It was the ranting of a Texas construction worker that initially filled my head with the obsession of Texas barbecue and the accompanying nightly dreamtastes of Smiley's smoked meats.
The Texan, with a stubble that was at once bristly and welcoming, breathed in the air at Hoodoo's Barbecue on St. Charles Avenue and said, rather noisily to no one, "Something is off."
He tilted his head upward and sniffed three times. Then he opened his mouth and bit at the air. I heard his teeth. He shifted in his barstool and leveled his head toward mine. "Nope. They don't get it."
That evening was my introduction to the world of authentic barbecue. I was told of the intricacies of Texas barbecue, the ribs, the brisket, the sausage, the chicken. I learned of the importance of smoke, that a good barbecue restaurant can be determined by taking a good sniff and a toothy hunk of the air. That if I thought Hoodoo's was good barbecue (I thought they were exceptionally good), then a trip to Smiley's in Lockhart, Texas, would satisfy primal desires, yet cause such a convulsive longing when I left town that I would be ruined for barbecue, and, for that matter, all food, that day forward.
Donelle said she would join me, so the Saturday after my enlightenment at Hoodoo's, we set out for Lockhart, Texas.
Donelle was a 35-year-old librarian at a local university. She was Honduran, but she'd lived most of her life in New Orleans. She turned out to be an exceptional navigator. She printed maps, directions, and a list of attractions that we would pass on the way to Lockhart.
We first stopped at Prejean's in Lafayette and ordered pheasant, quail, and andouille gumbo. Donelle made a fine analogy when she stated that Cajun and Creole food knew just how far to take its complexity, while some of the ritzy places she had dined in New York and San Francisco had taken things too far, ridiculously too far, not unlike how sex perverts, no longer satisfied with mainstream sex, invent absurd distractions like costumes, devices, and out-of-the-way locales.
"So we're doing this," Donelle said, dipping a torn piece of French bread in her gumbo. Her eyes were dark and shiny, glassy. "Lockport, Texas."
"Lockhart," she repeated. "A barbecue adventure." Donelle often named her adventures, even when they were not adventures. Her last visit to her house in Gentilly, still not gutted, was named an adventure in mold.
She often needed help naming her adventures, so I offered, "How about 'an adventure in barbecue?'"
"That works." She dipped her bread and held it up. "Dip it." She emphasized each word by shaking the bread, almost like she was shaking a finger at me. The roux dripped onto the table. She inspected the front of her white blouse for stains, and finding none, re-dipped her bread. "We should stop in Houston. There's a Mexican place I read about. Known for their corn tortillas."
Donelle was harsh in her judgments when it came to two things: tortillas and soups. She came from a Garifuna village in Honduras that was known for its food, a place called Triunfo de la Cruz, where the women made tortillas from scratch, and like their African ancestors, they made soups with coconut milk and pestled green bananas.
"I should call and warn them." With my spoon, I cornered a piece of pheasant against the bowl and tore it in half, mixed it with a slice of andouille sausage, and then tasted the two together.
"So what happens if you think Smiley's is so much better and you can't have it anymore?"
I pretended to stare off into the heavens. "I will taste it in my dreams."
"Right. You'll be running back to Hoodoo's."
I cringed. A little too loudly, I said, "I will never eat at Hoodoo's again. I can promise you that."
"This coming from the guy who used to spend Friday nights at Applebee's before you met me."
"I'm from a small town. It's all we had."
"All I'm saying is I bet you won't be able to tell the difference. Besides, it's just barbecue."
Donelle and I stopped at a Hampton Inn in west Houston, unpacked, and then found Lupe's Mexican Cantina. It was in a dusty, busy little area that included a hamburger restaurant and a couple of bars.
The line for Lupe's was so long that we had to wait at the crowded patio bar for an hour. The patio was not unlike a typical backyard deck. Colorful paper lanterns in red and green dimly lit the deck, and speakers blasted what Donelle categorized as Soca music. We ordered frozen Don Julio Margaritas and sat at a flimsy white plastic table. It was May, so it was warm but not so humid, and Donelle wore a short burgundy dress that revealed her upper arms and much of her legs.
Eventually, the conversation turned toward Donelle's nervousness about volunteering to teach adults how to read at her university's library.
"What if they don't learn?" Donelle had let loose her ponytail at the hotel, and now her hair, glistening black, flowed past her shoulders. "I've never taught."
"I remember my grandfather was getting ready to train a bunch of housewives on CPR, and I asked him if he was nervous since he'd never done anything like that before. He'd just retired from the fire department."
"He's the one from Finland?"
"The other one."
"The grandparents without a country." Donelle blew bubbles in her Margarita.
"The ones we're not sure about. We think their people were from Ireland."
"I thought you said Denmark." Donelle sipped her Margarita. She had rubbed glittery lotion over her body at the hotel, and now with the wind picking up, the light of the swinging lanterns periodically swayed across her skin, flickering like tiny granules of mirror.
