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 power.
Before we had kids, my older sister and I used to take off on long drives when we were home for the holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and sometimes Easter, while our family was sleeping off blackberry cobbler and ice cream or trading tall tales over beers and after-dinner whiskey, Tembi and I would slip out the back door and ride off in a rental car, tearing up the highways and farm roads of East Texas. From the dusty trails around our family homestead in Coldspring to the pine-topped shores of Caddo Lake, we’d refill our souls on red dirt and the whir of tree frogs, blue sky that felt low enough to touch, and roadside stands hawking peaches and boiled peanuts and pepper jelly—two California residents trying to bottle something we couldn’t get out West, a feeling of peace that comes from being able to trace, in a straight line, your whole life back to the point at which it began, to dig a toe in the very dirt that gave birth to you. We were, in a sense, trying to understand where we came from and to stay connected to our roots. My sister, the family historian, took pictures. I drove and daydreamed.
Educated and old enough by then to contemplate our ambivalence about the American South and its complicated history, we talked about our love for the state against the realities of what it was to live there, for our family in particular, black pioneers in the great freedom experiment that followed the Civil War. It wasn’t always easy. The Klan rode freely in those years; segregation was the law of the land until the mid-sixties (and even later in some places); blacks’ and other minorities’ voting rights weren’t legally protected until the second half of the twentieth century (although the state’s “white primary law,” banning blacks from voting in Democratic primaries, went all the way to the United States Supreme Court in 1924, it wasn’t reversed until 1944); and the Texas Rangers were known, for years, to harbor an unhealthy obsession with the color black.
I grew up with these stories, these whispered cautionary tales, warnings about the potential dangers of a state still evolving into its better self. I was maybe seven or eight when my grandmother sat me down on the sofa in her front parlor, in Marshall, to explain why I didn’t have a grandfather. The day before my dad was born, in 1947, his dad, Lavern, died from internal injuries sustained in a car accident outside Fort Worth, complications that might have been treatable if the white hospital nearest him had found his life worthy of their attention. Lavern’s mother, my Big Mama, waited with him for nearly eighteen hours, and when no doctor would see him, she took him home, where he died. He was only 21 years old and never laid eyes on his only son. At 38, I’m older than my grandfather ever was, a fact I carry with me always.
So how is it, my sister and I wondered aloud, that—given the state’s sometimes crooked welcome mat—the trajectory of our family history, going back generations, never shot farther north than Dallas and, in fact, mostly hovered around Houston and Galveston? How is it that, on both my father’s and mother’s side, no one, save for a few cousins who married up and out, ever left? We had learned in school about emancipation and the first wave of blacks who left the state in droves, and we had taken whole college courses about the Great Migration, the era from World War I to the late sixties, when millions of African Americans fled the racist South for improved economic and social opportunities up north, a land that was promised to be free of trouble and racial unrest. (There are actually whole swaths of Chicago, Detroit, and even Los Angeles whose cultural—and culinary—origins can be traced back to black Texans in towns like Carthage and Hallsville, Denison and Beaumont.) During these earlier times of sweeping change and political upheaval across the Southern states, why had our family stayed in Texas?
Well, we were landowners, and that was part of it. My great-grandparents and grandparents scrimped and saved and fought hard to own their little piece of the state, a rarity for blacks in the early part of the twentieth century, and nobody was going to abandon the roots that had been set down. My great-aunt Altha, who is 89 and lives near Coldspring, told it to me this way: “Daddy had a farm. There was just no thought of ever leaving. I don’t think it was ever even mentioned.” We were Texans, period. And we had too much love for the state to leave it, no matter its imperfections, its ability to break one’s heart.
“I never thought I could find any place better than Texas,” my dad says now, dismissing the idea that lesser men get to define an entire state or culture and focusing instead on what was possible for our family in a place as vast and vibrant as Texas. “We wanted to make it for ourselves,” his mother, Willie Jean, says of the family’s decision to stay during the Jim Crow years. “And we knew we could do that in Texas, where we didn’t have to depend on anyone else.”
My ancestors held strong to a belief that the state’s future would be brighter than its past only if people like us were willing to roll up our sleeves and do the hard work of change. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side worked summers at Tuskegee University, in Alabama, where he met Booker T. Washington, who helped him apply for the grants he needed to start colored schools back home, in Trinity, Polk, and Houston counties. My great-uncle Wayne was heavily involved with the AFL-CIO in the fifties and sixties, fighting for fair wages for Texas workers. And both of my parents worked as civil rights activists in their late teens and early twenties, helping to integrate the University of Houston, registering new voters, and promoting community development in some of the poorest and most disenfranchised neighborhoods in the city.
