Owner/Pitmaster: Davis Meat Market; Opened 1988
Smoker: Gas-fired Rotisserie Smoker
I rang a buzzer outside this bright red metal building in Houston’s Fifth Ward, and owner James Davis met me at the door. As soon as I stepped inside the smell of raw meat was present, but not unpleasant, and it was tempered with a whiff of fried cracklins.
I followed Mr. Davis to his back counter where most of the transactions happen. Along the way I perused the well stocked shelves full of every product imaginable. Each item had a price written on it in black Sharpie. At Davis Meat Market, UPC codes are meaningless. There’s even 10W-30 motor oil for sale, but Davis admits that he hasn’t sold a bottle since the lawnmower repair shop closed down the street…three years ago.
Most importantly, what you’ll find are cases full of meat and a menu of smoked items, most of which were gone by the time I arrived. Instead, I enjoyed a cup of boudin (a few scoops that he hadn’t bothered to put into casings yet) with some of Davis’s “hot saus” while we talked at one of the small tables at the back of the store for those who prefer to dine in.
Daniel Vaughn: You’ve got a full fledged meat market and a barbecue menu, but what do you see as the primary business here at Davis Meat Market?
James Davis: Catering and the red meat. We sell a lot of meat. We had people come in here on a bus on Saturday. We had a jam up day both Saturday and Sunday.
DV: Are they here to buy mainly? Barbecue cuts or is it a little of everything?
JD: They buy the whole nine yards. Family packs, some want cooked food off the steam table, or barbecue. If you come with a family, mom and dad might want barbecue, but the kids might want a hamburger. You’ve got to serve them whatever they want.
DV: You say you’ve got a smoker back there. What do you smoke on them?
JD: All type of barbecue. Ribs, briskets, chicken, deer. We barbecue coons for people who bring it in, or rabbit.
DV: You just charge them by the pound?
JD: I can’t sell it here, but I can do it for them, you see?
DV: What does it cost if I bring you a raccoon to cook?
JD: I’m gonna charge you about $1.25 per pound. Brisket is a $1.25 too. I’ve gotta charge according to wait.
DV: What kind of wood do you smoke with?
JD: You can’t cook with no other wood except oak. You can flavor your meat with other wood, like pecan or hickory. You can’t start cooking with that wood because it doesn’t let off enough heat. I go with oak until the meat is ¾ done. I have my flavoring wood over in a bucket of water. I’ll knock the excess water off then lay it in there for the last fifteen minutes or so. That’s what flavors it.
DV: What’s the craziest thing someone has brought in for you to cook?
JD: Well, with me coming from the country, there’s nothing odd on there for me. When I came up we didn’t have any electricity, so you know we didn’t have any refrigerator. Daddy would go out and kill birds. So we’d have fried birds today, and smothered birds tomorrow. There was a coon up a tree and the dog was barking all night. My momma said “Junior, go out there and see what the dog is barking at.” My daddy came out and shot up in the tree. The momma coon and all the baby coons came down. You know a coon is a bad thing when they hit the ground. We killed about ten or twelve coons, then we skinned them and put the hides up on the old shed out there. We had smothered coon the first day, baked coon the next day, fried coon the next day, and stewed coon the next day. That’s how it is in the country.
DV: Where’d you grow up?
JD: In Hammond, Louisiana.
DV: How long were you there before moving to Houston?
JD: I was sixteen when I came to Houston homeless. I came to Houston with a so-called friend of mine. I had $75 in my pocket. Being sixteen and never been to a big city, I didn’t know how to get around. He went out and got wasted the next night. Somebody came to the apartment and told me that my friend was at the club, and they had stole his shoes and stole his shirt, so I went down there and got him. I gave him half my money so he wouldn’t be broke. That’s what friends do. I told him to pay the rent for that week and I would get a job by the next week. The next day I went out to look for a job, and this monster had my stuff outside the door when I got back. He had put me out. I had spent my money down to $0.25, so I went down to the Club Matinee. I sat there for three days before this pimp came up to me. He set a fifth of vodka down and asked if I wanted a drink. I told him I couldn’t because I hadn’t eaten in a couple days. He ordered a big platter of food. Stuffed shrimp, fried fish, and a big salad.
DV: You remember it well?
JD: Oh man. At the Club Matinee, that’s where all the big time people would be there. I was sitting there with my little suitcase right beside me. When the platter of food arrived, I moved back to be polite, but I was hungry. I was looking at it out of the corner of my eye, so he shoved it over to me. He said “I bought this for you.” I ate it in two bites, then I had a drink with him. After an hour he asked if I wanted to ride to his apartment. I said yes. He had a brand spanking new Cadillac. It was so new you could smell the paint on it. It was canary yellow and green.
DV: Did you know he was a pimp at this point?
JD: No. In my own time, I’d never seen this before. All these pretty girls got in. I mean so pretty that if you touch them like that [tapping the table lightly], they’d bruise. Then we got to his apartment. They got to smoking weed and rolling around in the apartment. I’d never seen anything like that, and I got scared. My hair started standing up on my head. It started raining, thunder, and lightning. I was shaking in my shoes, then he started whipping the girls, and I thought I’d be next. I could see my mama crying, saying “Jimmy went to Houston and got into some bad trouble.”
DV: And this was all within the first week of you getting to Houston?
