They buried C. B. Stubblefield last weekend in Lubbock, Tex. I didn't feel the need to go to the funeral, since today--as every day for the last 15 years--he's over my shoulder whenever I'm in the kitchen.
Stubb was a barbecue cook. For years he operated out of a ramshackle 40-seat restaurant on what some would call the wrong side of the tracks. But that didn't stop his reputation from spreading far and wide. Once, prowling the aisles of Dean & De Luca, New York's fanciest gourmet grocery, I found myself staring at a picture of Stubb emblazoned across a bottle of sauce, with the stacked mottoes "Ladies and Gentlemen I'm a Cook!" "It makes everything you eat taste better" "And Don't Mess With Texas" just underneath. A little later, he showed up in Bon Appetit, just sellin' sauce.
People came from all over to eat his barbecue. His menu never changed--brisket, pork ribs (never beef; too fatty) and hot links, with potato salad and pinto beans. The only garnishes were pickled serrano peppers and a big quarter of sweet white onion. No appetizers, no dessert. If you were part of the family, every once in a while he would go kind of wild and bring out a bowl of chili.
Stubb was a purist. He smoked everything over hickory in a cinder-block pit he had built himself in the kitchen. Shortcuts were not even considered. If someone had ever suggested par-boiling the ribs before cooking (something a surprising number of even pretty decent places do) or cooking over inferior wood (or even briquettes!) . . . well, I hate to think what might have happened.
On weekends, you could always find some of his friends playing on the tiny stage: Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, George Thorogood, the guys from Los Lobos and, of course, the usual run of Lubbock's musical expatriates--Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Terry Allen. . . . Tom T. Hall even wrote a song about him.
Stubbs' relationship with musicians was very much a case of requited love. When someone he liked came to town, he would lug over a tray full of meat. A mountain of a man at 6-foot-4, carrying that big load of smoky stuff, he could penetrate even the tightest security just by announcing: "This is C. B. Stubblefield. I've got barbecue."
As a result, his weekend jams were spiced by everyone from Muddy Waters (who, I couldn't help noticing, ate his ribs with a knife and fork--trust the art, not the artist) to Little Milton (who effectively put Stubb out of the concert business when he signed up for a three-night gig--Stubb didn't know that Little Milton hadn't had a hit record in more than 20 years. More likely, he just didn't care).
I ran into Stubb when I was working at the local newspaper, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal (the motto of which should have been "no avalanche, no journalism"; the locals called it the AJ, making it sound like the retarded cousin in some Southern novel). I was a sportswriter in those days, covering mostly small school sports. With a circulation area that stretched from Abilene to Amarillo, that meant a lot of time on the road. The only thing that kept me going was an eternal quest for the best barbecue (though in most of those small towns, the only local restaurant was a chain drive-in).
Of course, the best barbecue turned out to be just around the corner from my office, and so I got into the habit of heading to Stubb's for dinner three or four nights a week. A plate of ribs and a frosty beer, and I could face up to going back to work weighing the relative strengths and weaknesses in the upcoming Lazbuddie-Shallowater football game.
Inevitably, given our shared devotion to music and his food, Stubb and I became friends and my dinner hour began to stretch. Then one day, one of his waitresses didn't show up and the place got packed. Stubb asked whether I could help and I said sure--I had a couple hours before the baseball box scores started coming in from West Coast night games and, besides, with only three dishes on the menu, how hard could it be?
It turned out to be one of those life-changing decisions you don't even know you've made until years later. Looking back, I can tell you the instant I became serious about cooking was the first time I set a plate of Stubb's barbecue in front of a customer.
To watch them as they smelled the sauce, then took their first bite . . . to see how their eyes changed, their spirits lifted. Suddenly, food was no longer just something to eat; food was a way of communicating. And in every plate of Stubb's barbecue, there was a sermon on the importance of doing things the right way, of savoring every moment of life, of living well.
I quickly found that I looked forward more to waiting tables at Stubb's for free than to going to the office. And it didn't take me much longer to realize a change was in order.
In another life, perhaps, I would have quit journalism and apprenticed myself to Stubb. But I had a wife and kid to support and I loved to write. Besides, I had no desire to work as devotedly as being a great barbecue cook requires (Stubb arose every night at 2, then again at 6, to tend the pit).
To tell the truth, as much as I love to eat good barbecue, I have no desire to cook it. To this day, I don't think there's a single recipe of Stubb's that I cook at home. Yet every time I put a plate of something I've cooked in front of somebody, he's there.
A couple of years ago, finances forced Stubb to close the barbecue (it turns out he had figured that since he wasn't making any money, he didn't have to pay any taxes; finally, even a series of "annual" benefit concerts couldn't help). The owner of the building, who happened to run a competing barbecue restaurant, wasted no time in taking a bulldozer to Stubb's place.
I went back for a visit shortly after that, and Stubb and I went for a drive. He suggested that we run by East Broadway, where the restaurant used to be.
How could he even suggest such a thing? I asked. How could he stand to even think about looking at the wreck that was all that remained of a place he had poured 20 years of his life into?
But he insisted, and so we went. We parked in the lot and sat staring. All that was left was an empty concrete pad. It was like being at a funeral, looking at a body--there was nothing but a shell; the motivating spirit was gone. I was devastated.
Are you happy now? I asked him sarcastically.
"Yes," he said. "You know, Russ, it's like looking at the saucer where a great cup of coffee has been."