First things first: the th is silent.
Moving on, it's 6:00 A.M., and it's time to make the sausage.
Tom Micklethwait rotates through several varieties of sausage on any given business day at Micklethwait Craft Meats on Austin's east side. By "varieties," I don't just mean the fairly standard kielbasa or jalapeno links. Those may make an appearance, but so might lamb or duck and more combinations of seasonings than you would likely imagine for a barbecue joint. This particular day, pork belly andouille was on the menu. MC Hammer was coming out of the speakers, and the smell of a pork and chicken stock simmering on the hot plate filled the 1960 Comet trailer.
Everything had already been prepped and seasoned by the time I showed up. All that was left to do was to grind, stuff, link, and of course, smoke the sausage. Tom makes an average of 20 pounds of fresh sausage every Wednesday through Sunday when the trailer is open for business. It's what he is most known for and where he clearly has the most fun. The preparation of everything else on the menu is fairly technical, Tom says. Sausage is where he can get creative. He uses no recipes, and while he knows what is in each of the sausages he makes, he can also just throw things in. "Sausage is a playground. You can do whatever you want."
While I stood there and watched this process, I picked Tom's brain on everything from his professional background to his technique to how much sleep he gets to the logo to his thoughts on what constitutes "real" barbecue.
And then some.
Tom is working about a 60 hour week currently. When he first opened up seven months ago, it was just him. The logistics were challenging, and for all those who scoffed at the lack of brisket during the lunch service in those early months, well, I dare you to stay up all night smoking a bunch of briskets and then run a business all day long after that. All by yourself. Some things are not humanly possible. He eventually brought in some help. Mark Fagan, who was already a partial owner, left his job at The Austin Chronicle and came on full time, helping out on the business end and running the dinner shift. William Ankeney, who worked with Tom at Vespaio as the pastry chef, joined as well. You may have spotted the tall guy with the shaved head inside the trailer... that's him, and that perfectly executed white bread that comes with the plates is his doing.
These days, Mark and William handle the dinner shift and take care of much of the prep for the next day. At 9:00 P.M., William puts the briskets on the smoker. Tom awakes from his daylight slumber and shows up at the trailer a couple of hours later. He spends the night tending to the fire and prepping all the other meats before adding them to the smoker as well. Then comes the sausage. Then comes the lunch shift. Then comes sleep.
This pattern repeats Tuesday night through Sunday lunchtime, at which point Tom begins his version of a weekend and sleeps for about twelve hours before having one day off. By mid-day Tuesday he is back at it, getting shopping done and filling inventory needs.
I didn't ask why he has purposely designed his life this way because I didn't need to. It was more than obvious that it makes him happy.
|Wisdom recently traded among friends: "When you lose your inner 12-year-old boy, it's all over."|
I asked Tom what he thinks constitutes "real" Texas barbecue, because, well, I couldn't help myself. It's a hot topic after all, and there are a lot of opinions out there. Some loud and some kind of insane and some actually thoughtful and some still forming themselves. It's pretty difficult to escape this subject matter for any barbecue fans these days, or indeed, non-barbecue fans as well (much to their annoyance). Tom's first response was the classic, "If I had a dollar for every time I heard, 'Don't you know this is Texas?!'" A guy stopped by recently and became close-to-irate because there was no Diet Dr. Pepper on the menu. Because this is Texas, and obviously you are a poser if you don't serve Diet Dr. Pepper.
(People, listen. Forgive me for editorializing for a moment, but there are many, many things in this world worthy of your ire. Whether or not a restaurant serves Diet Dr. Pepper is not one of them. Just... get some perspective. Opinions are fine, but there is no need to behave like an asshat... unless that's how you balance out your personal insecurities. And if that's the case, I'm sorry, and may I suggest counseling?)
Beyond that, Tom said he felt it was less about what than how, and he had a healthy perspective on it. "It's red or yellow," he said. "Neither is right. It's either traditional or non-traditional." He rephrased the question to: "What is a real barbecue joint?" and used Lambert's as an example of a place that people often disparage for not being "real"... is it a barbecue joint or is it restaurant that serves barbecue and where is the line? Then he went even farther and started musing on the concept of the liberally applied term "hipster barbecue," as well as the current trend of Texas barbecue in New York.
When you break all these things down into psychological motives, it really is pretty interesting. There is this need within us to categorize and to self-identify as real and authentic, relegating anything and anyone who diverges from that definition as the other, or not "real." Alongside that, the fascination that New York has with Texas—and Austin, specifically—is pure fascination from the other side of that coin. As Texans we are most certainly the other, condescended to and generalized about. Yet, so many of our cultural underpinnings are co-opted, like barbecue. And while there are many times I would like to prominently display my middle finger when the bashing starts, I can accept the co-opting. That is a simple symptom of being a human being. We all do it. When people of different backgrounds coexist beside one another, they influence each other. They take the things they like and absorb them into their own culture, and it goes in all directions.
There are those barbecue joints that take the preservation and replication of historical precedent to heart. We need those places. Just as we need the ones that take liberties, push a few boundaries, and consider creativity an integral part of the process. I'd argue that it's not as cut and dry as all that. The lines are blurry. History in and of itself is not static, and that word "real" is just intrinsically problematic. "Real" is and always has been in flux, and it's a matter of perception and context.
At one point Tom said, "I could show you a picture of barbecue and ask, 'Is that real?' and you'd say, 'No, it's a photograph.'" Real, like beauty, like art, and like good barbecue, is in the eye of the beholder.
Break it down.
