Sunday, June 17, 2007

Texas Barbecue Trail, Dispatch #2: Taylor (Father's Day Edition)

"Now you're about to see something really special."

Sometimes I make this declaration to anyone sharing the table with me right before I dive into an obscenely overloaded plate of barbecue. It's not that I mean disrespect to what's on my plate by wolfing it down. Rather, I'm describing the exquisite pleasure I'm about to derive from that plate. On some occasions, my ecstasy borders on the pornographic but, if you get too close, you could lose a limb.

Yesterday, I uttered these words while standing in line at Louie Mueller BBQ in Taylor, Texas, well before my plate was even prepared. One of the true Texas barbecue shrines, Louie's was founded in 1946 as a grocery, Louie Mueller's Complete Food Store. After opening a barbecue shed to feed workers from a nearby railroad yard and from area cotton fields, Louie Mueller's opened in its present location at 206 W. 2nd Street in 1959 in what had been a ladies' basketball court in 1923. The walls and ceiling of the cavernous, dimly lit temple are darkened by years of oak smoke that emanates from the brick oven in the center of the building. There's a corkboard full of business cards that, having never been removed, range from tanned to blackened from the years of smoke. Added in 1999, the screened-in dining area brings some air circulation to the proceedings.

So, indeed, at Louie's, "atmosphere" isn't some frou-frou, ephemeral term with which to describe the indescribable. At Louie's, like Kreuz's Market in Lockhart, you literally breathe it.

Naturally, there's history to along with that atmosphere. Louie's son, Bobby, bought the place out in 1974 and began serving cole slaw and potato salad, which were his mother-in-law's recipes. Bobby has made the hot sausage from scratch since the '60s. Bobby's son, Johnny, brought a taste of Taylor to Austin at the now-closed Johnny Mueller's on Manor Road. From what I've been able to gather, there's been years of bad blood between father and son. While I can't confirm the nature of the dispute, the bottom line has been that loyalty to Bobby versus the convenience of Johnny being in Austin has been a conundrum for barbecue aficionados in Austin. It was bittersweet to discover upon our return to Austin that the issue was rendered moot last year when Johnny's sadly closed.

But back to Louie's. Right out of the gate, I've got a lot of use for a barbecue joint that pours draught Shiner Bock in chilled Mason jars. When I was growing up in Columbus, Ga., on Sundays after church I drank gallons of IBC root beer that Country's Barbecue served in Mason jars. Nostalgia goes well with barbecue.

It should come as no surprise that Louie's serves its meat on butcher paper in the old-school Texas tradition. As was with the case with Johnny, Bobby makes a point of cutting off a piece of brisket for you to sample while he gets your meal ready. As was not the case with Johnny, Bobby spares you the splash of surliness often dished out to unwitting customers on Manor Road.

The clear musts on the menu are the moist brisket and the jalapeno sausage. They've introduced chipotle sausage as well, but I saved that for a return trip. The brisket comes in slices nearly three-quarters of inch thick, featured nearly centimeter-thick smoke rings and, as was the case with Johnny's, practically melted in my mouth, such was the slow-cooked consistency.

Similarly, the tender, fine-ground sausage fell apart as soon as I cut into it. Like the brisket, the sausage was well-marbled and thus drenched in moist, fatty goodness. Per personal custom, I skipped the white bread, which might've been a misstep this time. Owing to the cayenne and jalapeno, Louie's sausage has a long-lasting piquancy that can overshadow your appreciation of the other items on your plate. A splash of iced tea or beer can put some of the fire out, but a little white bread might make a more effective sorbet with which to cleanse the palate. I'm just offering this as a caveat to the taster, not as a criticism of the meat, which, as Gourmet and the James Beard Foundation and others have noted, is exceptional.

