A visit to small-town Lockhart, Texas will satisfy - and exceed - cravings for Southern comfort food.
I’m wilting in the desiccating midday sun on a crowd-free sidewalk in small-town Texas, 35 kilometres south of the Austin state capital. I cup my hands to the cool glass and squint into the blackened storefront ahead. It looks like this greasy old shack – rumoured to house an Aladdin’s cave of barbecued meat treats – is long past its sell-by date. Lured by a sudden, saliva-inducing aroma, I follow my nose and push on the sticky wooden door. Smitty’s Market is one of several carnivorous old eateries clogging the arteries of Lockhart, a clapboard southern town officially designated the barbecue capital of Texas. It’s the kind of place where vegetarians are met with blank, uncomprehending stares . . . just before being eaten. Inside, the brick-lined serving area is like a steamy walk-through oven, its lickable air dripping with salty, slow-roasting juices. Joining the rotund regulars chatting at the tiny back counter – no one does the friendly face of obesity better than the States – I peruse the chalkboard menu, then decamp to the bench-lined dining room, a paper-wrapped parcel of sizzling flesh and spongy white bread under my arm.
A glistening jumble of horseshoe-shaped sausages, sweet blackened ribs, butter-soft brisket slices and a lightly tanned pork chop, lunch looks like a road wreck at an abattoir. But the rich, smoky flavours are better than any barbecued meat I’ve ever tasted – especially the brisket, which I would happily eat until my stomach exploded. After 30 minutes of fevered noshing, the food washed down with a fluorescent bottle of Big Red cream soda, it’s an increasing likely scenario. Waddling around the scrubbed-clean streets of downtown Austin a couple of hours later, I eventually arrive at the mammoth, multi-columned state capitol building. Dominating the cloudless skyline, its magnificent faux Renaissance profile is like an ill-suited transplant from the Vatican.
The building is almost devoid of life, and I stroll its echoing marble corridors before reaching a dome-roofed rotunda where a curve of anonymous Texas governor portraits – most looking like moderately successful realtors – is enlivened by the visage of George W. Bush. Head honcho here until 2000, the former governor’s mug displays its usual barely suppressed smirk. Not every Austinite loves Bush, though. Scouring the quirky South Congress Avenue shops an hour later, I find “Dumbass on a String” car fresheners and naughty Bush and Cheney fridge magnets among the jackelopes and nuclear-hot barbecue sauces. I also spot a F*** Y’All, I’m From Texas T-shirt – in fact, the soon-to-be ex-president probably wears one himself. But when it comes to politics, the city isn’t quite what it seems.
While vast swaths of Texas cowboy country are doggedly Republican, independent-minded Austin has a Democrat bent, voting the way of Carter, Clinton and even Kerry in past elections. Its large student population, powerful environmental groups and deeply rooted artistic community account for much of the city’s pinko leanings. I delve into this artsy side of town on Sixth Street a few hours later. Austin’s dominant nighttime promenade, this hopping bar area is lined with dozens of laid-back music venues.
They jostle for space with neon-lit tattoo parlours that likely do a brisk trade in drunken orders from people falling in unrequited love after five or six beers. Nipping into Nuno’s on Sixth for a cold one, I catch a free side order of smoking harmonica-driven blues from the house band. In contrast, Momo’s a few blocks away is whooping it up with a fiddle-playing wunderkind whose foot-stomping bluegrass swing rattles the rafters. I estimate the average age of his backing band to be 15; they’re the kind of young Americans that might yet give the U.S. something to look forward to.