There is a place in Central Texas where class and age and race have no meaning, where strangers gladly rub elbows with one another, and where Heaven and Hell themselves join together to glorify the cloven hoofed pig. That place, my friends, is Smitty’s Market in Lockhart, Texas.
From the moment I entered a cloud of fragrant black smoke enveloped me. Not that I could see it, mind you. If there’s one thing darker than the cast iron stoves perched to either side of the meat counter it’s the confines of the pit room itself. Layers upon layers of creosote coat the pit room’s walls and ceiling, a grime so deep and black it seems to suck up the light from the twin roaring fires.
I turned to my brother, certain we’d stumbled into a back room not meant to be seen by civilized (and heat intolerant) customers. His only response was to point out the menu to me, a chalkboard bearing the honor roll of a good BBQ joint: hand-made sausages (spicy and regular), ribs (by the pound or by the slab) and brisket (full fat and lean). I would have salivated, but so fierce was the heat in that small, dark room that my saliva had instantly dried up, along with my contact lenses.
A woman stepped through the murky haze of billowing smoke, and there in that hellishly hot room I was not in the least surprised to find her clad in red and wielding a trident-sized fork from which hung a slab of beautifully crusted, blackened meat. “Help you?” she asked as the juices dripped from that tender smoked flesh she had speared. I was giddy. Too giddy, in fact, to order and fortunately my brother handled that for me.
Just as fast as he could utter the glorious words “Full slab of ribs, six regular sausages and two pounds lean brisket” the meat appeared before us. The fork-bearing woman whipped out a knife and began slicing and sliding the meat onto sheets of brown paper, the kind they used to wrap packages in for mailing. Our packages didn’t have far to travel, however: once the meat was paid for we stepped through a pair of glass doors I hadn’t previously noticed and entered a dining room out of the 1950s.
At Smitty’s you don’t order your sides along with your meat. You also don’t ask for sauce. I suppose you could — if you wanted to look like a fool — but you wouldn’t need it. You do, however, need side items if only to cleanse the palate between sausages and ribs. Side dishes are served in the dining room behind a long wooden bar overlooked by old-fashioned Coca Cola signs. Here the temperatures are cooler and if the walls aren’t perfectly white they nevertheless look pristine in comparison with the pit room. Whether it’s potato salad you’re after or, incongruously, a whole avocado, they’ve got it… but don’t expect to eat it with a fork. Just as they don’t offer sauce at Smitty’s they also don’t bother with forks. Never have.
By the time I’d ordered Texas-style pinto beans (my personal favorite) and a Big Red soda the rest of my family had already seated themselves on folding chairs pulled up to one of the six long wooden trestle tables in the room. In this palace of all things pork-related there’s no such thing as private seating: you eat alongside everyone else, crowding closer and closer together as business picks up. But lest you worry what some stranger might think of you tearing into a rib and licking your fingers, it’s really no problem: everyone licks their fingers at Smitty’s. Sometimes they even lick the sheets of brown paper that serve as plates. It’s that good.
Now, having lived for the majority of the past 20 years in the Kansas City area — a place that’s been known to make some damn fine BBQ — I like to think of myself as a bit of an aficionado. I know, for instance, that the crap Chicago calls BBQ is a travesty, and that Memphis might think they know what they’re doing but their sauce all tastes like vinegar to me. And don’t get me started on the putrescence of South Carolina’s mustard-based sauces.
So you can imagine my surprise when, juices streaming down my chin, I found myself eating the very best BBQ I’d ever tasted. A BBQ with no sauce. A BBQ consisting solely of meat lovingly and carefully smoked, basted with its own liquids and worth every drop of sweat expired in pursuit of its fleshy perfection. I cannot tell you how the pinto beans were, nor whether Smitty’s potato salad is creamy or tart. I can’t because after that first bite of meat I lost all interest in everything else; the world dwindled down to me and a big pile of steaming meat, and for thirty-five solid minutes it was the most intense, heady relationship of my life.
Alas, all good things must end and after two sausages, six ribs and a massive pile of lean brisket, I had to bid adieu to Smitty’s. If ever in my life there was a moment when I toyed with the idea of becoming bullimic it was there at the center table in Smitty’s as I gazed longingly toward the glass doors leading back to that dark, sweltering pit room where, I knew, there waited a seemingly endless stream of meat. Ultimately, however, like Adam and Eve shuffling away from the Garden of Eden, my brother and I had to leave the paradise of pork behind, too.
Stepping out into the blinding rock-lined parking lot, I turned to my brother and said, “You know, I think I’ve figured out why the Islamic extremists hate us. Wouldn’t you be pissed if you’d been forbidden to eat food like that?” And there in the heart of the Lone Star state, our bellies bulging as we sood beneath a searing sun, we agreed that the key to world peace might very well lie within the unassuming brick structure wherein Smitty’s is housed. Yeah, their BBQ is that good.