On Friday morning, August 30, it was back to National Airport and into the sky, southwest to Dallas/Fort Worth, then on to Lubbock, Texas. Son Jack was waiting on the terminal curb, and it was so good to see him after four months. Like the previous weekend, it was time again for annual tradition, this time in Brady, Texas. For the 23rd consecutive year I was judging in the World Championship Barbeque Goat Cook-off; Jack’s no rookie either, this being his sixth year.
We drove southeast from Lubbock, into the distinctive (and to me comforting) West Texas landscape, past the mesas locally called caprocks. It was so good to be back in Texas. Although Jack calls twice weekly, face-to-face is way better, and we got caught up. Earlier in the week, he returned from a week in Buenos Aires, and was full of stories of fun and discovery (he stayed with my young friend Martín Siniawski, a great fellow I’ve described in these pages). We made it to Brady, Texas (I’ve written in these pages about Texans’ endearing tendency to add the name of their state to a place name; I’m no fan of redundancy, but I do like the practice, a nice manifestation of pride in place), in less than four hours, checked into the hotel, washed faces, and headed to dinner at The Spread, a local, well-regarded barbeque place.
“Good to be back in Texas” mostly meant it was great to be in a place where strangers spoke to you, acknowledged you even passing in a hallway. So it was that Mandy, co-owner of The Spread struck up a conversation with us while ringing up our dinners. Later, as we tucked into smoked turkey and fixins, she came to the table and chatted some more, then brought us a couple of complimentary “poppers,” quail or shrimp wrapped in bacon. It was our first full dose of that Texas friendliness; here, people talk to strangers. We were laying a good base for the next day of judging. Mandy told us that The Spread was catering the barbequed goat lunch that is offered to the public at the cook-off.
We headed back to the hotel. Jack switched on a football game, and even with a full stomach I put on bike shorts and rode 10 miles on a stationary bike in the gym. Wandered to a Shell gas station next door for a big can of beer, watched the game, and clocked out at ten. Up at 6:30, back to the gym for 15 miles, then a couple of cups of coffee. While cooling off in the hotel parking lot, I ran into veteran (38 years) judge Jim Stewart, a good ole boy from Lubbock. We had a nice yak. I told him, like I told many people that day, that I missed Texas. A lot.
As we had done for two previous years, Jack and I motored 18 miles west to the hamlet of Melvin, Texas, for the judges’ brunch at Jacoby’s. The family had been there for generations, and had clearly done well. The café was a small part of their holdings – they also had a big feed mill, livestock, and more. It was so good to be back, shaking hands, laughing, bantering with a group of Texans I’ve known for 20-plus years. Good ole boys, all of ‘em. Explained the move to Virginia. They nodded, but understood it wasn’t the Lone Star State, nosir.
After the meal, Jack peeled off to judge in the Best Cooking Rig competition, as he has done for several years, with Stewart and Riley, a couple of younger judges he’s gotten to know. You’re not long a stranger in Brady, Texas. I drove back to town, filled the Subaru gas tank, and motored to the cook-off venue, Richards Park on the edge of town. Ambled around the site for an hour, visiting with cookers and others, including Will and Ryan, two fellows from Houston conversations with strangers, but this time it was those boys. Spotting my shirt with “judge” on the front, one of them said, “Sir, you look like you know something, can you tell us a little about the cook-off?” “Sure,” I replied, “what would you like to know?” “Well,” Ryan asked, “what’s the beer policy?” I replied “A lot,” then told them that on the cook-off grounds there really weren’t that many rules. I then told them a little about the competition, then asked for their stories. Both had graduate degrees from Texas Tech in Lubbock; Will taught art in a public high school in Houston and Ryan was a landscape architect with a big design firm. I told them to look me up after the judging began, and I’d sneak ‘em some tasty samples. A nice moment.
It was fun to chat with Texas author Joe Nick Patoski, who had missed judging for a couple of years. He’s a good fellow, with lots of interesting knowledge and interesting perspectives on the big state. Yakked with a bunch of others, too, including a former Minnesotan, Val, sister-in-law of another judge. Lots of chatter.
At two, we started judging the “mystery meat” competition, a run-up to the cabrito. This year, the mystery meat was pork loin. Not a lot of pure barbeque – for some reason, contestants thought it would be better to bread it or cover it with sauce or fruit garnish. Whatever, we agreed. At three, the main event began. I was table captain, joined by Jack, Joe Nick, and a rookie, Jason Brown, another second-generation judge (his dad Gary was one of the founders of the event back in ’74). It’s a tough job, sampling all that goat. Round 1, we sampled 25 plates; subsequent rounds we reduced to 15, 5, and 2. A lot of meat that afternoon. And a great deal of fun. Our job completed, we said our good-byes, ambled back to the car, and drove home, pausing briefly in Sweetwater, Texas, for treats at the Dairy Queen (a DQ stop after judging is another part of the goat weekend formula).
Back home we showered, watched some college football, and clocked out. Was up at seven, tiptoeing out of the house and onto Jack’s mountain bike for a good ride on a cool (68°) morning. Headed north to the vast Texas Tech campus. A little more than 17 miles, a nice workout while most students slept. Showered and headed for a big coffee at Jack’s favorite J&B Coffee Shop, then to brunch at Manna, a nice small restaurant. Stopped at Wal-Mart and the Market Street grocery, gassed up the car again, then home for an hour of golf on TV.
Jack drove me to the airport, I flew to DFW, then home to Virginia. Lord, I miss Texas.