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Tootsie Tomanetz, the 87-Year-Old Queen of Fire

Alessandra Meldolesi
copertina snow tootsie tomanetz

The Queen of Texas is a grandmother in her 80’s, celebrated by an episode of Chef's Table BBQ: her name is Tootsie Tomanetz and every Saturday at 2am she lights the fires in Lexington.

The story

The barbecue craze is a worldwide phenomenon, which has conquered even the most snobbish food critics. To sanction it, in 2015, was the James Beard Foundation, that awarded the title of Best Chef to the Pit Master Aaron Franklin instead of the usual Starred chef. However, the phenomenon would be born elsewhere, in Lexington, a town of 1200 souls, where on the sacred braziers of Snow’s, repeatedly awarded Best Texas Barbecue, a grandma over eighty controls the situation: Tootsie Tomanetz.

@Jim Bennett, Getty Images

@Robert Strickland

Amazing for age no less than for the gender, given that fire has always been a male realm. “I do what I like, the doors are open,” Growing up on a country farm, Tootsie got close to the embers when she married a butcher: it was the owner of the meat market where she worked, finding himself in a pickle, who asked her to lend a hand, alongside the official pitmaster. When he then opened a branch, he explicitly proposed to her to take charge of it, and she transformed it into a Central Texas-style barbecue sanctuary: indirect heat on oak wood for long smoking processes and direct cooking for everything else.

@Michael Ciaglo, Houston Chronicle

After twenty years of queues for lovers of her brisket, in 2003, the entrepreneur, Kerry Bexley proposed that she open a new place, Snow’s BBQ, in an abandoned peanut factory, but only on Saturdays, while she continued to work as a school janitor. Here her day begins at 2am, when she lights the fire and with Kerry and a helper fills huge steel smokers with brisket, which they will cook all morning at a temperature of 250 degrees, while she begins cooking beans, chickens, steaks, ribs, and sausages from a local butcher 60cm from the hot coals. Hundreds of pieces in direct heat are not easy to monitor and to prevent them from drying out, therefore a purée of vinegar, vegetable fat, onion, mustard, and Worcestershire sauce arrives.

Tootsie doesn’t want to talk about retirement, especially since work, however exhausting, especially in the summer, has become her refuge. She was hit hard with the loss of her husband in 2015, and after a few months, that of one of her three children, Hershey. “The Lord called them home because I had these opportunities before me. He knew what I would accomplish here,” she says trying to get over it. “Do something all your life and eventually you will get recognized. But at the same time this fame gives me a strange feeling.”

Fame came with the first prize from the Texas Monthly in 2008: it attracted such a huge crowd that 540 kilos of meat were finished in an hour and a half. Since then, the awards have followed one another, up to the entry dated 2018 in the BBQ Hall of Fame. The venue, however, with its metal roofs and walls, has remained unchanged. The queue in front of the door has simply increased, with a number for reservations and take-out and service only on Saturdays, from eight to noon. Anyone waiting its turn says that Tootsie communicates with meat: a touch is enough for her to understand if it is ready. More than technique, it's a form of love. There is no thermometer quite as accurate.

Source: uol.com / thelocalpalate.com

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