THERE IS BARBECUE, and then there is meat that has been braised or steamed to the correct temperature for melting collagen, doused with a sugar-based sauce, and placed beneath a sign with a font that seems to suggest people from Texas were involved. When the term "barbecue" is applied to the latter, I am downcast, because these charlatans are winning the war. My own history with the concept is a case in point. Growing up, I thought "barbecue" meant my dim-witted uncle Scott burning some drumsticks over a bucket of lighter fluid and then pouring Bull's Eye over them at the table. I thought barbecue meant grilling. I thought barbecue meant a mushy mound of pork fiber you ate because some dilettante stuck it in his oven for 10 hours while his applauding guests mistook effort for results.
And then I went to Texas.
I don't know if all Texans are like this, but from the moment I stepped onto the sidewalk at the airport and met my host, I was treated to an ingrained and replete graciousness that immediately validated a concept I'd often heard floating around: "Southern hospitality." Here, I was Prince Charles, a valuable and interesting visitor from afar, and assumed to be quite hungry at that.
Soon after settling at our destination for the night, armloads of brown paper bags arrived. Near to bursting, they were folded tightly at top, and the group, without central coordination, lay out the spread for everyone to share. They distributed livid wheels of plump, glistening hot links, creamy potato salad the color of marigold, quarts of scratch-cooked beans, and of course, meat. Juicy brisket with a dark crust I would learn was "bark," meaty, fragrant, pork spare ribs, and tubs of "chop" for spreading on generic white bread. There was sauce somewhere, but nobody used it, which struck my novice eyes as missing out on the best part. I figured I'd try some without the sauce at first, and then make a move for it. I forked a piece of sausage and popped it in my mouth.
Chewing, perhaps having frozen into a posture and lost myself for a telling moment, I looked over at my host.
"Holy shit, Barry!*" I think I said.
He made one of those minimalist smiles that Southern men make, where you can tell that they're proud, and sharing a moment with you, though their lips remain in place and the skin around their eyes does not change shape. It's what they don't say and when they don't say it that matters, in that classic way of hill country patriarchs. Talking is a little bit like sauce to them, I suppose: something idiots use to destroy perfection.
The flavor of the meat was something entirely new and complex, unlike any "barbecue" I'd ever had before. I could taste the color of the old, crusted, deeply seasoned walls the smoke had bounced off of on its way around the pit. I could taste what was good about dirt and metal and wood, without any of what is bad. I could taste camping, in its extracted, purified form. It awoke and comforted the primal brain. This was meat that had been treated in an ancient manner, slowly and expertly, so that as I ate it released complexities in taste, aroma, and texture not unlike an aged and well-structured wine (though you'd never draw such a comparison out loud). I made no mention of our California analogs, of Armadillo Willy's and Famous Dave's and the other "amazing smokeless palaces, where six, eight, even 10 sauces garnish your table, all available for purchase in the lobby."
Here's to recognizing and appreciating that craft, and attempting it here. To laying the roots it takes to make headway in one of these lifetime techniques. Our barbecue culture is young, but like all of our other local foodways, there's no reason it can't be world-class.
*I have changed Brad's name to Barry, to protect him.