It is probably unnecessary to state as much, but it is nonetheless true: when one first moves to a new region of the country, it is possible to feel awkward and out of place. This is particularly true if you grew up on one of the coasts of the United States and you happen to move toward the middle of the country, or vice versa. We were then, several years ago now, living in New Jersey only forty-five minutes from New Hope, Pennsylvania, where I had grown up, and, as we neared our departure date, one of my more opinionated friends said going to Texas would be like falling off the edge of the earth into a pit of fire, still another, a place where people pretended to be your friends but weren’t really, and another, even more negative (and vociferous) about the move than the others, stated plainly that Texas is a place where they kill animals and eat the meat; he was vegan. I could say little as I had as yet not spent any time in Texas, but I imagined that the first friend was overdramatizing the matter, the second, naively unaware that duplicity is ubiquitous, the third, equally naively unaware that meat eating is also ubiquitous. These were the circumstances of my departure.
It was quite a few years ago now, but I recall vividly my first few days in Texas. Though of course I found what I knew already, that the people, like all people, were not perfect, I quickly discovered that they were in fact far friendlier than advertised. I had not known but soon learned that they shared with Pennsylvanians the characteristic of loving football to obsession. I also swiftly found out, since we moved to Texas in early August, that Texas, even without fire pits, is truly hot in the summer. And many Texan folks enjoy something called barbeque; since moving here, I’ve eaten it at numerous backyard parties, weddings, and funerals. I should not have been surprised, I suppose, that nearly all Texan churches enjoy sponsoring get-togethers that involve barbeque, and that Lutherans, in particular, like to drink beer at such events.
And so it went: our arrival, a new church, a barbeque get-together in the heat of our first Labor Day in Texas. It was very hot indeed, and everywhere I went I saw that there was something else “hot” to remind me, in all capitals: HOT Rodeo, HOT Jr. Football League, even HOT plumbers (which sounded to me more like bachelorette-party entertainment than men handy with pipes). It was only later that I came to find out that HOT stood for “Heart of Texas,” and was not what I thought, i.e. “hot” in all caps, as if to remind the reader that it is screamingly hot in Texas.
As a strange welcoming ritual, I suppose, I was invited right off the bat to get involved with the church in a particular manner: I was to join the picnic committee early on the day of the barbeque, Labor Day, to prepare the brisket. Now, if you have read the Curious Autobiography, you may already have already inferred that I had no idea what brisket was. Yet here I was, in the heart of Texas—though I knew it not from the HOT signs, which I assumed referred to the temperature—warmly invited to slice a cut of meat, one that I had never eaten. I knew this would scandalize the third of my friends listed above, and I think I may have mentioned it in a letter to him later, undoubtedly to his chagrin.
“Don’t forget to bring your knife,” the picnic committee leader by the name of Jody said, having introduced me to his brother Cody just after church that Sunday before the slicing. I must have looked puzzled, because he quickly added, “You do have a knife?”
Taken a back, I paused as I gazed upon these strong men—both builders, as it turned out—both clad in jeans and what I fancied Texan-style shirts (Jody’s of a light blue color with trim around the pockets, Cody’s similar, but of a burnt orange hue). Each, though lacking a stereotypical ten-gallon hat, sported a significant but not oversized belt buckle that gleamed and befit—not in terms of shine but in terms of effect—their clearly oft-worn yet nonetheless well-kempt cowboy boots. In this case, with me they were building a relationship and nascent friendship, not a house.
“I’ve got an extra,” Cody, his brother quickly added. “He can borrow my old one.”
“No, he should have his own,” Jody responded, with the shamanistic authority of a guardian of a rite of passage.
“Perhaps I can buy one,” I said, trying to cut this Gordian’s knot. “There’s a grocery story within walking distance of the house we’re renting.”
“If it’s the one I’m thinking of, they won’t have it,” Cody quipped.
“Surely they’ll have a knife,” I added naively, thinking of grocery stores in New Jersey. “They normally have a section with cutlery.”
They both looked at me in a slightly puzzled manner. “Cutlery?” Cody chuckled inquisitively. “No, this knife is not ‘cutlery.’ It’s an electric knife.”
“What is an electric knife?” I said, looking even more puzzled than they had earlier. They both broke out in laughter, and I soon joined in.
Having obtained an electric knife at another location, I rose early on that still somewhat warm Labor Day, the day of the picnic itself, to go to the church to slice brisket. Upon my arrival, I was astounded to learn that Mr. Jander had been up all night cooking the brisket, which he had buried in a fire pit. These were all new terms to me. What was a fire pit?—I recalled having been warned of these back in Jersey, but I dared not ask at a church gathering about that hellish sounding word. I could only imagine that it was a subterranean cavern in which brisket is roasted to perfection.
“All night?” I thought to myself.
Jody must have read my mind. “Well, probably since two or three o’clock.”
Thus did I ruminate, “I have never heard of such dedication to a meal.” But I did not yet understand what a meal means in Texas. It is like building a house: it has to be done right and many will come to help. It is also a peculiarly Lutheran ritual, and thus it was an honor that I had been invited to join the other men—for they were all men—in the slicing of the meat. (I later learned that the reason for it being an all-male event was to give the women a day off from any and all duties—a thoughtful touch, particularly on Labor Day, I opined.)
I fully admit that I was far from dexterous with an electric knife and had to be instructed several times. Mr. Jander was pretty easy going about the whole thing, even though it was he who had been up the entire night. O.E., for he was called by his initials only (something I can relate to), was a bit more stringent about the cutting technique. Fred was perhaps the best of the slicers, always trimming with a smile. Soon Cody and Jody had taken me under their wings, and I was found myself slicing brisket like, well, if not a pro, at least not like a young man from Philly.
“Good cut,” Mike, another of the picnic men said encouragingly. I was a bit envious of his method, and was curious how an accountant could be so able with an electric knife. To my query about his technique, he simply said, “Not too fast, just a little at a time.” At that point in my life, that was a piece of profound wisdom, more profound than he could have imagined. Of course, Mike was also responsible for counting the briskets to ensure we would have enough for the entire church.
Yet, in the end, this blog will have nothing to do with brisket, for I have not mentioned (and I do not intend to) how succulent that feast was, or that brisket, unlike most other cuts of red meat, goes especially well with beer, or that Lutherans sometimes serve well-cooked zucchini (lightly sautéed in beer) as a side. Nor will this blog have much to do with building, Jody and Cody’s profession, unless that building should be a metaphor for giving extra effort, putting in the extra time to do things right or, even better, should represent relationship building and acceptance. For my friends on that day taught me much more than the art of slicing brisket. They taught me the art of friendship, of welcoming a stranger, of embracing someone a bit different than oneself. This is a lesson I’ve learned, and perhaps we can all learn, over and over. The picnic committee helped me to see it in action, for they lived out what is known as the golden rule, with which if you’re not familiar, I would refer you to just one verse of a book perhaps less than popular these days. That verse is the thirty-first of the twelfth chapter of the oldest of the gospels, Mark, and reads, “And the second is like [it], namely this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.” The first…, well, perhaps that is the stuff of another blog.
Someone recently asked me why I write these blogs. My answer to that question is the same as the picnic committee’s to slicing. You, dear reader, and I are merely busy about the brisket, chatting and getting a meal ready for others. If you’re a vegetarian, there are some zucchinis that need to be sliced over on the counter. Jody and Cody will show you where to find them. Just be sure to bring your knife.