JD: Yes. He stopped whipping the girls and said “Go get your money.” We all got back in the car and got back to the club. He gave me some money and said “take care of yourself.” I called a friend of mine that lived in the third ward, one of my classmates, he came to pick me up, and I stayed with him. Then, when they closed the Gulf Freeway for a week, I walked from Sampson Street up to Dowling Street. I walked all up Dowling Street asking for a job, but nobody had one. Then I stopped at Dowling and McGowan at Square Deal Cab stand and asked them. He said “You really want to work?” I said “Yes.” It was snowing that day. He said “Go wash that car out there.” It was a canary yellow Pontiac. I was shamming it up. I stayed out there so long, he came out and said “You’ve got a job.” I stayed there for two years.
DV: What brought you to Houston?
JD: I just got tired of Louisiana. We were supposed to be going to Chicago, but I looked up and saw the bright lights. I was sleeping. I said “Where are we?” He said “Houston. We just have to make a stop here.” I said “This ain’t the way to Chicago.” I may be crazy, but I ain’t no fool, but I’ve been here ever since. It’s been good to me.
DV: How long has this place been open?
JD: Almost thirty years. It was in 1988.
DV: What did you do before you opened the market?
JD: I was a truck driver hauling meat. When I first started out I was going door-to-door selling meat out of a van.
DV: How does that work? Did you have a catalog or a suitcase full of meat?
JD: It was all word of mouth. We would cut the meat at the packing house and put it in ten pound boxes. I had a refrigerator in the back of my truck, and we’d go from door to door. I used to make $2000-$3000 per day.
DV: What happened to that business? I don’t see many meat delivery services around these days.
JD: With the crooks out there, you can’t hardly do it. Some guys came up to me one time. I could tell the way they came up on me that they wanted to do some harm to me. They were crowding around and said “We just want to see what you’ve got.” I said “It doesn’t work like that.” I just had that .357 and I pushed the cover off of it. I said “I don’t think we have a problem”, and they scattered.
DV: How often did that happen to you?
JD: Just that one time.
DV: How’d you get into the meat industry in the first place?
JD: I put myself through school and learned a trade to build automobile and truck tires. I worked for them for eight years until they sold out. The new owners let me go for Christmas. That was a fine Christmas present. I went to a packing house and they gave me a job. I didn’t like it, so I stayed home.
DV: Why didn’t you like it?
JD: It was a packing house. That was hard work. He called me and asked me to come back. I went back and worked there for ten years. I learned how to handle the meat and cut the meat. We were in a union at work, and the guys went on strike. I was in the back working. I came up front and nobody was there. I asked the dispatcher where everybody was. He said “They’re on strike.” I left too since I was in the union, but I went outside and had four flat tires. Boy was I upset. I walked back in and called the police. They said there wasn’t anything they could do given the situation. The owner of the company had come in, and she told the manager to fix my truck. She asked me to stay with them, and I did. The guys in the union did them wrong. They had hindquarters hanging, and they’d gone down about a hundred of them with their knife and cut them wide open so they couldn’t sell them.
DV: What was the name of the plant?
JD: Freeman Packing over on Waverly Street. I stayed there, and went on a delivery that day and they loaded up those hundred hindquarters and told me to get whatever I could. I got $100 a piece.
DV: You cut meat here at Davis Meat Market and smoke barbecue. What else do you make here?
JD: I make boudin and sausage. I bring a calf in from Dallas City Packers because I don’t want boxed meat in here. I process it from scratch.
DV: What do you do with the calves?
JD: I cut them up into steaks.
DV: What about whole hogs?
JD: I bring a whole hog in and rip them from A to Z. Now that meat has gotten so expensive, a lot of people out in the country are killing their hogs and bringing me to process. Of course I have to process them after I fill my case.
DV: What cuts of pork go into the boudin?
JD: Boneless shoulder. We’ve got liver in it. We don’t put an extra amount in.
DV: Where did the recipe come from? Was that something that you brought from Hammond?
JD: No I bought a recipe from a spice company. Then I got a book, but a lot of times you can’t go by the book, or the next man’s recipe. You have to play with it. It’s like I make my own barbecue seasoning and sausage seasoning.
DV: What other kinds of sausage do you make?
JD: Jalapeño cheese, deer sausage, pure pork, pure beef, and pork & beef.
DV: I was talking to Ray Busch at Ray’s BBQ…
JD: You know Ray?
JD: I was the one that started Ray in the business. He’s an ex-policeman. He used to work down the street here. You know who cooked for Ray last week? That’s right. He had too much else to handle. We’re good friends.
DV: He says he makes a Texas style boudin because it has more rice than pork. Have you ever heard of that?
JD: I don’t [shaking his head]. I’m gonna leave that alone.
DV: What other Louisiana specialties do you have here?
JD: I got my hog cracklins. That pays my light bill every month. One person comes in and buys three or four pounds. We’ve got the motto “You buy, we fry.” We’ll fry them right then if you can wait.
DV: Is there any other family that works here with you?
JD: My son, Jonathan, is here, but my wife [Patricia] just passed three months ago. I’ve got five other people that work here too.
DV: It looks like you’re still going strong.
JD: Well, thank God. We’ve been a little hard up the last three months. You know, you wake up with a person that’s never been ill…and then a massive heart attack. She was a sweet little girl.
DV: How long were you married?
JD: Twenty-nine years, and it was good. I’ve been married three times before. I told all the others “See you later” and walked on, but this one, we locked on.
DV: You’re a man who has been in the meat business a long time, so how do you still have all of your fingers?
JD: It’s like texting and driving. I see it all the time. You’ve got to concentrate on what you’re doing.