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!!!