My first reaction, when I heard that a Fort Wayne rib joint was heading to Houston to provide barbecue to Hurricane Harvey sufferers, was, "Those poor people. Haven't they suffered enough? They lost everything they had, and now they have to eat non-Texas barbecue?"
But then I read a few more stories and understood that they're just one restaurant that's part of a nationwide effort called Barbecue Relief, a group composed of volunteer competition barbecue enthusiasts from several states. The group is capable of cooking up 35,000 plates of food a day. Co-founder Stan Hays of Kansas City, Mo., said his crew will be in Houston for two, possibly three weeks and is prepared to serve more than half a million meals to police, first responders, emergency volunteers and evacuees:
The power of barbecue is profound under normal circumstances, Hays said. In a hungry, Harvey-ravaged Texas it can be transporting. In the end, though, it's a hot meal prepared by caring hands, at a time of need.
"When you're finally siting down around a table and enjoying the laughs and fellowship around you, you know what barbecue does for people," Hays said. "Our barbecue is not just nourishment. It's the compassion and hope people feel."
And what the Houston area can use now is hope. Good barbecue doesn't hurt, either.
So that made me feel better. I've learned enough about competition barbecue teams to know they turn out some great food. One of them started a restaurant in Fort Wayne I visit frequently. Shigs may not be "Texas" barbecue, but it tastes a lot like some of the best stuff I've had there. I haven't eaten at Lucille's Barbecue, the restaurant taking part in the Texas volunteer effort, but I'd wager their stuff is pretty good, too.
"The power of barbecue is profound under normal circumstances." That may sound a little over the top, but many people feel just that strongly about what they eat. It's not just fuel to sustain the body, it's a life experience saturated in emotional richness.
I read a story a couple of days ago about an 80-year-old Goshen, Ind., couple who had just fulfilled their lifelong dream of eating at every single Cracker Barrel restaurant in the country — all 645 of them:
Ray and Wilma Yoder, 80, of Goshen, Indiana, flew out west over the weekend so the couple could visit their 645th Cracker Barrel on Monday morning at the grand opening of the new Tualatin, Oregon location. The monumental occasion also happened to be Ray's 81st birthday, and the restaurant even put up a sign to welcome them.
Ray Celebrated with blueberry pancakes, and Wilma had eggs and sausage. All expenses were paid by Cracker Barrel, according to KOIN6.
Bet they're suffering a severe emotional letdown about now. What do you do when you finally accomplish what you've been obsessed with all your life? Just wait around and hope they build another Cracker Barrel somewhere before you croak? And what was the point anyway? I've been in a few Cracker Barrels in my time, and let me tell you a little secret: Each Cracker Barrel is exactly like every other Cracker Barrel. Ray is not going to get better blueberry pancakes in Kansas than he got in Indiana, and Wilma's eggs and sausage should tasted pretty damned familiar, since she's probably had precisely the same eggs and sausage taste 644 times before.
But now that I think about it, my mother and sister used to have a fold-out map that listed the location of every Cracker Barrel in the country. They did not, of course, intend to visit every single one of them. But they had planned to do a lot of traveling, and they wanted to make sure where the nearest one always was to their daily itinerary, so that whatever else happened on a trip, they knew they could dine in a place they knew they liked.
And you need a map if you plan to chase Cracker Barrels. There are a lot of them, but they're not ubiquitous, like McDonald's and Starbucks, which you can find on practically every corner in the country. Not that anybody would want to tour the country from Big Mac New York to Big Mac California, with lots of vente lattes to wash them down, but they could do it with their eyes closed if they wanted to.
At one time there probably were people who drove from Big Mac to Big Mac, just like there are people around today with Cracker Barrel maps. "Fast food" came along at a time when automobiles were turning us into a more nomadic cultures and people decided they could afford to eat out a little more often, but not extravagantly so. It was natural that the food industry responded with standardized menus that could churn out the same food in multiple locations at a small production cost.
No wonder Texans are so intensely proud of their barbecue and so intensely protective of its regional supremacy. How dare those amateurs in Indiana and Ohio think they can duplicate the food that's in our very blood. Know those McRib sandwiches that come and go periodically at McDonald's? I bet they've never sold many of them in Texas.
I heard a comedian once say he was startled one morning to wake up and find there was a Starbucks in his closet. A similar thing happened to me. I came in to work one morning and found a Starbucks in the office cafeteria.
Well, not an entire Starbucks, but a Starbucks coffee machine. My coffee consumption at work has since doubled, even though the coffee in the old machine was 50 cents, and a cup from the Starbucks machine is $1.65 per cup. I wouldn't say I'm a Starbucks fanatic — they haven't quite perfected the knack of making a very strong brew without creating that burnt-coffee taste, and their pretentiousness is almost unbearable — but, Lord, their stuff does have some heft, almost as much as the concoction I brew, and that's saying something.
I blame my father.
Early in my marriage, my wife and I decided it was time to invite my parents to travel from their Fort Wayne home to the little house we were renting in Wabash. We decided on a Sunday dinner. We spent a week getting ready, cleaning the house, shopping for groceries, planning the perfect meal. After it was all over, I kept waiting for my parents to say something, anything, about the meal, but nothing was forthcoming.
"So, what did you think?" I finally asked my father.
He thought for a few moments, as if gathering his thoughts, then said the only comment he would ever make about the meal:
"The coffee could have been a little stronger."
All these years later, I can appreciate the sheer brilliance of that answer.
In just eight words, he:
1. Let me know that, overall, the meal was just fine, since he could not bring himself to criticize it.
2. Ensured that he would never again be served a weak cup of coffee by my wife or me.
My father died before my brother moved to Texas and before Starbucks became a national institution, but I'm pretty sure he would agree that barbecue is profound under normal circumstances and that Starbucks is pretty good coffee for "store bought." I'm not sure why, but I suspect he would look with disdain on Cracker Barrel. Their fare is neither profound nor strong. It's reliably consistent and fairly tasty, but it's just there, you know? Like McDonald's with a fuller menu. OK to get through the country with but certainly not worth going out of your way.