* * * * *
If barbecue was the unofficial Johnson family religion, Eddie Johnson was officially an atheist. Four generations of men and women had lived, cooked, and eaten on the same alligator-infested river bank and been proud to call it home. Four generations of pit masters, all men, tended the fires that cooked the meat to the famous Johnson family perfection. But it was Eddie, the black sheep who gagged every time he got near a grease fire, who was the family prodigy.
Eddie knew brisket like he knew the inside of his girlfriend’s thigh: supple, firm, and dangerous. If he treated it with respect, coaxed it slowly and told it with his hands how utterly perfect it was, miracles happened. But Eddie was a vegetarian. He could spend days exploring the mysteries of his girlfriend’s thighs, but his own brisket had never passed his lips.
Every five years, Texas Living magazine sent its designated, full-time barbecue reporter out from Austin to scour the state and pronounce Texas’s Top 50 Best Barbecue Joints. This reporter, unsurprisingly, was a man. At six feet and three inches tall and two-hundred-forty pounds, Billy Watkins carried his barbecue credentials around his middle. It’s not that Texas lacked for women who could write about food in ways that made nutritionists cry, and who knew that black on barbecue was a good thing. But in Texas, barbecue was Men’s Work.
Billy never let the restaurants know he was coming. Some places fawned over him, bringing him the choicest samples, sending over the prettiest waitress to flirt even though it was known Billy was about as married as one man can be to another in Texas. It’s one of the reasons he looked forward to going to Eddie Johnson’s place. Eddie hardly noticed he was there. Billy was left alone for the transcendent experience of meat that melted, that revealed more complexities of smoke, texture, and flavor than the finest fifty-year Scotch.
Billy gave his order, then scooted down the line with the others to pick up his lunch, presented humbly on butcher paper, raw onions and jalapenos on the side, sauce available but frowned upon. After his meal, Billy leaned back from the table feeling a contentment that made even his insides smile. He would step around back, find Eddie, and congratulate him on a fine meal. He wouldn’t tell Eddie that this was the year he would win, finally, after fifteen years in the top twenty.
Billy rounded the corner and found the man he was looking for, squatting in jeans, baseball cap pulled down, watching the coals.
“Your brisket is superb. Again.”
The figure stood up and a blond ponytail fell into place. Billy stared, slack-jawed, at a petite blonde woman who looked to be the same age as Eddie. She smiled and thrust out her hand, self-consciously wiped it on her apron, and offered it again.
“Hi. I guess you didn’t hear. Eddie opened a bike shop. I’m Eileen, Eddie’s girlfriend.”