Hey, I get a three-day weekend off work, it's a blazingly hot Oregon solstice, and my old friend Sun is in town for the weekend to see the bay-bee, so we're off to the cool Cascades waterfalls for the day. Bloggomania will resume in earnest on Monday or so.
To fill that aching void, here's a "classik column" from June, 2000, particularly appropriate because both my wife and Sun are vegetarians and I'm --- not so much.
I have tried to be a vegetarian. I have really tried.
My vegetarian flirtations began in high school, when, of course, my girlfriend was a vegetarian and to impress her I gave up meat as well. For about four months, anyway.
My periodic vegetarian episodes over the years have often been tied to that kind of outside stimulus – the girlfriend, the social crowd I was in, et cetera.
I have never particularly loved hardcore red meat, anyway – I’ll always go for sushi or shrimp over steaks or sausage – so it usually wasn’t too much of a challenge to veg out for a while.
I even married a vegetarian, so there’s not a lot of ground chuck or offal in the ol’ household fridge, and I’m not so attached to meat that I miss it much. I indulge occasionally in restaurants, and that’s about it.
In college, my best pal Kemble and I were both part-time vegetarians a great deal of the time (again, the girlfriend influence, usually).
Kemble took to it much better than I did, so when I went to visit my old buddy down in his current stomping grounds of Austin, Texas, last weekend, I expected lots of sprouts and tofu in our diet.
Instead, we ended up at a place I will call The Red Meat Hall Of Doom.
About an hour west of Austin is a spot called Enchanted Rock, a big dome of granite like the kind we have out here, except utterly alone and unique out in the middle of Texas hill country. The locals there climb the slow-rising dome and stare down at the green and brown rolling hills – on a clear day, you can see forty miles easily.
After our rock-climbing adventure, Kemble and I detoured to the flyspeck town of Llano, Texas, where he told me I’d eat the best barbeque I’d ever seen in my life.
The joint – one cannot call it anything else, not in Llano – was a place called Cooper’s, and you could gauge its popularity with the locals by the number of battered pick-ups in the parking lot with farm dogs in the cab.
You go to Cooper’s and stand in line in the parking lot, where a bunch of huge grills are set up and raw, red meat in all its permutations bubbles over the heat – pork chops, brisket, ribs, turkey sausage and more. The bearded chef wears a camouflage apron and has probably been cooking meat since he was ten years old. Huge stacks of hickory logs are in the parking lot, awaiting their turn in the flames.
You do not read a menu at Cooper’s. You go up to the grill and point, picking your meat then and there without preamble. The cook spears the meat and slaps it onto a plastic tray – no plates at Cooper’s.
You then take your tray of steaming, dripping meat into the tin building that looks like a high school cafeteria and give it to the counterman, who weighs it, wraps it and charges you for it.
You pay for your meat by the pound.
You then grab your “fixins” – beans, sweet barbecue sauce, apple cobbler so fine it belongs in Heaven and iced tea in a styrofoam cup.
It’s all terrible for you, I’m sure, but it’s unadorned and simply some of the best red meat I’ve had in my life, erasing every piece of tofu I’ve ever tasted.
What good is life, anyway, without a little bit of barbecue?
The people in Llano know if you’re a stranger in town, and they don’t hold it against you. The average age in Cooper’s was about 67, and the elderly folk there took us right in, chatting amiably about whatever.
The woman next to us sat down with her plate, and then pulled out a huge quart pickle jar from her purse. She took out some pickles for herself and her husband, and offered some to us.
“Grandma makes her own pickles,” she told us with a wink.
At one point during this food orgy Kemble and I looked at each other, and remembered the long-haired vegetarians we were in college, and knew our past selves wouldn’t know what the heck to make of us now as we chomped down on brisket and ribs.
Kemble and I spent hours groaning and moaning following this decadent gluttony, fingering our distended abdomens and mumbling about what obese fools we were, all the while knowing we’d do it again in a second.
Grandma makes her own pickles there, and perhaps Cooper’s ought to throw in a free angioplasty with every meal, but it’s the kind of meal that makes a man quit being a vegetarian. Again.
Only in Texas…