"They're probably from some place known for its horrible food."
"You mean like Finland?"
Donelle scooted her chair back, took a couple of little steps, and plopped down on my lap. The patio was crowded, and before she was settled, someone had already taken her chair.
She kissed my forehead. She kissed me on my lips. Her hair was caught between our lips, so she shook it away. It tasted sugary. "I have enough family recipes to take care of us both."
A few minutes later, we were eating inside, discussing the inferiority of Lupe's dried-out corn tortillas.
We pulled into Lockhart, Texas, around noon. Donelle had bought kaloches at a planned stop in La Grange, but I insisted on having an empty stomach upon entering Lockhart. She had eaten two of the Czechoslovakian sausage-filled pastries and was now needling me about how full she was.
"The next thing I will eat will be the fine tastings of Smiley's," I said.
Donelle rolled her eyes. "It's like you're in love with a blind date before meeting her."
"Who invented barbecue anyway? It's probably American."
I turned onto the street, and there it was. The building was a rundown cement-block building with flaking white paint. Even the sign was losing its paint. Burglar bars, also shedding their white paint, covered the tinted windows and door.
Donelle stifled a laugh, but it turned into a snort.
"I'm not here to enjoy the architecture," I said. "Besides, look at the parking lot." It was packed. A couple of trucks trolled for an open spot. I turned down a side street and parked under a crape myrtle.
Before we could open our doors, an aroma, the aroma of smoked meats, entered the car and became the air we breathed.
"Wow," Donelle said. "I'm definitely interested."
"It's different than Hoodoo's." I breathed in deeply.
"You're not going to bite the air when we get inside, are you?"
Inside, Smiley's was a hazy madhouse. Everything seemed to be made of concrete, even the counters. And it was one of those places where you enter and cannot figure out what to do next. I usually experience a kind of panic in these cases, but Donelle is patient and calm, and she's good at watching what others are doing.
To our left was a long counter. People seemed to be walking up to it randomly, but Donelle discovered a snaking line that started not far from the dining room, which was crowded with at least seventy-five people sitting at fifteen or so concrete picnic tables.
A menu, plywood painted white and lettered in red, was nailed above the counter. It offered many selections, but the smoke, the dusky lighting, and the peeling paint made it difficult to read. Donelle saw that I was a little confused about what to order, so she tracked down a couple of to-go menus for us to look at while we waited in line.
"Here's the one," I said, referring to the four-meat plate. "You get your choice of four meats, and you get two sides."
Already, four or five people were behind us.
"We would share that?" Donelle asked.
I laughed, thinking it was a joke, but then realized it was not. "I'm thinking that you can get your own four-meat plate, maybe with different meats."
"I feel like I'm at a sporting event," Donelle said. "This is such a man's thing."
I pointed to a group of women at one of the tables.
Donelle ended up with a three-meat plate. She chose brisket, turkey, and chicken. Her sides were potato salad and beans. I chose the four-meat plate: sausage, brisket, ribs, and pulled pork. My sides were the same as Donelle's.
Donelle learned that it was community seating, so we sat down at the end of a crowded table. A couple of guys in cowboy hats sat next to us. They were in their mid-fifties and looked like they had spent a lot of time in the sun.
When Donelle was sorting out our food from the red plastic crate, she discovered that the only utensils were knives, so she said she was going to hunt down some forks. One of the cowboys said that we would not find any, that we were supposed to eat with our hands and with the knives.
"Seriously?" Donelle said.
The other cowboy handed her a roll of paper towels and said nothing.
Each of our meats was separated onto its own sheet of butcher's paper, the side orders were in little containers, and there was a ten-deep stack of white sandwich bread slices piled in the corner of the crate.
I held up a sliver of brisket and smelled and ate it at the same time. The taste was much smokier than Hoodoo's. The meat itself was much leaner and there was a peppery flavor to it. It was moist. I separated some of the wedges of brisket and saw the smoke rings marbling through each sliver, proof of the hours it had spent in the smoker. It did not need any sauce. It was perfect.
Donelle was trying to line up a slice of smoked turkey onto her knife, but it kept falling off as she lifted it to her mouth.
"Here," I said. I ate another sliver of brisket with my hands. "Eat with your hands."
She finally gave up the knife and began her feast. We ate in silence. The cowboys left and nodded goodbye.
I was onto the sausage by the time I realized that there were few others in the dining room. Donelle had finished her chicken and was concentrating on the brisket.
She broke the silence. "This is borderline genius."
I loudly said, "There is nothing borderline about it."
"Are you going to eat your sides?"
I nudged at the potato salad with a sausage link until it tipped over and said, "I'm here for the meat."
I looked into Donelle's eyes and she looked almost drunk. "I can't stop eating," she said, "but I think I might die if I eat another bite."
"It would be a good death," I said. "It would be worth it."
"If I don't eat this last bit, I'll regret it, won't I?"
"You'll have nightmares about the missed opportunity."
