For us, BBQ really
is a love story. Understand that and you'll understand this trip.
First, let me provide some background. Jenny and I knew each other in middle school but drifted apart after attending separate high schools. By the time I was a junior, I'm sure I wouldn't have recognized Jenny if we passed each other at the mall. But one day a mutual friend of ours suggested that I call her, this girl I barely knew in middle school. Jenny had just left a troubled relationship and was feeling low. Our friend said that I might cheer her up. Oh yeah, I thought, I remember her, sort of. I called her that night, just on a lark. But I felt a connection with Jenny almost immediately and we ended up talking for hours. A couple days later, we met for lunch and I was smitten. Jenny, however, was not looking for romance. She needed a friend and nothing else, so I settled. And that's where we left it. Things changed, though, when Jenny and I started working at the same restaurant together.
Working at a BBQ restaurant was my first job. Starting at age fifteen I learned to chop wood, pull pork butts, and even mix huge tubs of coleslaw by hand. My boss was a hard working guy who generally tolerated my teenage cluelessness. He put in at least twelve hours every day; I don't recall him taking a vacation. His wife worked there too, sweating with the rest of us and teaching me the most important lesson of restaurant labor: "You got time to lean, you got time to clean." Together, they made that place hum. Locals recognized a great rib joint in their midst, and they thronged for the All-You-Can-Eat deals. When my boss made the switch to table service, he made me a waiter. Crowds lined up and I hopped from table to table. Pretty soon the boss needed to hire more floor staff. Since Jenny was looking for a new job I suggested she apply. Jenny got the gig and suddenly we were closing the restaurant together.
At night, once everyone else left, Jenny and I would lock the doors and spend an hour or two cleaning up. Vacuuming, dishwashing, and other closing procedures were pretty boring, so we'd borrow a few quarters to play the jukebox. Avoiding some of the lousier selections (I particularly remember Jimmy Buffet's "Why don't we get drunk and screw") we managed to find some fun music that added rhythm to our chores. Every once in a while we'd dance. We were pals, digging the music and passing the time. Holding her close to me, smelling her hair and looking into her eyes, I realized I'd fallen in love with Jenny Boyer. Each dance made me a little sad, knowing that she didn't feel the same way. But I was willing to settle for those few fleeting moments together.
I can't explain how, but one night Jenny decided that she loved me too. Our dances grew slower, and embraces more fervent, and our evenings much longer. Working at that BBQ restaurant suddenly became the coolest job in the world. All afternoon and evening I'd wait for the hours to pass, eagerly anticipating my time with Jenny. My boss tolerated our romance, even when Jenny and I left notes for each other throughout the restaurant and seemed more interested in each other than in our customers. I had it made, working with my best friend and new love. Every night Jenny and I would put some ribs on the fire, slather on some garlic butter to make Texas toast, and celebrate our new discovery of each other.
Then one night I had to make a decision. Jenny was a great waitress, friendly, diligent, and fun. But on a hectic shift she screwed up an order pretty bad, confusing a beef and pork rib dinner for customers who took that kind of distinction seriously. She tried to fix her mistake, subtly replacing plates so that the boss wouldn't notice. Like I said, he was a basically good guy, but he had a temper too. And when boss spotted the error, he blew up. As Jenny stammered apologies, he shouted, "You're as dumb as a rock" and fired her on the spot. She began to cry and started to leave. I looked at her and looked at him, and I knew what to do. I quit and followed after her. I decided that moment that no other person would ever be as important to me as Jenny. Pretty soon we got married and started our lives together. Next June, we'll celebrate our twentieth anniversary.
After Jenny and I departed Florida and began our lives together we learned that our BBQ restaurant had closed. At once we remembered how much we loved the food there. Beyond being a catalyst for our marriage, this place served genuinely awesome food. When I ate those smoky baby backs and gargantuan beef ribs, I felt the clump of the axe that split logs used to build that pit fire. When Jenny devoured a piece of Texas toast, she could see those pieces of bread rolled across a stainless steel cylinder dripping with butter. Whether the food really was as sublime as our memories may never be known. But for years, all other BBQ existed only as a faint echo of that one place. On all our travels we've made room to search for that succulent taste, that reminder of our first years together. Sometimes we've come close, finding a restaurant capable of evoking those working days and dancing evenings. But we know that many wonderful BBQ restaurants remain for us to discover.
That's the purpose of this trip. We've decided to return to our Southern roots, the region of our birth and upbringing. And we've decided to search for a place that reminds us of those perfect meals we celebrated so long ago. We know that we won't find it. No restaurant anywhere in the world can reproduce our adolescent days. But that doesn't mean we can't enjoy some tasty ribs, some smoky brisket, and some spicy links along the way. As I write this, we're flying to Texas to begin our quest. Later on I'll explain how that Lone Star State was woven into the DNA of this journey. But for now our plane has begun its descent, preparing to drop us into Dallas. Soon we will rent a car and hit the road, heading south. I can almost smell the smoke.