Friday, April 20, 2012

2012: A Texas Meat Odyssey

Last week a caterpillar the size of a kid’s finger bit me. There I was, driving along a country lane when I felt something hairy brush up against my forearm. The next thing I knew my skin was aflame. Looking down I saw this fat, writhing, spiny thing, doing a multi-legged dance of victory.
I stopped the car, jumped out, threw my assailant to the tarmac and ground it into a greasy smear. Then I spent the next hour waiting for my hand to turn black and start to stink. What if it was an ultra-poisonous mega-caterpillar? It wasn’t. Even so, I took it as a valuable reminder - you live in Texas, the rules are different here. Don’t get complacent.
Here’s something else that’s not unusual for Texas: a tree landing on top of my cow. Now a tree might land on a cow back home in Scotland, the winds are strong there. And I can easily see it happening in Russia. But there’s no way I would have purchased a fully grown cow from a farmer in either country in order to eat it over a period of months. I would only do that in Texas.
My cow’s untimely death was a problem because you can’t eat meat that’s been lying in the sun, dead, picked at by turkey vultures. Meanwhile I was already running low on meat from my previous cow. So I was glad when I heard from my cow supplier that he had a new heifer, and he had sent her to the slaughterhouse to be executed on my behalf. And so with my co-cow buyer (you didn’t think I was going to eat all that beef myself did you?) I jumped in a truck and headed for Dime Box, Texas (pop. 300-ish) where the cow was destined to be processed into a wondrous variety of cuts.
I rose around 6:30am, because Dime Box is almost two hours from where I live. The reason I was driving out there is because it’s one of the few places in Central Texas where you can still find a small, locally-owned abattoir willing to carve up carcasses for private purchase.  I didn’t mind the early rise though, because it’s a pleasant drive into “Deep Texas”, a world that moves according to its own rules and rhythms.
First, I passed through Taylor (pop. 15,000), which is a thriving hub of thrift stores, poverty and existential abandonment. The railroad passed through town once; it still does, but it brings no money. From there I headed to Thrall (pop. 800-ish) which has an excellent women’s power lifting team.
Thorndale (pop. 1300-ish) has huge, tin pyramids located on the central street. I like to think they house the mummified remains of the town’s founding Pharaohs, but I suspect they contain grain.
The deeper you drive the higher the density of churches situated in each settlement, until you hit Lexington (pop. 2000-ish) which seems to have several on every street- Lutheran, Baptist, Catholic and possibly something Bohemian for the many Czechs who live in the area. Lexington is also home to Snow’s which produces the best Texas barbecue in the world (according to The New Yorker, but what would they know?). It’s only open on Saturday, from 8am until the meat runs out.
Speaking of meat, back to my quest: it’s easy to get confused en route to Dime Box, because there are actually two Dime Boxes: Old Dime Box and plain “Dime Box”, which presumably isn’t so old. You hit Old Dime Box first, which is pretty much a cluster of houses, a gas station, a (closed) café or two and some churches. Dime Box isn’t all that different, but it has the meat market.
So we turned into the abattoir, parked at the side and went in to pay for the cow. An assistant wheeled a tall stack of cuts out of the freezer. The atmosphere was festive. An old timer in a cowboy hat pointed at the many coolers we had in the back of the truck:
“Hey boys! You buying a whole steer or something?”
“Nah, we’re just being careful,” I replied. “It’s a long way back and we don’t want the meat to rot in the heat.”
“Damn straight!” he replied, and went in to pay for his meat. But as I was tossing a nice piece of rump steak into a cooler I noticed that it was somewhat squishy. The butcher had only killed the cow on Thursday and the dissected carcass hadn’t had time to freeze all the way through. By the time I got home, the cow would have spoiled. With some grief, I returned the meat to the trolley.
The butchers were apologetic, but I didn’t really care. I was out the cost of gas, but I had enjoyed my Texas Meat Odyssey. Let the cow rest in subzero purgatory a little longer, I’ll come back for her. Maybe next time I’ll have time to stop off in Lexington, and try me some of that world class barbecue- if the meat hasn’t run out first, of course.