It’s on the way back that we find Texas—ranches, cattle, gnarled oaks with branches like arthritic fingers, wild yellow roses springing from the sandy earth in tight clumps, and Lake Palestine, glittering through deep fog. We did not find Texas in College Station, a town of only housing developments, a football stadium, and a restaurant often visited by former president George H.W. Bush, where tomato bisque is made with beef stock, and I spent the night hugging a toilet, doubly sick with a cold, the beef flavor evident in reverse.
North and West of College Station, Black Angus cows graze in numbers unseen back in Michigan. Their heads are lumpy, their skin thick, their eyes quick and intelligent. I shift in the passenger seat, trying to find the ranch houses, the ranchers who belong to these stretches of cattle, but the land rolls like the ocean and falls over the horizon, and I wonder at the depth of it all. I spot a bite-sized trailer, but it isn’t a home, rather half post-office, half library, and there’s something comforting in knowing that not everything is bigger here.
We find Texas in the display cases at Woody’s Smokehouse, advertised every few miles on interstate 45 as “Jerky Capital of the World”. Woody’s Smokehouse doubles as a Shell Station and parked outside is a mobile barbecue grill shaped like a revolver. This grill is the least menacing gun I’ve ever seen. I picture the grill’s engineer with cracking lips and a dusty hat, shaping metal with a big bright smile on his face, because how could you not be smiling at such a thing?
Inside, the shiny tiles, fluorescent lighting, and refrigerator cases along the back wall peg the place as just another gas station convenience store. But it’s not. The shelves are lined not with days-from-expiring milk and four-day-old hotdogs but with homemade goods, and the much anticipated jerky.
The jerky case butts up against the door, and we’re offered samples, and I’ve never felt so tempted back into the world of meat—beef jerky, buffalo jerky, elk jerky, venison jerky, turkey, pork, smoked hickory, teriyaki, sweet and spicy, jalapeño, mesquite—all rippled, and brown, and caramel, and laid out in strips and hunks in baskets and bags and held in front of my face on the blade of a knife. The sample man has a pony tail, and I refuse, waving my hand.
Instead, we find the meatless wonders: homemade jams, jellies, and preserves in flavors like Dutch apple, horseradish, scuppernong, jalapeño pepper, orange-pineapple-cherry, muscadine, mint, key lime, damson plum, fig and ginger. And we buy without consulting prices, because we know this is it, this is Texas, and we’ve driven twenty-two hours to get here.
published 16 August 2011