It’s always a surprise running into someone you know in an unexpected place. But I have to confess it was downright shocking to find CB Stubblefield at my local SuperValu supermarket.
There I was, innocently perusing their aisle of “American Foods” (predominantly candy and sugared breakfast cereal; in fairness, not unrealistic). And who did I see peering out at me? My old friend from Lubbock, Texas.
It seems his Stubb’s Bar-B-Q sauce has crossed the ocean. You have to know a bit about Stubb before you can fully appreciate the cosmic nature of this. In my more than 40 years in food, I have had the great fortune to work with many, many talented cooks. But there has been no one who has influenced my thinking about food more than Stubb.
We met before I even realised I was interested in cooking. In the late 1970s and early 1980s I was a young sportswriter in Lubbock, Texas. Touring those wide flat plains almost constantly because of my job, I was always on the lookout for places to eat. In most of the little towns I visited, there was nothing but a chain drive-in.
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But right around the corner from my office, I found Stubb’s Bar-B-Q, a 40-seat dive in a ramshackle building that became my home away from home. Stubb served, quite simply, the best barbecue I’ve ever eaten. More to the point, it was also among the simplest. His menu consisted of pork ribs, beef brisket and sausage. They came with beans, white bread, an onion wedge, a pickled chilli and nothing else. But it was sublime.
More important for me, eating there was a daily lesson that even simple things done with care can become the sources of great happiness. To this day, whenever I am messing about in the kitchen and feel the urge to complicate, Stubb is there over my shoulder, reminding me of the virtues of simplicity.
A brief pause to talk about barbecue, a word that is frequently misunderstood. Sometimes it is used to describe any food cooked over a live fire. For that, I prefer grilling. Barbecue is cooked low and slow over smouldering hardwood so that the meat becomes infused with smoky flavour.
Every region of the American South and West has its own twist on barbecue – different meats, different woods, different sauces. Stubb’s was true Texas barbecue, cooked for hours over oak and served with a thin peppery sauce.
It’s funny, but different as they are, there is much about Ireland that reminds me of my time in Texas – communities of long standing with a strong sense of their own history and shared mythology, bound by a love of food and music.
Stubb’s Bar-B-Q embraced those last two as few other places have. The food was so simple yet it attracted a cult following among musicians, the likes of which seems almost unbelievable today. At one time or another I shared a table at Stubb’s with Muddy Waters, Tom T Hall, the Clash, Lucinda Williams, Terry Allen, Stevie Ray Vaughn and his brother Jimmie, and, of course, the core of the Lubbock music scene, now known as the Flatlanders: Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
The Sunday night blues jams were legendary, usually winding up with Stubb on stage riffing drawn-out versions of Summertime, spiced with extemporaneous monologues of homespun philosophy.
Alas, nothing lasts forever, not even great barbecue. Eventually Stubb had to close (apparently he assumed that because he knew he wasn’t making any money, he didn’t need to pay any taxes. Internal Revenue disagreed and even a series of annual benefit concerts by his friends couldn’t erase his debt).
During this dark time Joe and Sharon Ely organised a circle of friends who chipped in every month to help pay Stubb’s rent. As a thank you, one Christmas he sent out cases of barbecue sauce he’d made in his home kitchen, bottled in old whiskey bottles and hand labelled with his picture and the mottoes: “Don’t Mess With Texas” and “Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m a Cook.” The current commercial product is just a polished version of the original.
Stubb eventually followed his musician friends to Austin where, after running a pop-up behind a great blues club, he was discovered by a couple of entrepreneurs who bought the rights to his name, making his final years much easier. He passed away in 1995 and the Stubb’s Bar-B-Q brand is now owned by food giant McCormick.
Not long after he moved, Stubb and I met up back in Lubbock. After driving around for a couple of hours seeing the sights, he asked me to take him back to where his barbecue had been. At first, I refused. The landlord (who, it turned out, owned a rival barbecue stand) had taken a bulldozer to it, leaving nothing but a cement pad.
But Stubb insisted. Sitting in the parking lot, looking at the sorry remains, I asked him sarcastically whether that empty slab made him happy. I’ll never forget his reply.
“Yes,” he said. “You know, Russ, it’s like looking at the saucer where a great cup of coffee has been.”