STOP. Brisket time.
By that point it was about 7:30 in the morning, and despite all of that being some pretty thought-provoking stuff for an hour of the day when I am normally hitting snooze repeatedly, I followed along quite well. We switched subjects and walked outside to the other trailer that is home to the smoker so that Tom could wrap the meat.
He'd already revealed that he doesn't get out much to sample other barbecue—and how could he, really—so I asked him about beforehand, before seven months ago when Micklethwait Craft Meats became his life. As a native Texan, and a native Austinite (one of a handful), his family stopped off at Cooper's and Inman's in Llano while en route to visit grandparents in Brady, a.k.a "The Heart of Texas." But Tom prefers a less smokey product resulting from indirect heat, and he uses post oak as opposed to the mesquite that Cooper's is known for. Briskets are typically smoked around 14 hours, at a temperature of around 250°–275°. Approximately. There's no thermometer, he told me, and when I asked, "Are you just pulling those numbers out of your ass? How do you know if you can't measure it?," not only did he laugh instead of being offended (um, thanks), he layed out in no uncertain terms how he knows. It's because he knows. It's the difference between someone with knowledge and experience who understands the responses of the food they are preparing to a point where even if that understanding is still growing and developing, it has become instinctual... as compared to someone who has to follow a recipe to a T. As a fairly able cook in some arenas, I get that. It shut me up.
Apart from the sandwich rolls and the pickles, everything else is made in-house and fresh daily. Tom started out making his own pickles, but due the to timing of the fermentation process and general lack of space inside the trailer, it just wasn't practical. And, despite my extreme love for homemade pickles, I accept that. Sort of begrudgingly, but I do. I'm not the one having to deal with the logistics of running a business after all. Whichever jarred brand he is using is still tasty. And you can not argue with his sides. Tom freely admitted to me that he is not a bean fan, but when I quizzed him about his approach to making something he is not so much a fan of but that customers expect (because this is G.D. Texas, after all), his responses were satisfactory. There's no begrudging checklist of items to include on the menu to get people to shut up; Tom sincerely developed a recipe for the beans that he would enjoy eating himself... as a picky bean-eater (note: this is where that pork and chicken stock comes back into play). There's no half-ass about it, and that fact is more than apparent in everything I have personally sampled. The jalapeno-cheese grits first appeared on the menu as a way to offset the potato salad, but people loved them so they stayed. Having tried them myself, I will say people loved them for a reason. Grits can be, well, boring. These are creamy and flavorful and something that you leave wishing you'd had more of. The slaw is light and slightly lemony and still packed with flavor, unlike some other versions I've sampled where subtlety was just too subtle, and it provides a nice compliment to the heaviness of the protein-packed meal. And those beans that Tom wouldn't have made if it were up to his last-meal preferences... they are peppery and saturated with that heavenly flavor of the stock made from pork and chicken bones.
Everything about the place is thoughtful, whether or not the idea behind certain things is obvious to the patrons. The reason you place your order, go sit down, then wait briefly while your food is plated... that's because Tom finds standing in a line less pleasant than sitting at a table. They could fill the order while people are still standing at the window, but the line would move more slowly, and considering that the trailer is situated in a less shady spot than the picnic tables, perhaps that's a smart move. The fact that the sausage is sliced rather than served in links: that's a logistical decision that speeds the preparation of the sausage as well as aids selling it by weight. Either of those decisions may not jive with some people's expectations, but honestly, is it that big of a deal? Really? The meal was ruined because you didn't get to snap the casing apart on your own? Are the rules really that rigid? Think about that.
Tom found the trailer via Craigslist, and with some help from his dad, he stripped it of the original kitchen, shower, and built-in bed. One of the walls was partially collapsing. This, like the menu and everything on it, was a labor of love, a very personal and hands-on creation. What Tom did not do himself, he brought in friends to help with. His friend Kenneth Holland, for example, painted the logo onto the exterior of the trailer.
That acorn, that little object from which the oak springs to life and which gives his barbecue its distinguishable flavor, is the perfect metaphor when it comes down to it. It's the essence of imagination, of birth and beginnings, of a guy who didn't follow the rulebook of what was expected of him but created his own path and his own style. It's the symbol of what has barely begun and what could be. It is in many ways a blank canvas.
That canvas is a perpetual work in progress. There is no "finished." It is all an evolution. The sausage was always Tom's specialty; it was outstanding from the get-go. My first sampling of the brisket was less exciting—especially in the context of other barbecue in this town and the surrounding areas—but subsequent visits have proven that it has come into its own. With a balance between smokiness and the natural beef flavor plus a tenderness that is not as overly rich as that elsewhere in town, it hits a sweet spot.
Things are still evolving, and it's not quite determined in which direction. Tom talked about a few different ideas for expanding the menu and services, but since those are still a bit up in the air, I'll let them develop of their own accord. The take-home point though is that this story is just beginning, and so far it's a good one.
Update 10/29/13: I erroneously wrote that William's last name was Anthony in the original post. It's been corrected to Ankeney.
- G' Morning, Snow's BBQ
- Some Other Perspectives on Texas Barbecue Week Joints
- Jalapeno-Vinegar Slaw, After the Salt Lick + Bonus Treatise on Barbecue Sides
- Travaasa BBQ Bash for Foodways Texas: The State of Barbecue and the Stories It Tells
- Cooper's and Longhorrn Caverns
- 2013 Austin City Guide to In-Town Barbecue
- Micklethwait Craft Meats Filmed for The Cooking Channel's Eat Street