Friday, March 27, 2009

Review: Texas BBQ

Texas BBQ

By: Wyatt McSpadden

Publisher: University of Texas Press

160 pages

How good is ‘Texas BBQ’? It’s good enough to make me regret my lack of a reasonable visual aesthetic and a master of photography nomenclature. If the old trope that a picture is worth a thousand words is accurate, than this book is a collection of some of the most eloquent essays I have ever had the pleasure of viewing.

As I alluded to earlier, the visual arts are not my forte. In spite of this, I was in awe as I flipped through this pictorial of Texas pits and pitmasters. Some of the photos are breathtaking, some are vibrant and some are rustic; but they are all evocative and alluring.

If you are a student of BBQ, you will find an almost emotional resonance with the images in this book. The impact of these photos is visceral. You can almost feel the dry heat, smell the mesquite and meat smoke and hear the west Texas twang as customers sit at a threadbare counter.

I’m sure that if I spent the time doing some research, I would find that most of the commentary on this book will be from the community of avid photographers. There is a purity evident in the photos that speaks to the people who choose BBQ as an avocation. Hard working people who take the time to do something the right way and refuse to cut corners come to life as you slip from page to page.

There is a lack of joviality in these photos. For the practitioners, BBQ is a serious business. This does not convey a sense of drudgery as much as an appropriate solemnity. For the subjects of this pictorial, BBQ is a way of life, deserving of respect and filled with tradition.

Even for someone as blind to the artistry as I am can appreciate the mastery of Mr. McSpadden. There is an image of Roy Perez from Kreuz Market where he is holding a shovel full of glowing charcoal. Mr. Perez looks like a cross between a latter year Elvis and Hephaestus, as he tends to a mythic forge and a crucible for brisket. There is another image of Jim Sells of Smitty’s Market tending to the pit, where the entire setting looks like it could have been pulled from a renaissance era castle.

My favorite image is of the smoker from Big Earl’s Texas Style Bar-B-Que. There are streams of light breaking the darkness as the sun fights its way through the slotted wall. While everything else is in heavy shadow, the light illuminates the smoker, as if offering a promise of BBQ mana from a beneficent God who knows that true BBQ resides in Texas.

Regular readers will have surmised that I have had my hands on a large amount of BBQ related books. Some of those books are ‘low and slow’ travelogues, taking us through the backwoods of our native cuisine. Many have photos that bring to mind what words alone can’t.

Let me assure you that none are as eloquent and as realized as those found in ‘Texas BBQ’.


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