Back in the 1960’s Texas labor laws were a mite lax. For instance, an 8 year old boy might find himself working in a hot guts factory in Waelder, Texas.
Such is the tale of Jerry Fogle, itinerant pit boss and one of the masters of the Central Texas sausage idiom. This man knows his way around bull meat, pork casings, slow fires and coaxing intense deliciousness from perfectly ordinary ingredients.
Born in 1956 down in Waelder, Mr. Fogle went to work at the tender age of 8 at J&B Sausage, one of the big boys of Texas hot links. Starting out tagging the meat, he quickly worked his way up the food chain at the processing plant and soon found himself in the kill room skinning hogs and cows as back then the facility was also a slaughterhouse.
I meet the old pit boss the way I meet a lot of my favorite people; at a barbecue cook off. I’m down in San Marcos, Texas during the run up to the national championship just walking around jawing with the competitors, drinking cold beer and swapping lies with whoever I can get stopped.
I make it about 30 feet away from Family Tradition’s mobile rig when Fogle hails me. “You want a pork rib”. “Well, what in the Hell kind of question is that, of course I want a pork rib”.
It’s incredible. I eat lots of barbecue at the competition but something about this man’s work intrigues me so I make plans to ride down to Waelder to sit a spell, eat some meat and share some conversation with the old pit master.
I don’t use the word master lightly. There are plenty pit bosses, all that means is that you’re the boss of the pit. You may or may not have mastered it.You have to earn the term pit master.
Fogle’s earned it.
He grinds his own meat and stuffs his own casings. The seasoning is mild with plenty beefy flavor and just a touch of cayenne. He’s been tending fires and smoking beef for 35 years and most of that time he’s been on the circuit in Texas with a houseful of trophies to prove he stands among the elite.
Unfortunately, the years have taken their toll and Friday October 24th 2011 will be the last day of operation for Family Tradition. Mr. Fogle is having his knee replaced. After wrestling a few thousand briskets on and off fires, the old Waelder Wildcat is preparing to let the flames go out for a bit.
He’s going to take the Winter off and recuperate at his house in Lake McQueeney. Spring 2012 he’ll be back in the game in that area and I will definitely be riding down there to visit the man in his new joint.
I hate to see him leaving his little restaurant in Waelder. The building is a century old and you can feel the history. It’s a classic little roadside stand with an old smoker out front [“I give $50 for it” he confides] and a wall full of championship barbecue regalia lining one wall.
Riding north out of Waelder the pasture land has greened up a little from recent rains. Autumn is in full bloom complete with a mellow October sun casting over the fields. I’ve spent some of my best afternoons in Gonzales County, sitting around talking with men from a different generation.
Men like Dan Eureste [ RIP ] and Jerry Fogle. Old school Texas barbecue men, practicing a craft and if you’ll listen, ready to tell you a story.