High school was a bitch anyway. But I suppose being a vegetarian through grade school heightened the sense that I was living through something, suffering in the crucible. It was another excuse to be a pain in the ass when group events were scheduled. "Make sure they have a vegetarian option at the meal." Yadda yadda yadda.
I'd like to say I didn't get haughty about it, but since I'd never really knew the more popular mode of eating, it was tough for me to relate, especially when two of my friends started working for Tom's Ribs on Nacogdoches Road. It seemed a seedy place, a dark temple from which my friends would emerge greasy, smelly ... and laughing. "Dude, that's disgusting. Are you, like, handling the flesh?" "Duh. Whatever. Tom's hilarious. He invited you in for a free sample whenever you want it." That may have been a joke; needless to say I never pursued the offer of conversion.
Today, I view my friends' occupational choice rather differently. I have converted myself, having realized that if one day my survival came down to cooking a burger, I'd be in trouble. Now I eat everything, and I see that my friends had earned their wage at a locally owned shop with a cool proprietor, and they gorged themselves daily on kickass Texas barbeque. Bastards.
Tom's itself has changed as well. There are three locations, and an expanded menu, and — while I can't speak directly to it — I am assured by other patrons that the ribs remain the same.
Though timeworn Texas tradition, ranking barbecue seems ridiculous to me. Putting dead stuff over a big fire is an inherently brilliant idea, so if the result ain't damn good, then it's pedestrian. At least it's available — and all over the state. (We shall not here discuss the relative merits of East Coast, Appalachian, Oregonian, and St. Louisianian barbecue.) What I have come to appreciate in my short time as omnivore is the religion of barbecue.
The protestant fundamentalists don't stock their restaurants with frou-frou nonsense like utensils or plates or napkins. At Cooper's Old-Time Pit BBQ in Llano, for instance, one walks from the car up to the platoon of grills, picks the pieces, pays by the pound, and sits down at benches armed with butcher-block paper, rolls of paper towel, and the essential trimmings. Potato salad is available. Cooper's taught me pure, ascetic reverence of barbecue.
Tom's is a catholic establishment: There are many vehicles to salvation, some of which never even had feet. The meat sits squarely on the damn-good side of barbecue, and we really got off on the fried catfish. Tom's also features some of the best veggie side dishes available at a mainly meat joint. The sweet potato rules. One might even order a Caesar salad.
Perhaps it's better my friends didn't share that part. I might have converted a long time ago.
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