Posted by Tobias Carroll
In March of 2006, I visited Austin for South by Southwest. At time time, I had recently resumed eating meat after nearly a decade of vegetarianism. And as a lifelong northeasterner, there were certain foods I was enthusiastic to try while I was in town. Most of my dining in Austin was undertaken alone, and it was through that dining alone that the trouble began. My spirit of culinary adventure, came into conflict with another aspect of my personality: a general and all-encompassing unease in new situations. I could charitably be described as “socially awkward.” More precisely, an old friend of mine has suggested that my memoir be titled Things I Did Not Do Because I Am Cripplingly Shy. Hunger makes that shyness even more pronounced.
A few days before I made my first foray into the world of barbecue, I decided to try crawfish — friends recently returned from Louisiana had said glowing things about the crustacean in question. I found a restaurant called the Boiling Pot on Sixth Street, sat down, and ordered a large meal in which crawfish were in fact the primary ingredient. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the slightest idea of how to eat them: were the shells removed, like the lobsters that they somewhat resembled, or left on? I glanced around as best I could, hoping to get some indication of how to proceed from diners at adjacent tables. I felt like an interloper into Cajun cuisine, and it was that unease that kept me from doing the obvious and logical thing — which is to say, flagging down one of the servers and saying. “Look, how exactly do I eat these?” I feared a public shaming, basically. And so, eventually, I decided: the crawfish were to be eaten, shells on.
I know now that this is incorrect, and I suspect that, to my fellow diners, I must have resembled some sort of alien, seeking sustenance despite a gross unfamiliarity with human notions of eating. But the awkwardness of the Boiling Pot, and its consequences, paled in comparison to my experience a few days later, at a barbecue place called Ironworks.
Barbecue, like choirizo, was food that I had never tried prior to becoming a vegetarian. Being in Texas, it seemed natural to seek it out. I walked up to the counter and placed my order: a sausage and a bottle of RC Cola. The sausage did not, to my eyes, look all that substantial — slightly larger than a hot dog, perhaps. And so I added a fateful bag of Fritos to my order.
After sitting down and eating the sausage — which was, for the record, delicious — I realized that I had no remaining appetite for the Fritos. And yet I felt something beyond reluctance at the idea of throwing them away –as though I’d be tipping my hat to my status as a tourist, and that the staff and patrons would quickly turn to face me before, just as quickly, engaging in ritualistic shunning, in the style and manner of the Amish. Or, alternately, that I would be greeted by an special agent in the Barbecue Division of the Texas Rangers, who would stare me down, a contemptuous gleam in his eye, and say, “What’s the matter, yankee? You too good for those Fritos?” So I ate the whole bag. And then I walked through Austin in a daze — one not helped by downing several shots of espresso in an attempt to end my stupor. I found myself accosting friends on the street and shouting about the barbecue I’d just eaten; I sent a text to a friend in New Jersey ending with the phrase “I can’t feel my legs.”
Eventually, I made my way to the venue where I’d be spending the night, watching swooning New Zealand pop, shambolic Northwestern anthems, and — later on — thirdhand country-rock played by a quintet of would-be Gram Parsons doppelgangers. As I walked up to the bar, I thought, ease into this. “Just a Coke,” I said to the bartender. He said something in reply, then turned away and began to fill a glass.
As he handed me my drink a minute later, I realized what it was that he had said to me — and that, once more, my inability to speak up would have consequences. Specifically, his response had been, “Jack & Coke, coming up!” Several hours later, I sat slumped in an all-night Whataburger across from my hotel, awaiting a chicken sandwich and fries. One of the cashiers had launched into a moral critique of the inebriates there (“When I see all of you coming in here and ordering food ‘cause you’re drunk….it just makes me sick”), and I will confess to feeling no small amount of shame. Perhaps next time I should hold the fritos, I told myself. Perhaps next time, I would peel the crawfish.