Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Eating

Today, I am pleased to announce a major breakthrough in your eating pleasure. Cracker Barrel has put Reuben sandwiches on their menu here in Texas.

The second thing I need to tell you is that nobody agrees on the spelling of the sandwich. I looked it up on the internet and found food authorities who spell it both ways: Rueben and Reuben. So don’t count off for spelling today. Would you believe there is a three-page history of the sandwich on the internet? To save you time today I didn’t read it.

But I can’t tell you how excited I am that my favorite of all sandwiches in the food kingdom is now a standard at a restaurant I pass many times a week. I’ve already been there five or six times just to reassure myself that it’s real and not a dream. The last time I went they said they had run out of the ingredients for a Rueben sandwich. I was strangely reassured that it’s a popular menu item now. I’ve been on a quest for the last 30 years to evaluate every Rueben I could get my hands on. I’ve eaten them in New York at the Stage Deli. I’ve eaten them in the German capital of Texas, Fredricksburg. I’ve had one at the soda fountain on the square here in the boondocks. But I have to say the best to be had is at the Cracker Barrel. Yes, a national franchise not some little hole in the wall run by Oma and Opa Schmidt.

I had my first Cracker Barrel Rueben a couple of years ago in Ohio while visiting my kids. It had just the right amount of premium quality corned beef. Loads of sauerkraut and Swiss cheese lapping over the edges and laying on the grill long enough to fry just the tiniest bit of cheese and caramelize the sauerkraut. It spent the right amount of time on the grill and had enough grease to cause you to wipe your hands after every bite. The resulting texture is crispy in the right places and pungent throughout. I could go on but will stop myself. I’m getting drool on the keyboard. You get the picture.

The next time we drove to Ohio I armed myself with a map of every Cracker Barrel in the US. You can get one of those maps at any CB—how handy is that? The first stop on our trip was only 30 miles from home in Greenville, Texas. I couldn’t believe it when the waitress told me that it wasn’t a permanent item on their menu. It was a regional item and a seasonal item that was only offered in our area during certain times of the year. Apparently they think only Yankees eat it on a regular basis. Our second stop was in Arkansas where I still couldn’t find it on the menu. Beaven was a pretty good sport about this and insisted there were enough choices on the menu that it didn’t matter that we stopped at basically the same place as breakfast. In Tennessee we still didn’t have a Rueben as a choice and I could tell Beaven was losing patience. I think we spent the night in Kentucky and I woke up the next morning looking on my Cracker Barrel map for the nearest restaurant. There it was!-- In Bowling Green Kentucky: “Rueben Sandwich Plate - $6.99.” Yes, I had one for breakfast. I told you these are good sandwiches. Walking to the parking lot afterwards Beaven announced that I should not expect him to take me to a Cracker Barrel ever again.

But I had a mission now. I realized I couldn’t drive to Kentucky every time I wanted a good sandwich. Every time I ate at a Cracker Barrel after that trip I mentioned how great they are and how I wished they could become a permanent menu item in Texas. Last spring they were the “special” for a couple of months and I ate there more often than you want to know about.

So you can imagine my glee when I found them on the menu last week as a “new item” like they had invented the Rueben sandwich or something. I can only hope this isn’t their ‘spring special’ and it won’t disappear in a few months and sent back to culinary mothballs.

My kids say I embarrass them in restaurants with my weird and wild demands. I’m not demanding. I’m old. I’ve lived long enough to know what I enjoy eating.

I’m the same way with barbeque. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. And when it’s bad it’s just a travesty to the pallet. But barbeque is so much more than meat. That’s a point a lot of people miss. Barbeque is a cultural thing.

My standards are high not just because I have had the pleasure of eating frequently at Sonny Bryan’s original barbecue stand on Inwood by the medical school—no my own claim to fame is that I have eaten at Sonny’s father’s restaurant. And there are very few people alive today who can make that claim. Most people don’t realize that Sonny had to learn somewhere-- Red Bryan’s on Jefferson Ave in Oak Cliff. I have tasted from the man who taught Sonny how to do it. You can’t get much more purist than that.

Consequently, I have high standards for Barbeque. My three standards are the wood, the smell and the smoke. And I exercise a series of tests before I patronize any place that advertises BBQ.

First, I drive around to the back and look for a woodpile behind the building. Brisket cooked without wood is just a roast with fancy catsup. Then I roll down the window and sniff for smoke. That tells you if the meat is smoked on the premises or imported a distance and reheated. A lot more than you might think try this ruse. It’s easy enough to just pile up some hickory logs for show but you can’t fake the sniff test. You can always taste the difference but not until after you’ve paid your money and taken a bite. The last thing you check for in the smoke test is it’s age. A new restaurant may be smoking meat but the experienced places, the places YOU want to eat at, have been in business long enough to get a layer of smoke and grease over every surface in the building. It looks nasty but this is the proof of the pudding. Never trust a place that looks too clean. Cleanliness means they don’t take their barbecue seriously. Real smokers are too busy chopping wood and meat to mess with a wet rag on the tabletops. They can’t be bothered to dust off the cobwebs on the stuffed animal heads on the wall. You’re looking for a place that has smoke lacquer on the cobwebs. At Sonny’s place on Inwood there is such a layer of grime that women in nice clothes will often choose not to sit down on the benches there lest they soiled their skirts.

We vacationed in Hawaii once years ago. At the end of the week we were up to our eyeballs in pineapple and rice when we drove past a place with a sign that said “Texas Barbeque.” Our mouths watered and our eyes misted with desire. But I cautioned the family that we had to do the “Wood, Smell and Smoke” test first. We drove around back and saw a woodpile. Check. I rolled down my window and sniffed. The hickory aroma met me and I swooned. I told Beaven to park the car but not bother to get out until I performed the litmus test of seeing how grimy the place was. If this place was freshly scrubbed it would prove that they were just a bunch of Hawaiians playing Texan who didn’t know a thing about Texas or Barbecue. But I didn’t have to walk far.

As I reached for the door I saw nothing less than a 3X4 foot poster of Willie Nelson. I didn’t need to check any further. I called back to the car “It’s OK, come on in.”

You can always trust Willie.

1 comment:

VLB said...

I have loved Cracker Barrell since my family (Jim, the girls and I) discovered it in Tennessee the year we traveled to the Great Smoky Mountains! Haven't seen any this far north, but I did make Lisa eat at CB twice when we were driving up here for the move. RT and I have even eaten at one in KC. Love the place, and loved your Reuben/Rueben stories!
VB