I would never fault someone for making an escape from a culture or a system of discrimination that he or she didn’t ask for, let alone deserve, but my family is defined by the fact that we stayed. Through some of the hardest years in Texas history—Reconstruction and the Great Depression, countless oil booms and busts, the marches and riots of the civil rights era—through all of it, we stayed. And we gave it everything we had. We picked cotton in East Texas, raised chickens and livestock, grew collards and peppers, and lovingly fussed over our fruit trees. We went to college and graduate school here, became teachers and principals, lawyers and doctors, even politicians—citizens devoted to public service. We were willing to do the hard work of moving a state and a country forward.
These are the quintessential Texas qualities I most want my daughter to know and possess: hope and optimism and a steely perseverance born of a faith in her abilities. Not to mention a fierce independence and a respect for other people’s freedom and choices. It’s this respect in particular that enabled my dad to let us, his kids, spread our wings and fly so far away from home, trusting that the values we learned in East Texas would endure across state lines. My sister and I broke decades of tradition by leaving Texas—first for college and then to start careers and families of our own in a city that allowed us to follow our dreams, my sister as an actress and me as a writer.
I am a Texan in my soul, but these days I live my life as a Californian. I consider myself a woman with dual citizenship. I discovered yoga here, the versatility of the avocado, and the benefits of acupuncture. I’ve had a colonic, for heaven’s sake. Increasingly, every time I touch down at LAX, I feel I’ve come home—not the one I was born into, but, for better or worse, the one I chose. I’ve constructed an identity for myself in which a Double Meat Whataburger and an In-N-Out Double-Double are both the best burger I’ve ever had.
I’m a Texa-Cal-ian, I guess—an easy enough posture for me to take, as a woman who’s lived in both states. But Clara is a West Coast girl—a mountain-hiking, whale-watching, plastic-bag-hating, call-her-teachers-by-their-first-names Californian. Sure, she has a pair of cowboy boots, and she was rocking a red-white-and-blue Texans cheerleader outfit before she could walk, but she’s a Californian, born and bred—a fact that surprised me at first and then gnawed at my insecurities. Can I raise a girl whose life story is so different from my own? As if I don’t have enough mommy guilt as it is, should I add to the list of ways in which I’m failing my daughter the fact that she’s never been to a professional football game, that I gave birth to her in a city without an NFL team, that she’s never been to a rodeo or spent a week working on her outfit for Go Texan Day, or that she doesn’t know what square dancing is (or believe me when I tell her I learned it in elementary school PE class)? Or should I trust, as my father did before me, that the best of the state in which I was raised is still in me no matter where I roam, which means it’s in Clara too?
Though I may never cultivate in her a love of country music or line dancing or barbecue or football, I do try to take her down to Texas every chance I get, each trip filling me with the hope that, in time, her appreciation for the state and her family history will grow. Two Christmases ago, she was old enough to understand, for the first time, where she was—that she had traveled to a different state (or maybe a different country). No longer a toddler, she was alert and curious about her surroundings in a way that felt new—listening to her elders’ stories and drawing pictures of herself in the majestic piney woods. I could sense she was taking in the grand scope of the place in a way she hadn’t before. Although I was somewhat mortified that, unlike her Texas cousins, she didn’t end every sentence or minor request with “ma’am” or “sir,” it was something to see her bonding with the Texas side of the family, to see her little mind working, tracing her life’s story through the faces in the room.
I even got a chance to take her to my uncle’s cattle ranch outside New Caney, something I’ll never forget. Clara had her seat belt off before I could get the car parked. Eight hundred and ninety acres of cow shit, and she would have run every inch of it if I had let her. On the evening hayride, she stood right up against the edge of the trailer, reaching over the side to feed the cattle, all while her mother hid in the back of the truck, too scared to feed a cow, let alone touch one. Clara wanted inside the bull pen from the moment she laid eyes on it. She wanted to feed the horses too and daydreamed about camping outside, under the stars. She was in heaven out on that prairie, and there, smack in her mama’s home state, I saw her heart open just a little wider as she got the chance to try something she never could in California—not in Los Angeles, anyway. I have never been more proud of my little girl.
Well, except for maybe this one other time, a few months back. We were in western Missouri to visit my husband’s side of the family, not long after the trip to Dr. Hogly Wogly’s, in fact. Two days into our stay, we decided to eat lunch at a famous local restaurant chain, purportedly serving the city’s finest authentic cuisine: smoked links, brisket, and ribs. Clara took one bite and announced, without any prompting whatsoever, that Kansas City barbecue is totally overrated.
If only my dad had been there to see it.