I also tried the pork ribs, which, like the brisket, feature Louie's signature rub, a delicious cracked pepper blend that accents the flavor of the meat without overpowering it and seems to hold in the moisture as well. This may be my regional bias rearing its head again, but it seems an unfortunate fact of life with Texas barbecue that, when you order pork ribs, you can expect spare ribs, rather than the loin back ribs, which are prized in Memphis for their fall-off-the-bone tenderness. Spare ribs have more meat per rib, but, in spite of being a fattier cut, lack loin back ribs' tenderness. Additionally, there's a bit more effort required to get all of the meat off. Still, Louie's does a fine job here and the smoky oak flavor, combined with the delicious rub, does plenty to balance any criticisms of texture.

It should be noted that Taylor is also home to the Taylor Café, another historic barbecue establishment, which I'll have to cover in a later dispatch.

By the way, Happy Father's Day. If you live in the same town as your dad, take the ol' man out for some 'cue.


Monday, June 11, 2007

Pit Bull Owners: Off the Chain, Out of the Closet

As a pit bull owner, I've been watching the Michael Vick pit bull story with great interest, in spite of the utter revulsion I feel towards the alleged activities (I refuse to use the term "sport" to describe dog fighting and defy anyone to justify doing otherwise). Regardless of whether Vick's direct participation is proven, as the owner of the literal killing fields upon which the gruesome felonies apparently were perpetrated, he ought to bear some responsibility. Indeed, according to the article linked above, even the surviving dogs taken from Vick's property on Moonlight Road will have to be euthanized, as animal control officers have determined that these dogs cannot be adopted. If it is proven that Vick actively participated in dog fighting (be it through betting, organizing, financing, training, etc.), I expect to see him in prison stripes before I ever see him in a Falcons jersey. Any other outcome would be a gross miscarriage of justice.

Of course, I realize that coming out against dog fighting is about as bold a stance as opposing child molestation. If the heinousness of such a pursuit isn't immediately obvious to you, your sociopathic tendencies require far more help than this blog can possibly offer. That said, it's probably worth calling out apologists such as ESPN's Scoop Jackson who, on Outside the Lines, attempted to excuse pit bull fighting as "a cultural thing" among blacks. I understand suicide bombing is a cultural thing as well, although I've never heard anyone attempt to justify it along those lines. "Cultural thing" or not, dog fighting is a felony in 48 states and a misdemeanor in the other two and, to my knowledge, it isn't any more legal if the perpetrators happen to be black.

Moving along though ... In part as a result of stories such as this one, the act of coming out in support of pit bulls requires an increasing amount of nerve. Try renting an apartment in any major metro area as a pit bull owner. Picture the change in a co-worker's face during the following exchange:

Co-worker: Hey, what’d you do this weekend?

You: Took the dog for a hike and swim along the Greenbelt.

Co-worker: Ah, cool. What kind of dog do you have?

You: A pit bull.

Granted, owning a pit bull is a lifestyle choice you make knowing the good and bad that comes with it. It's not like pit bull owners were born a disenfranchised minority with no say in the matter, like, say, blacks in the Jim Crow South. We could've saved ourselves some headaches by being golden retriever owners.

So why do we bother? In part, because of stories such as Vick's, not in spite of them. With every story of dog fighting or of a pit bull attack, a negative stereotype is further cemented in the public's mind about the breed. But to punish the breed would be to treat the symptom rather than address the cause, like banning the Internet because it's been a tool for identity theft. In this case, the cause is, invariably, cruel and/or neglectful owners. There is a place in this world for pit bulls: in the care of committed, loving pet owners. So being a responsible pit bull owner is a lifestyle choice, yes, but, with politicians clamoring for outright bans of the breed and the media using the acts of an irresponsible few to demonize the rest of us, it's increasingly a cause.

While I'm not starting any rallies for pit bulls, I am being more open about my dog's breed in hopes of broadening people's perspective on the subject. In the past, when a child at the park was playing with my dog, I was inclined to fib a little to the parents, not wanting to cause concern or spoil the goodwill that Goya was building with their child. I'd explain that my dog was a "terrier mix," a "Staffordshire terrier," or a "bull terrier – you know, like Spuds McKenzie, the Bud Light dog."

