Ode to . . .

June 2008By Comments

Ode To Brisket

When you’re a food writer, people are always asking about the best meal you’ve ever eaten. I know they’re expecting tales of an unforgettable lunch at Michel Bras or a poetic kaiseki meal in Kyoto or a beluga extravaganza on the banks of the Volga, but what always pops into my head is brisket. Specifically, the brisket I had in 1996 at City Market, in Luling. I had eaten plenty of barbecue before that day and was expecting the usual—something tasty but not transcendent—when all of a sudden my mouth was filled with a perfectly balanced bite of meat, fat, smoke, and fire. The elements almost evaporated before I had a chance to chew. I took another bite and another, chasing the taste—there was something magical in the tenderness of this beef. I kept going back for just a little more and a little more until my hair smelled of burning oak and the taste of that brisket was imprinted on my brain.

I have yet to encounter another brisket like the one I had that day. Still, I keep trying. In the meantime I hold the memory close, and anytime I want to, I can close my eyes, conjure that taste, and take myself right back to Luling.

— Ruth Reichl, the editor in chief of Gourmet, secretly enjoys a little white bread with her brisket.

Ode To Sausage

President George W. Bush will leave Washington, D.C., the city where I, a boy from Houston, now reside, every bit as divided as it was when he first hit town. This is too bad, but a far bigger disappointment is that he has not spent a farthing of his political capital attempting to bring Texas smoked sausage to the Beltway.

Because could we not have united already around the link? Seriously. Here we have a foodstuff that resembles America’s cherished diversity (it’s a meaty melting pot of pork and beef and, if you choose, jalapeño and cheese), a delicacy whose form we instantly recognize (it’s George W.’s beloved hot dog, supersized), a snack that represents both our diplomatic abilities (it plays well with other comestibles, such as pickles) and our tendency to pridefully go it alone (perfectly smoked, it requires no assistance). The sausage is defiantly comfortable in its own skin, a quality we celebrate in our public figures and labor to instill in our children. Like our greatest national heroes, it is strong yet supple; a few hours in the pit hardens it into a Pentagon-like ring of utter impregnability, but the subtlest give is detected when teeth are applied, and then, faster than you can say Condoleezza, resistance collapses and juices flow. The carnivorous delirium that ensues is better than sex. It’s better than a classified news leak. And in this part of the world, I am sorry to report, it’s a hell of a lot scarcer than both.

— Author Robert Draper maintains that after his father’s barbecue, everything else is a poor second.

Ode To Ribs

The waitress says
the man at Table Three
is making noises.

You’d think she would be used to grunting
when the sun goes down
at Melvin’s Rib Château,

but this one’s whispering amen
into his marinade,
getting sauce all over his Armani.

It could be
he’s an escapee
from a gated community

of tofu burgers and arugula,
having succeeded his way
into a milieu

of Pilates and Lipitor.
Now he’s speaking in tongues,
saying, Bring me

another slab of mastodon,
in Aramaic.
It is the sound of

a biblical digging-down.
A rescue mission
of smoked pig and Budweiser.

Trying to find out
if his inner philistine
still has an appetite.

— Poet Tony Hoagland eats with his greasy fingers at Beaver’s, in Houston.

Ode To Pulled Pork

Though I am proud to claim Texas associations, I am from the South. So when it comes to barbecue, my first thought is not of brisket but of pork. Does a pig have brisket? It may be hard to find, on a pig.

A cow spends more time standing up and ranging around than a pig does, so the pig has more fat. You could say the same of a policewoman as opposed to a courtesan. But never mind that. A pig is regarded by scientists as being smarter. I don’t guess I want to go into that in a barbecue context, but I do think you can taste it. Eating good pulled pork, I almost feel as though the pig knew his destiny. Went along with it, in exchange for a life of putting on fat. Whereas I can’t help thinking that a cow, confronted with the concept of beef, would say, “Huh?” But never mind that. A cow is bigger.

Watch a cow eat, and then watch a pig eat. A cow is chewier. Brisket, according to some dictionaries, derives originally from a chewy Old Norse word (brjosk, with a little line over the o) meaning “gristle.” Whoa! Let me leap to assure you that I don’t regard this as fair. It is true, however, that brisket is tougher than pulled pork. I don’t know that you can pull brisket.

Nothing wrong with that! Brisket, barbecued, is juicier and more tender than a sirloin even, although it is a tougher cut, because in the process of slow-cooking, the fat marinates down into the fiber. So in honor of the consistency, the unassailable integrity of that great Texas institution, let us all rise, please . . .

