The road from New Orleans to Houston snakes its way through moorland, forest and monochrome swamp. Pylons stride across vast tracts of grey water broken by the trunks and stumps of skeletal trees fleshed out by mud brown pelicans and slender white egrets with yellow bills. Beyond the water, the countryside is flat, wooded and otherwise featureless, a no–mans land before the onset of casinos and malls, neon signs, billboards and, at last, the glass and steel of the Houston skyline with its tangle of highways and flyovers.
Everything about Houston is vast; buildings, cars, people and portions. The city exudes an aura of brazen American confidence and is testament to a continual quest for comfort and convenience. Tower blocks are connected by tunnels to save you walking in the sun and there are even drive–through cash points and pharmacies so you can pick up your beta blockers and your insulin without leaving the air–conditioned cocoon of your 7 litre Dodge pickup.
I’m staying with Amy, an old school friend who lives in the historic heights, the only part of the city where the buildings look more than about 20 years old and don’t have a flat–pack aesthetic of ruthless symmetry or vast attendant parking lots. Even china town is brand new and scrupulously ordered. We drove there one day for noodles followed by a massage though I expect it’s probably more comfortable to do it the other way round.
I’d never had a massage before and I can’t say that I’m in hurry to do it again. My masseur, a fat, bald, chatty Chinese man prone to making unnerving little grunting noises, spent the majority of the session cracking jokes about the size of my feet and telling me how much I look like characters from movies I’d never heard of. After enduring a good hour of him digging his finger tips into various parts of my anatomy to no apparent end other than to provide Amy with the opportunity to take a series of photos of me lying stricken on a faux velvet chaise longue with my feet wedged in a bucket of lukewarm water, the ordeal was over and we emerged blinking into the sunlight with our complimentary lollipops and bottles of mineral water.
At least the noodles were good. Pretty much everything I ate in Houston was good in fact, but best of all was the barbecue.
As luck would have it my visit coincided with the Houston World Championship BBQ Cook-Off and, as a consequence of spending large amounts of time in bars looking glamorous and hamming up her British accent, Amy had managed to befriend a group of hard-drinking rednecks from east Texas who appointed themselves our guides. We picked up Grimsey on the way. He entered the car alligator skin boots first in a fog of aftershave, having prepared for an afternoon of beer and barbecue by dining on steak and washing it down with 4 margaritas. He handed me a beer and prized off the cap with a heavy gold ring emblazoned with the year of his graduation from Texas A and M, alma mater to all self-respecting rednecks of the past generation or two.
The cook–off takes place in the parking lot behind America’s first domed stadium, a badly aging lump of grey concrete that promoters once dubbed ‘the eighth wonder of the world’. We were greeted at the entrance by a little golf–cart train and a jovial Texan in a broad-brimmed hat who informed us that the last train back was at 11pm and that we should take care not to miss because, he paused for effect, ‘its a looooong walk back’. By long he meant 300 meters maximum. But then everyone knows that Americans don’t walk, especially after spending several hours drinking watery beer and gorging themselves on buttery étouffée, ribs and barbecue beans, not to mention the corn–dogs and deep–fried cheese cake sold from the stalls dotted among the fair ground rides.
The food, the brisket in particularly, sticky and charred on the edges and pink in the middle, was sob–inducingly good and impossibly moreish. I made up for my conspicuous lack of a drawl, a Stetson or cowboy boots by consuming it in preposterously large quantities.
While a lot of the teams were just there to drink, talk about rifles and country music and complain about the democrats, there were some serious contenders who stayed hunched over their barbecues while our redneck friends worked their way through another few cases of Miller Light and began shrieking whenever anything in a short skirt and a cowboy hat walked past. As the sun set and the clouds melted into pools of orange and pink light the serious teams were still there, perfecting their marinades and daubing slabs of meat with sauces and seasonings that clung to the bristles of thick painters brushes and the dull metal edges of well–worn tongs. In the half–light, the blackened steel barbecues, with their barrel-shaped bodies and long chimneys, looked like slumbering locomotives.
If you want a stereotypically Texan experience, you can’t do much better than the cook–off. It was everything I’d hoped it would be. But if you do go, be sure not to miss the 11 o’clock train, I’d hate for you to have to walk that 300 metres.
– Thomas Rees