The Exile’s Lament

Even after I moved to Los Angeles, there was no question that I’d always be a Texan at heart. But what about my daughter?
Attica and Clara in their Los Angeles kitchen.
Photograph by Van Ditthavong

Dr. Hogly Wogly’s Tyler Texas BBQ sits beneath a plume of hickory smoke on a cheerless block in Van Nuys, California, just down the street from a cannabis club and the Classy Lady strip joint. But these were not bad signs—not for my dad, who, on principle, views askance any introduction of pomp and frills near the smoking of meat. The aging wood paneling, the sticky vinyl booths, the bathrooms located around the back of the building—these were all good signs. Still, when my dad took his first look at a foot-long plate of hot links, pork ribs, and brisket, I held my breath. A 65-year veteran of the eating and preparing of true Texas barbecue, Gene Locke takes his meat very seriously, as did his mother, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and great-grandparents before him. Smoking techniques have been passed down for generations. My dad even has a top-secret sauce, and he’ll slip the names of different ingredients to different children as if they were Christmas presents. 

I had assembled a motley crew for this taste test: my husband, a Chicagoan by birth; my three younger brothers, two of whom have also defected to Los Angeles and have, like me, subsequently taken to the eating of raw fish; and my five-year-old daughter, Clara Jean, my dad’s youngest grandchild and partial namesake and (gasp!) a native Californian. Clara Jean sat at the other end of the table, playing games on her dad’s iPhone, completely oblivious to the weight of the moment. Upon arriving, she had plopped down in the booth and, with a straight face, asked for a cheeseburger, and when none was forthcoming, she seemed to lose interest by the minute. 

If you were to ask my dad if his granddaughter is a Texan, he’d tell you flat out, “Sure, she is. She’s a Texan-in-exile.” He’s said the same about me.  

Yet looking down the length of this table, one could see a culinary obsession and a way of life thinning out with each new generation, like a creek threatening to run dry. We are all his errant children, in danger of losing a core part of our identity by living so far from the cultural institutions that made us who we are. I had driven my dad nearly thirty minutes northwest of Los Angeles to prove that in the twenty-some years I’ve lived outside Texas, I haven’t completely lost my way. More than a hundred years of family tradition wasn’t going to peter out on my watch. I told Clara to sit up straight and eat. 

She picked at the meat, tasting around the blackened edges. I am fairly certain I heard her utter the word “gross,” but I knew better than to press for her full opinion. I thought the food was great, the brisket tender and fatty without being skimpy, with a sauce that was tangy and sweet without being cloying—and with none of the oppressive heat and spice with which most Californians mistakenly douse their attempts at Southern cuisine. And the pork ribs were fantastic. 

But we all watched and waited anxiously as my dad took his first bite. “Dad?” I said, staring across the table. 

He took a big swallow and nodded his head. With a soft belch, he said, “Yeah, I guess this old boy will do.” 

Clara was born in California and has lived here her whole life, and although she tells everyone her family is from Texas, no one here thinks of her as a Texan (sorry, Dad), nor is she entirely clear what that means. When I asked her what she thinks it means to be a Texan, she offered this illustrative tidbit, “It means you wear boots, and you talk like this: [ exaggerated accent ] ‘Hi, I’m from Tex-as.’ ” Her imitation of her mother is spot-on. 

She was probably about three years old the first time she realized I actually speak two languages: English and Texan. I was standing in our kitchen, making pesto for dinner and talking on the phone with my sister, when Clara walked in, asking for help getting a ball gown on one of her Barbies. She was staring up at me, her face all twisted as if she’d just stumbled upon her mother speaking in tongues. My sister and I must have been gossiping or letting off steam at the end of a long day, because my voice had taken on that distinct sound it does when I get excited or mad or punchy—a slow, knowing drawl that is my one true Texas “tell,” a dead giveaway as to where I was raised. 

“Why are you talking like that?” she wanted to know, hands on her little hips, acting as though she’d just caught me misbehaving or betraying the house rules as she knew them. This has since become an ongoing bit between us, Clara covering her ears anytime I’m trying to get my point across and the quickest way is to slip into my mother tongue, the dip and twang of my youth. Despite the Southern lilt of her full name, Clara Jean thinks all the relatives on my side of the family talk funny, like Woody and Jessie in some all-black, live-action version of Toy Story 2 —not noticing that her own long, flattened vowel sounds frequently make me swing my head around to see who the stranger is who’s tugging on my skirt. She doesn’t sound like me or my cousins or any of the people I grew up around and has never in her life uttered the word “y’all,” except ironically. For her, Texan is a costume you put on, like princess or superhero, her other two favorite dress-up characters. It’s this kind of thing that bothers me the most about raising a child outside a state that I have adored since I was her age, a state whose culture and landscape are as familiar and as powerful to me as the sun. I want her to know that

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