But I realized that I'm not doing anyone any favors – not to Goya, to pit bulls or to a potential voter. It's good for all three if I'm honest: Goya gets to be the ambassador that she ought to be (and that pit bulls and their owners need her to be), the breed gets some much-needed positive exposure and the parents get to see why pit bulls were once called "nurse maid dogs," due to their unusual tolerance around even the most rambunctious children. Over half a century ago, the pit bull was the RCA/Victor mascot, "Petey" from the Little Rascals, and the Buster Brown mascot. Today, sadly, the only thing you can sell with a pit bull is gangsta rap.

Anecdotally, the pit bull breed is rapidly increasing in popularity and, unfortunately, you can confirm this in part by visiting any animal shelter and noting the number of pit bull mixes hoping for adoption and likely facing euthanasia. For many pit bull owners, that tragic fact alone more than justifies any societal hassles. It's a breed that requires and rewards an extraordinary amount of care and training. Unfortunately, the market for pit bulls includes an inordinate percentage of would-be owners incapable of such attention, which is why so many pit bulls find themselves languishing in shelters. First-time dog owners would be well-advised to consider a less demanding breed. If you've got some feelings of inadequacy that you hope to rectify by acquiring an aggressive dog, do us all a favor and spend the money on a therapist instead.

It's true that, over the years, pit bulls were bred for aggressive activities such as boar-hunting and, yes, dog-fighting. But aggression is not their only trait. They are remarkably playful, loyal, intelligent and dedicated. If there's one thing they all can be counted on to be aggressive about, it's their affection towards humans. The greeting I get when I come home from work is a 15-minute onslaught of kisses. Contrary to the ticking time bomb reputation with which stories such as the Vick case have saddled them, they are renowned for their friendly temperament. The American Temperament Test Society provides temperament testing around the country for dog breeds, and gives a passing score for the entire breed based on the percentage of passed over failed within total number of the particular breed tested. As of December 2003, the American Pit Bull Terrier has a current passing rate of 83.9%, and the American Staffordshire Terrier passes at 83.2%. In comparison, the Golden Retriever passing rate is 83.2%.

The preceding statistics come courtesy of ATL King Pits, a breeder operated by senior University of Georgia wide receiver Sean Bailey, who appears to be bucking another ugly stereotype: the disturbing trend of athlete involvement in pit bull fighting. Bailey claims to have bred out of his blue pit bulls the "gameness" that dog fighters prize. ATL King Pits' articles section is full of useful tips, facts and suggestions about the breed and does much to dispel some unfortunate myths that burden so many pit bull owners.

EDIT: Hat tip to Nicki over in God's Country. We got a posse!

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Friday, June 08, 2007

While I Was Away, or A Time to Hustle and A Time to Flow

Blogging, like most addictions, doesn't pay for itself. It's hard work keeping that monkey fed. And for "between jobs," "independent consultant" types such as yours truly, occasional desperate measures -- such as a temporary shelving of The Habit -- are necessary.

That said, having resumed full-time employment and already returned from vacation, I'm pleased to report that, gentlemen, the bar is officially open!

I expect to make up for lost time shortly, although likely this means more hustling and less flowing, as the summer doesn't offer a wealth of material for college football blogging, other than snarkitude regarding the crimes and misdemeanors our team's 18-22-year-old indentured mercenaries, a topic more than capably documented on Orson Swindle's Fulmer Cup.

Also, a word about the Hoooka player below: Much to my irritation, there is no auto-disable function on the player, which means the preview for Before the Music Dies launches every time you load this page. And it means every time I post, that player goes further down the page and thus gets incrementally harder to find and pause. I've been exchanging e-mails with Indie911 about this and they haven't evidenced much of a sense of urgency on the matter. Likely what I'll do is move the player to my old blog,, and link it from here. Any other suggestions are welcome.

Anyway, thanks for your patience.