, for you can see it in his glimmering eyes, hear it his voice, it is not pity he seeks, but just another opportunity to talk BBQ and share a story or two.

Vencil begins to describe how he prepares brisket. His voice is feeble, he pauses often to collect his thoughts about what he is going to say next. You find yourself straining to hear every word this man utters, he flashes a smile at you and you wonder why? Did he say something funny and I missed it? Is he finding humor in us? Is he just letting happiness out that might seem to impossible from such a feeble body? In the end it doesn’t matter, you smile back and get a knowing glace. “Lets go back and see the pits” he commands. Like soldiers, we rise and follow.

He leads us to the back through a narrow hallway holding on to his walker. “Briskets for tomorrow are in there” as he points to a cooler. Every movement he makes is a struggle. His assistant helps him undo the strap holding the lid tight. He opens the cooler and utters “hot…stay that way till ‘morrow”. A strange force comes over us all as we place our hands on the butcher paper wrapped briskets, and sure enough, they’re hot.

Every motion for this man is a monumental effort. So many years of hard work, work that one would only do for that long if it was a labor of love. And its then it hits me, he’s not just giving us a tour, he’s sharing his life with us. He’s sharing what he knows better than anything in the whole world, what he knows better than almost everyone else in the whole world. He senses his captivated audience; they’re not interested in his secrets, they crave to understand the story behind this icon. He turns to walk us out to the sausage room and you see it again, a wry smile.

We eventually make it back to his office that is closer to a closet. Every receipt he needs is stored in old cigar boxes whose only markings on the outside are the year of the receipts. Then someone sees the military medals on the wall. We ask. He tells of his service days with a gleam in his eyes. For a man of his age to have such vivid memories of experiences gained when he was 17 years old is priceless. He goes on…D-day invasion, but on day 4 or 5, medic, battle of the Bulge, Lieutenant says get the hell of here…”don’t have to tell me twice”, working next to a German medic...the two of them working on any injured man. We start walking back out to the bar, he pauses in the dimness of the hallway, turns, and casts those steel eyes our direction again…”sometimes ‘t was bad…real bad.”

Second place, second surreal experience. This visit left me riddled with tragedy. I was forced to wonder that when Our Father decides to take Mr. Vencil Mares, there is no heir apparent. This legacy is smoldering its last embers. I’m one of the fortunate ones to have had the opportunity to feel its warmth. “Sometimes it’s bad…real bad” haunting words uttered by a True BBQ icon.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Taylor TX - Louis Mueller's

Dave from the group had already been there and insisted it was worth the trip. In retrospect, that was an understatement. Its 1:00pm, parking lot is filled with mostly pick-ups and some large sedans…not a Prius in sight..

Our conversation became more spirited as we unloaded from the truck…we gazed at the sign and snapped some photos. The dust blowing over our shoes transformed our stroll into a reverent gait as we approached the BBQ shrine. The building’s cracked bricks hinted at their age, the hazed windows prohibited premature peeks in, the wooden (as Im writing this, Stevie Ray comes on the iPod…coincidence?) screen door banged as patrons entered (I hadn’t witnessed anyone exiting yet). 5 minutes prior, our conversations were boisterous and spirited…now each of us had become introspective, holding conversations captive in our mind. The opened door let hints of oak smoke escape; a faint blue haze hangs in the dark room. I cruise in, one step, two, and a force anchors me to the floor. It’s one of those moments you instinctively pause, adsorb everything the instant offers, for the only fact is, the sensation will flee, never to be regained. The creaking floor, the relentless assault of the knife on the chopping block, the drone of intertwined conversations, warp time to an era long gone. It’s 2009, but it maybe it was 50 years ago, probably more than that. Men we call grandfathers, in their youth, gathered in such places. You feel them at your side, joining your gaze towards the giant pit in this cathedral of smoke houses. More forefathers joined, one generation back, two generations, three, four…that’s when you get jarred back to 2009 trying to cipher just how many years that might be.

Eyes scan every inch of this hall. I had similar experiences my first visits to the cathedrals of Europe. Edifices that welcomed and sheltered spirits from eras long gone…here too, the spirit of True BBQ dripped off of everything, the smoke darkened walls, the menu scribbled on butcher paper, the self serve ice machine, the wooden chairs and tables. Nothing conjured, nothing marketed or imaged…just a simple feeling of admittance…this iconic edifice had welcomed my friends and me with her arms wide open on this sunny Friday afternoon.

The line to the front counter was 2/3 the way to the door, about 20 people deep. There wasn’t a seat to be had. I kept thinking “where do they come from?” Like in “Field of Dreams”…if you build they will come, cept not out of the cornfield, but from all ends of Texas, the US, North America, Abroad…I wondered if everyone who entered here gets a hug from her like we got?

We’ve only seen the tip of this passion iceberg by now. The pit boss (Lance I think) behind the counter recognizes Dave from a trip he made to Louis’ last year. We request a sampling of sausages, brisket and ribs, a couple sides. Lance tosses us each a piece of brisket to nibble on while we wait. The rest of the counter staff somehow take care of everything else for us…pickles, white bread, butcher paper, Texas sized cups of ice tea. Personally, I sort of just floated though that portion of the visit, mesmerized by how they handled the meat…into the warming oven, out, knife banging, butcher paper flying, a bbq ballet perfectly choreographed. A table vacated for us just in time so we sat and revered in the magnitude of the BBQ before us. The crusty bark, the smoke ring, the sausage glistening. Pictures will never do the food before us justice. We tried. We failed. Sorry Kodak, it was one of those moments that must be experienced, not captured.

