Tootsie Tomanetz told me several years back that staying active and busy “helps me have a long life.” The celebrated pitmaster at Snow’s BBQ in Lexington will celebrate her 85th birthday next week, on April 21. Since the pandemic hit, the activities that for decades have kept her busy are mostly gone. Snow’s has been closed to the public for a month, though it’s still cooking and shipping barbecue. The last day on her weekday maintenance job with the Giddings school district was before spring break. The students, coworkers, and adoring barbecue fans that she draws so much energy from are now distant by design.
I called Tootsie on Saturday afternoon. On a normal Saturday, she would have been resting after her weekly shift at Snow’s. She was missing her barbecue family, her school family, and was preparing for an Easter without her church family. She’s still in good spirits with a good sense of humor. Cooking at Snow’s, even if it’s just barbecue that goes into a delivery box, is helping her get through each week. Owner Kerry Bexley and fellow pitmaster Clay Cowgill share the cooking duties with her, but even in the pit room they don’t get too close to each other, Tootsie says.
Daniel Vaughn: You said you’re cooking at Snow’s, but y’all are practicing social distancing in the pit area. Is that right?
Tootsie Tomanetz: Correct. We’re keeping our distance and trying to keep everyone healthy. We don’t want to endanger any lives, and with the fires so hot, I think we’re killing the virus thataway. We appreciate ’em mail-ordering because thataway they can still get some of Snow’s barbecue, and it gives us something to do during the week.
DV: You weren’t cooking this morning, right, on your normal Saturday morning shift?
TT: No. Nothing there this morning.
DV: So when do y’all cook the barbecue for shipping?
TT: It varies. I think Clay has gone in on Tuesdays and done some brisket and ribs, and on Thursday or Friday we go in and do brisket, ribs, pork, and sausage.
DV: Do you have the same responsibilities? Is Clay over working the offset smoker while you work the flat pits?
TT: Yes. Correct.
DV: It’s like it was designed that way to be able to keep your distance from each other.
TT: It’s almost like a Saturday morning from 2 a.m. until 6 a.m. or 7 when people get there. We’re keeping our distance where otherwise we would have been sitting side by side and drinking our coffee and checking out the pits. It’s the same format. It’s just that we’re keeping our distance.
DV: This way you have an excuse to get to Kerry off your back, right?
TT: That’s right [laughs]. He’s been working days and some nights.
DV: When I first heard about all this stuff and the recommendations that people should be keeping their distance from other folks, I was almost happy to see that Snow’s closed down knowing how much danger it might put someone like you in getting the virus.
TT: Very true. That last Saturday we cooked, the fourteenth of March, I was very uneasy. Miss Phyllis [Rogers] inside that cuts the meat, she’s in the danger area also, and she’s very close to the customers. We appreciate being close to the customer, but at the same time, in these conditions it’s hard. On the fourteenth we had a lot of people that came in and wanted pictures with me. We tried to keep our distance, but some of them we couldn’t do it. They wanted to be closer to me to get the picture. It really made me real uneasy. I know the people want pictures, and I don’t want to be rude to them, so I did take pictures, but I moved away from them pretty quick.
DV: I guess being able to cook for shipping is a bit of a relief knowing you can still cook, but you don’t have to make those choices about interacting with people.
TT: This way I still know we’re helping the people, and the people are still enjoying our food. I miss the people, I do have to say, not seeing them in line and coming to talk to us. But at the same time, it makes it much easier not endangering ourselves to this virus.
DV: Like you said, so much of the reward of cooking the barbecue is being able to talk to the people you’re serving, and being able to hear from them about how far they came to visit or how much they enjoyed your food. What’s it like cooking that food to put into a box that gets shipped away?
TT: It makes a big difference, but it’s a pleasure to know that someone is still experiencing the good flavor and our work that went into it.
DV: We know that your day job is to work maintenance at the school district. I imagine that is all closed down too.
TT: It’s all closed down. We had Spring Break the eighth through the thirteenth of March. I was called on the sixteenth, the Monday after, and was told not to come in. I have been home since then. The guys have come in and mowed. The grass still grows. It doesn’t know we’ve got this virus going on.
DV: I imagine you’ve got some students you miss and some high school seniors you might not see again.
TT: That’s true. I’ve missed them in church and at school. I’ve wondered how they’ve been doing with their subjects. It’s really dark days to think of the seniors that in May have all the banquets for the sports and organizations they’ve been on. It’s really gloomy, and it’s hard to predict what will happen.
DV: In your nearly 85 years, do you ever remember a time like this?
TT: No. Even when the polio was so bad here in Central Texas in the early fifties, they said it was from bananas or it was this or it was that. I mean, we were very cautious, but I don’t think anything has ever been like this has been.
DV: I don’t want to get too gloomy, but we’ve talked many times about what keeps you going, and it’s that you just keep going. Now you have so much more time to sit at home and think and not as much time to work.
TT: It has been hard. I’ve made it a practice that two or three times a day I’ll walk the block to get out and get fresh air. I still go with my son up to the pasture twice a week to check on our cattle. I really miss my school work and my school personnel and the students. With the closure as it is, I really miss my church services.
DV: With so much of the rest of your life on hold, does barbecue mean even more to you now?
TT: I really think it does. Being able to go in once a week to do barbecue, it really gives me the oomph to get up and go. It really gives me encouragement. We’ll get it all back together, and get our ducks in a row. Probably it won’t be as it was before, but we’ll get back to as normal of conditions as normal will be. It will be a new normal. As so many people told me when White [her husband] and Hershey [her son] passed away, you will have a normal, but it will be a new normal. It truly was, and that’s what I can say with this virus. It will be different.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.