Barbecuing With Love and Tears
It takes time and a little agonizing to make food that people enjoy, says this Texas chef
AUSTIN, TEXAS — MASTERS of the smoky art of barbecue share an attitude - an instinct, really - that the rest of us can profitably emulate.
"First of all, you have to have the taste, and the time. Barbecue is something you can't rush. That's the reason why a lot of people don't get it right."
So says Christopher Stubblefield, whose modest motto - "Ladies and Gentlemen, I'm a cook!" - belies his status as one of Texas's most acclaimed barbecue chefs (alas, now retired). His Stubb's Bar-B-Q in Lubbock and later in Austin served fare as spicy and succulent as any south of the Red River.
"You've got to smell it, and get your fingers burned, and shed a few tears over it, and everything else to get it right. That's the way I look at it," he elaborates with a hearty laugh. "Love and happiness - you enjoy what you're doing. I love to make people enjoy food."
Mr. Stubblefield inherited his skill at the grill from his father, a Baptist evangelist preacher who knew how to feed the multitudes. Stubblefield recalls revival meetings followed by potluck dinners featuring beef, pork, and even raccoon and oppossum.
"I always was qualified as a cook," he says, but his younger years were spent picking cotton on the family farm outside Lubbock. Stubblefield's turn in the kitchen came when the United States Army made him a mess sergeant during the Korean War. Mornings he'd fry onion peelings, letting the aroma waft through camp to whet appetites.
Once Stubblefield commandeered some camp supplies to make ice cream. "I got in a little trouble about that. But it didn't matter. They got some good ice cream anyway. It was made out of Jell-O," he laughs. The officers tried to have Stubblefield shifted to their mess, but he refused the transfer.
After leaving the Army in 1967, Stubblefield returned to Lubbock. His health didn't allow strenuous work, so he considered working in a barbecue restaurant. "I found nowhere did they have the kind of barbecue I could cook. I guess [what was lacking] was spirit and love and happiness and smiles. When I smell barbecue ... I want to smell something that makes me feel better than I already feel."
Stubblefield then cast his eye on a building for his own establishment. "When I first went to Lubbock, that very building had a sign that said, 'White Only.' " But the owner said he didn't care what color Stubb was, "as long as you pay my rent."
The food was only one attraction at Stubb's Bar-B-Q.
"It had an old jukebox in the corner with all kinds of blues on it," says Stubblefield, for whom the music and the food are entwined passions. "Blues is kind of like a reverse gospel music. It has a very sensitive feeling of captivity," he says.
Business really picked up after his place was "discovered" by young local musicians like Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, and Jesse Taylor, who turned it into the hangout in Lubbock for live music. Stubblefield himself used to take the stage during Sunday night blues jams to sing "Summertime."
One time a young guitarist from Dallas called and asked to perform. He had just finished a gig elsewhere in town, but the crowd was so sparse that he couldn't cover his motel bill. So Stubblefield let Stevie Ray Vaughn do a show.
The two became friends and the noted Texas-blues rocker returned often, even celebrating his 18th and 21st birthdays there. Before he died in 1990 in a helicopter crash, Vaughn recorded many songs he had learned from the jukebox at Stubb's.
"He was different in the music world from the average white person, because he could play the blues. He loved the blues," Stubblefield says. "He did a heck of a job with it."
Meanwhile, Stubblefield's own fame spread. Friends in country music tried for years to entice him to move to Nashville. And David Letterman brought him to New York to feed a studio audience of 400. "Mission impossible," Stubblefield says of that tiring experience.
The barbecue master no longer toils over the coals, but Texans can still buy Stubb's Bar-B-Q sauce in grocery stores. Says Stubblefield: "My life is in those bottles."