A food critic I’m not. Let it suffice to say that the food that crossed my palate from that point not only lived up to the expectations, but exceeded them. I was struck by the simplicity and how the unadulterated nature of the edifice was echoed in each slice of brisket…salt, pepper, smoke, meat. A simple pleasure, no need to complicate this cuisine. Its BBQ, but BBQ the way THESE men and women and generations before them intended for us to eat it, not some corporate mogul, not some pretentious food critic. It was a solitary experience, a connection between me and that pit boss, being chaperoned by an incredible staff.

A commanding yet gentle man stepped to our table “how y’all doing” “I’m Wayne Mueller, and thanks…” Wayne spent the next hour or so giving us a tour of his BBQ operation. From the pit to the butcher blocks, it was evident that these sentinels of BBQ art were thrilled to share their passion with us.

Wayne then shared a little of his story. He did so with an authenticity that left no room for doubt. How he tried to flee Taylor, made himself a nice life in the big city, was happy. Nevertheless he was pulled back, learned his father’s art form. Like in the era of apprentices learning from their fathers to take on and fill their “daddy’s” roll, for the family…for the community. Wayne was doing it. He totally captivated his audience, myself, Kelly, Danielle, Chris. You could feel his passion building…you could feel the emotion thickening, and for a moment there was an uncomfortable uneasiness of what was happening. Wayne’s gaze went far beyond what we could see…reaching, searching for words…something…someone…then we saw the eyes begin to glisten, and the words that followed froze us all…”My Dad pulled me aside and looked at me one day and said, ‘promise me, never let her go’”.

The pause in his story gave us all a moment to breath deep, ponder what was just said, stare at the ceiling and swallow hard to choke that lump down. His moistening eyes welled a little more…the lumps just got bigger, the blurriness of my own line of vision added to the surreal moment even more. “Lost my dad in September”.

These are moments that cannot be scripted. Cannot be feigned. In two minutes we learned the why’s, how’s, what’s, that drive this man. Why he dares to take such an incredible yoke on his shoulders with pride and joy. Everyone shuffled around for a little while, cleared their throats, guffawed, took sips of tea and regained composure.

The conversation wound down. Wayne then paid us and every other competition and backyard BBQ enthusiast a humbling complement…his appreciation for how we throw our pride to the lions, toss hard earned money around, and dedicate time to what some call a hobby…”Y’all are the foot soldiers of BBQ”. Taking it to new audiences, increasing awareness at a grass roots level. Creating the ripples that will build to tidal waves. “Thank you” he finished.
With few words, and a couple glances to each other, the 5 of us knew how fortunate we were, the right place, right time, perfect coincidence of events to capture True BBQ. All the passion, emotion, authenticity, just rolled up in a piece of butcher paper…enjoyed by those who take a moment to find it…the True BBQ. And Wayne Mueller…Thank you!!!

Monday, February 23, 2009

The TRUE BBQ – Passion and Protein

NBBQA was filled with some great presentations from some truly passionate BBQ folks. It’s easy to se why they do what they do. But being in Austin also fosters dreams of trekking to some of the BBQ icons that are just a drive away. On Friday, February 20th, we had a little time to kill in the afternoon so several of us who hadn’t had the fortune of taking the bus tours earlier in the week thought we’d try some of those BBQ places we’d only heard about.

The Players

Dave Raymond – Dave together with his brother created Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ sauce. He’s from Chicagoland, so I already had run into him at various BBQ events in Chicago. He’s a man hungry for understanding any and everything BBQ. He’d been to many of the places before so he graciously volunteered to be a guide of sorts, or at least the guy who knew where to go.

Kelly Wertz – Head Cook of 4 Legs Up BBQ out of Great Bend, Kansas. Better yet, Kelly is the reigning Jack Daniels Champion. He has a restaurant in Great Bend and under his quiet demeanor lies a hunger for providing the simple pleasure of excellent BBQ.

Danielle Dimovski – DivaQ. – Canadian BBQ champion and a person so filled with passion for BBQ. Her spirit is like that of a west Texas mustang. Hang on because she’s going to blaze a path where this is none. The energy she exudes is contagious and she knows BBQ.

Chris Jones – A young man from Midland Texas. He became our official Texas ambassador. A man of few words, yet a pride very deep, and when he spoke, words of wisdom and knowledge flowed. That cowboy pride was the perfect addition to this hungry crowd.

What made this amazing was these 5 folks really didn’t know each other at all prior to coming to Austin. But a little fate, a little luck, and a desire to understand True BBQ brought these 5 together. We piled into Chris’ truck and asked Dave where to…Taylor was the response; a couple buttons into the GPS and off we went.

With Stevie Ray Vaughn playing on the CD, low volume, our conversations were fast and furious. There was an enthusiasm about trekking to these places of lore. We’d heard of them, read about them, seen them on TV, our friends has told us of them, now it was our turn to search of True BBQ.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Getting Started...again

Been awhile since I've actively blogged, but the time has come to start again. For those that don't know me, my name is Joe McManus from Naperville, IL. I have a passion for BBQ, or Bar-b-que, or barbecue, or barbeque...that most often manifests itself in Competition BBQ. Our team name is Joey Mac's Smoke Stax and we've been at it for about 5 years now.

Having just attended the National BBQ Association conference in Austin, TX, I've come back motivated to share some of my BBQ passion with the many folks who are out there thirsting for more info about outdoor cooking.

I'll be updating soon, so come back often to visit. So thanks to all those passionate people in Austin who helped motivate me to start sharing the passion once again.