A Texas-sized passion for barbecue

Bill and Grill

As some folks at Hendrix already know, one of my passions is barbecue. I have been eating smoked meat for just about as long as I can remember. My family moved to Bryan, Texas, in 1969 and I would guess that about half the restaurants in town (which probably totaled ten or fewer at that time) were barbecue joints. We lived not too far from Tom’s BBQ, which is long gone but still fondly remembered in the Brazos Valley. Tom’s back then was located in a shabby cinder-block bunker of a building, with no windows and (in my mind’s eye at least) covered in faded maroon paint, just across the road from the Texas A&M campus. Tom’s was famous for the Aggie Special, a mound of smoked beef and sausage, a stack of Mrs. Baird’s white bread, pickle slices, a whole onion, and a slab of very yellow cheese, all served up on big sheets of butcher paper, with worn, wooden-handled steak knives the only utensils provided. This less than elegant presentation (common in the German meat-market-style barbecue tradition of Central Texas) did not go over well with my mother, who forbade family meals at Tom’s. As she was a biochemist (and thus, regrettably, had some credibility when it came to hygiene) my father and I had little choice in the matter.

The only barbecue place in town where we ate regularly was Randy Sims, which was the closest restaurant to our house, at least until a Taco Bell sprouted on Texas Avenue. Randy Sims was acceptable to my mother — I recall the dining room being antiseptically clean and the cafeteria trays sparkling, all terribly out of character for a BBQ establishment — and the brisket there came to set my standard for smoked meat. Randy Sims very proudly used the legendary Red Bryan’s original recipes; only later did I learn that Randy (who is very much a real person and played for Bear Bryant at A&M in the day) had married Red’s daughter. Red’s son (named Sonny, appropriately enough) went on to create a small barbecue empire in Dallas. Randy Sims’ place has now been closed for years, perhaps decades, but I can still imagine the smoky, tender, memory-enhanced goodness of his meat when I order a beef sandwich at the now rather corporate, mass-produced Sonny Bryan’s.

I have spent most of my adult life trying to recapture that imagined perfection of Randy Sims’ brisket, piled high on slices of Texas toast griddled with margarine. Looking for good barbecue in Boston was like searching for fresh-off-the boat lobsters in Bryan. England was hopeless for smoked meat as, not surprisingly, was New Jersey. When Marjorie and I moved to Kansas in 1993, however, I felt like salvation was at hand. I soon discovered that KC ’cue, despite the hype and the undeniable charm of venerable, scruffy joints like Arthur Bryant’s, was a profound disappointment to my Texan taste buds. Kansas City BBQ ran heavily to pork ribs, the brisket was usually dry and sliced wafer thin, and the sauce was a sticky, sugary, candy-like abomination. For seventeen years marooned in the heartland, dreaming of the barbecue of my youth, I felt like a shipwrecked sailor on a desert island: Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.

Ten years ago, Marjorie took pity on my plight and for my fortieth birthday bought me a way out of my barbecue frustration: a gigantic smoker from Houston, gleaming stainless steel with an offset firebox and all the bells and whistles, made by the same outfit that supplied George H.W. Bush. The first day I tried to use it I cut open my finger on one of its heavy-metal grates and spent three hours in the emergency room getting stitched up. Over the subsequent months and years I came to realize how hard it was to make great barbecue and how much experience, patience, and sweat-equity was required to turn beef, salt, pepper, and smoke into mouthwatering goodness.

For Christmas this year, Marjorie got me a book on Southern — not Texas — barbecue. I think she was hoping to ease me into the different foodways of Arkansas easily, as I am sure she still remembers my impassioned rants against what was represented as smoked meat in Kansas City. The volume, a mixture of travelogue and cookbook, did catch my fancy and, after reading for days about pulled and chopped pork, barbecued bologna, and all the varieties of sauce and slaw from the Mississippi Delta to the Carolinas, I decided I needed to roll my smoker out of the garage and give Southern BBQ a try. Of course, the early January day I picked to do my barbequing happened to be 35 degrees, with a steady wind out of the north dropping the wind chill well below freezing. But I am not one to let a little weather stand between me and a pork shoulder, so I bundled up and smoked away.

I am looking forward to exploring Arkansas barbecue when I arrive at Hendrix and I would welcome recommendations of your favorite spots and tips on little-known gems around the state. And I expect I will be firing up my smoker next summer in Conway when I get a hankering for that lovely Texas-style beef I’m so addicted to. You’ll know I’m at work when you see the clouds of smoke drifting across campus and smell a hint of brisket on the wind.

About Bill

William Tsutsui

Dr. William M. Tsutsui became the 11th President of Hendrix College on June 1, 2014. He came to Hendrix from Southern Methodist University where he was Dean and Professor of History at Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.