Well, I’m sorry. I can’t make the pig get up.

— Novelist Roy Blount Jr. is from Georgia, where pigs are more esteemed than cows, and no one can take that away from him.

Ode To Sauce

Barbecue sauce is like a beautiful woman. If it’s too sweet, it’s bound to be hiding something.

— Singer, songawriter, and actor Lyle Lovett has been eating barbecue for 49 of his 50 years.

Ode To White Bread

There was a time in this country when you could eat a wonderfully flavorless slice of this substance and not feel like a villain. But that time is long ago, back in the days before iceberg lettuce, white bread’s vegetable companion in blahness, was driven underground. And though iceberg lettuce is now mysteriously in vogue in fancy steakhouses, served with blue cheese dressing for $10 per chunk, no such revival seems remotely possible for white bread.

Thanks to its natural bounty of preservatives, white bread has remained imperishable, even while perishing from the kitchens and restaurant tables of our grim, gourmandizing republic. Only at barbecue joints does it still retain a vestige of its once undisputed carb primacy.

The guy behind the counter has just loaded up your butcher paper with brisket and ribs and oozing sausage when he asks, “Bread with that?”

You nod. It is perfectly acceptable. You’re already eating something called a hot gut; what more can the food police charge you with? The guy casually grabs eight or ten or twelve slices of Mrs Baird’s. Maybe even the whole loaf. He doesn’t care.

Spongy, aerated, as pliable as Play-Doh, white bread is not so much a foodstuff as it is, well, stuff. It is not just more absorbent than a paper towel; it is also slightly better tasting. So let us pause in our celebration of barbecue to acknowledge its forlorn, forgotten, never-to-be-respected, always-to-be-reviled, eternally square, soulless, nutritionally neutral sidekick: the loaf, or perhaps more accurately, the wad, of white bread.

— Contributing editor Stephen Harrigan recently ate barbecue in North Carolina and discovered that hushpuppies make a poor substitute for white bread.

Ode To Slaw

I love living in Texas, but I believe we underestimate our coleslaw, which is usually served in a little cup, off to the side of the meat. I contend it is capable of more responsibility than that. In Mississippi, where I grew up and ate my first barbecue, it was served on top of the meat. We never heard it called coleslaw. Slaw was slaw and barbecue was pork with sauce, and the two were inseparable. Beans were a side option, so was potato salad. But oh, that slaw.

Eventually, I heard it called “coleslaw” and found out the “cole” part meant “cabbage,” but who needed the explanation? Of course slaw was made from cabbage. We liked it shredded tiny or chopped in little squares, vinegary with a little sugar, a glob of mustard, carrots, and maybe onions shredded in as well. As good a meal as I know is a soft bun with chopped pig meat and sauce on the bottom slab, then slaw, then pickles, onions, then the top slab.

Once, at a barbecue place in Arkansas, I saw a sign that said, “If you don’t want your slaw right down on the meat, you better tell us.” I felt happy.

— Novelist and biographer Beverly Lowry quit making slaw at home because she was always shredding her fingers.

Ode To Potato Salad

Potato salad is one of my four favorite vegetables, right up there with tuna salad, deviled eggs, and slices of Velveeta. You need a mustardy tang and some starch to balance the overpowering sweetness of barbecue sauce. That’s where the masters in the art of salade de pommes de terre come in. They know how to blend their ingredients in a way that drives even the strongest men to gluttony.

In my opinion the best potato salad that is commercially available is served at the Railhead, in Fort Worth. But the best potato salad I have ever tasted is Mama Jap’s, not for sale but created by Gary Cartwright, a natural-born cook, who writes for this magazine. Here is what he does: Washes the potatoes and boils with skins on. Mashes with lots of butter, salt, and pepper. Eats half the batch on the spot, then to the remainder adds mayonnaise, lots of yellow mustard (Cartwright claims you can’t get too much), chopped onions, chopped sour pickles, sweet pickle relish, chopped onions, pimientos, and more chopped onions. The great chefs of Europe would envy this dish. I have suggested to Cartwright that we mass-produce it, but he wisely pointed out that sooner or later we would poison somebody.

— As a child at Angelo’s Bar-B-Que, in Fort Worth, novelist Bud Shrake learned that brisket is best when discovered under a heaping mound of potato salad.

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