"I think I'll need some help standing up," Donelle said, slurping the last rectangle of brisket into her mouth. She chewed for a second, took a break, then continued chewing.
"Shouldn't have had those kaloches," I said.
She quit chewing, and with great effort, swallowed.
I eyed the last hunk of sausage on the butcher's paper in front of me. All the other meat was gone. The sandwich bread was still there, untouched, and the side orders were tipped over and partly coming out of the containers. I took a breath.
"Looks like y'all had your priorities set right," a man said, appearing next to me. He wiped down the section of the table where the cowboys had been.
Donelle and I looked at each other. She didn't look capable of a response, so I said, "We came for the meat."
After I helped Donelle to the car, we sat inside for a few minutes in silence. The crape myrtle shaded us, and it periodically dropped its pink champagne flowers onto the windshield and hood.
"Well," I said. "Hoodoo's or Smiley's?"
"Smiley's." She moaned. "I'm not too proud to admit it." She stared straight ahead at nothing. "That was a lot of meat."
We sat under the crape myrtle for a few more minutes not talking. I just sat there, breathing slowly in and out, breathing and thinking. "I bet people move here all the time for the barbecue."
Donelle was on the verge of throwing up. Her color, normally a healthy blend of pecan, copper, and red-clay earth, was now the fading hue of teak furniture left outside a few years.
"Just breathe, don't think," I said. I started the car and turned on the air conditioning.
Donelle leaned her head back on the headrest and closed her eyes. "I bet the locals get tired of it after a while."
"Nonsense. It's much too good."
"That's what you say now. Wait till you've had it a couple hundred times."
"No talking. Relax," I said, rubbing her leg. "I'm going to the bathroom. Be right back."
The Saturday after our trip to Lockhart, I woke early to check on my first attempt at smoking meats. I had bought a smoker from the outdoor sporting goods store, a rectangular one with racks that slid out. I then bought twelve pounds of brisket and about fifteen links of sausage, and I followed the Smiley's cookbook religiously. I used mesquite chips, and I smoked the meats overnight, waking once to refresh the chips, and then returning in the morning to pull out the meats.
Of course, I did not expect the meat to turn out as good as Smiley's, but I am proud to say it was much tastier than Hoodoo's. And this was my first attempt. The brisket was not quite as lean as Smiley's, which was my fault for going to a chain grocery store that did not employ a butcher, but its seasoning and smoke were excellent, almost as good as Smiley's. Not surprisingly, the sausage was on par with Smiley's. It's a much easier meat to smoke because the quality of sausage is consistent throughout Texas and Louisiana, and it doesn't need seasoning.
As I was checking the brisket's smoke rings, which were well defined, Donelle called to tell me she was leaving for her first volunteer class, and I gave her a pep talk and told her to call me if she wanted me there. About two hours later, during a break, she called to say that not twelve students, as originally scheduled, but nineteen had shown up because a few people had brought their kids along.
I arrived at Donelle's university at 11:30. The class was held in a state-of-the art lecture hall that had stadium seating, and I watched through a rectangular window on the door at the top of the classroom. Donelle was standing at the bottom, writing short words on a dry-erase board: cat dog man. Atop the board was the alphabet.
When her eyes darted around the room, I waved behind the glass and caught her attention. She waved me in, and the students turned to watch me enter the room. I wasn't sure what to do. Should I quietly take a seat? Should I go to Donelle? Should I greet the class? Donelle saw the look on my face and said, with relief in her voice, "We have a guest. Everybody, welcome Nick."
The class remained silent. There was tension in the room, not a purposeful tension, but a mixture of the shy nervousness of the students and Donelle's frustration.
She noticed that I was carrying a cardboard box and said, "What's in the box?"
I walked down the stairs to the front of the classroom and said, "I have a nice surprise for the class." I then went to the board and wrote the word "meat." I pronounced the word for them by overprounouncing it. "Who likes meat?"
A couple of the kids raised their hands, and soon the whole class raised their hands. A kid said, "What is it?"
"Smoked meats, New Orleans style," I said. "We have brisket and sausage. Andouille sausage."
Confused, Donelle pulled a container out of the box. "You got this from Hoodoo's?"
"Are you nuts," I said. "I smoked it myself."
"I don't understand. How?"
"I followed the directions." To the class I said, "Come and get it."
Within a minute there was a line of fifteen chatting people (four had left before I arrived, Donelle would later tell me) at the front of the room. Little kids who were waiting wrote words on the board. Next to "meat," one wrote "potato."
Donelle elbowed me gently. "You're something special."
She forked some brisket onto her plate.
"You haven't even tasted it yet," I said.
Donelle rolled her eyes and led me to our desks in the midst of the students. She took a bite of brisket, and while chewing, said, "I think you're right. I could never get tired of this."
At one point there was the silence again. Not the same silence as when I entered, but the silence of good barbecue, the silence of satisfaction, of new things in a new world.