I LOOK AT MY WATCH The time is 1:23am. That’s either late or early, depending on who you’re talking to. But it’s Saturday at Snow’s BBQ and “Tootsie,” as she’s known around here, just pulled up in her well driven white GMC pickup.
Snow’s BBQ is a celebrated barbecue restaurant about hours’ drive northwest of Austin, Texas. “God’s Country,” as locals refer to rural Lee County is much like it used to be. Many people who reside here, were born here. And never left. Farms, ranches and generations of families call this place home. The tiny town of Lexington is eerily quiet. Especially if you’re accustomed to the hustle and bustle of big cities. But for a town with a population of 1,389, that’s not peculiar, particularly at this hour. Aside from a local bar, the whole town is fast asleep. Tootsie usually arrives around 2:30am, but she “couldn’t sleep.” I know the feeling, as I’ve had the same feeling before coming to Snow’s. She pulls up in her late model Chevy pick-up truck. It’s the same truck she’s driven for years. It works for her. And just like her cooking, “why change what’s not broke?” She greets Clay Cowgill, a tall, lanky Pitmaster at Snow’s BBQ, who grew up in Lee County as well. Clay arrived at 8:30pm to light the fires. “How are you Clay?” she says with deference, as any grandmother would do. “I’m good Toots,” Clays says. They go back and forth, exchanging pleasantries, before it’s time to work. And there’s a lot to do before opening the next morning at 8:00am.
Born Norma Frances Otto, to parents one generation removed from Germany, on a farm about three miles east of Lexington on April 21, 1935, Tootsie spent most of her life cultivating and harvesting food, in and around Lee County. Her father was a farmer, while her mother gardened, planted and canned vegetables. This was a working family. They raised cattle and pigs and cultivated corn, cotton, maize and peanuts. The oldest of three children, she was raised to live off the land. And survive. After all, this was post-Depression, rural Texas. Growing up, she learned to run mules, drive a tractor, garden, raise livestock, harvest animals and preserve food. During the winter months they’d slaughter hogs for food. They had to, as the family didn’t acquire electricity until 1942. Sun up to sun down, as many people during this time worked. And there was always work to do. That’s how the family operated for years. “We learned about work hard as kids. That was just the way,” she recalls. A strong work ethic was instilled with Tootsie as a little girl. It would be this work ethic that ultimately would separate Tootsie from her peers. And these days, people decades younger than her.
WE LEARNED ABOUT WORK HARD AS KIDS. THAT WAS JUST THE WAY.
After graduating from Lexington High School in 1953, Tootsie considered a career in nursing. “I thought about nursing, but I wanted to be outdoors,” she remembers. Odds are, she likely would’ve been a wonderful nurse, had she chosen that path. Naturally, Tootsie is warm, compassionate and motherly, as many great nurses are. These traits have helped her form bonds with customers near and far. Even if you didn’t know her, she’d greet you as if she did. As humble as they come, she dedicated much of her early adult life to creating and raising a family, with her husband Edward “White” Tomanetz, after marrying in July 1956, after a four-year courtship. They met over letters, as Tootsie was encouraged to write White, at the time stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska with the Army. When he arrived back in Texas, Tootsie recalls “him being the right guy…we had a lot in common.” Over the next few decades, they’d raise three children, Patricia born in 1957, Dale in 1959 and Hershel in 1966, work side by side in the meat market and eventually operate one themselves.
City Meat Market in Giddings is where White worked for years. In 1966, she joined White at the market. “Mr. Doyle needed help. He was the owner of the market,” Tootsie remembers. Little did she know at the time, but this would be the start of her career in barbecue. Tootsie learned the craft from Orange Holloway. “He cooked with whole logs. I was used to cooking with coals. He taught me everything he knew.” Together, they’d work for ten years at the market before Herschel Doyle asked them their interest in opening another meat market in Lexington. They agreed. And in 1976 Tootsie and White began to operate their own market during the week and barbecue on Saturday. This lasted until White’s stroke in 1996. After White had his stroke, it became difficult to operate the business on her own, while taking White to rehabilitation appointments. They had to sell. Tootsie agreed to stay on with the new owner and eventually the next new owner and the next. Once quality began to wane, Tootsie decided it was time to move on. That’s what led her to Giddings High School in 1998, becoming a custodian. A position she still maintains to this day. During the week, she collects trash, mows lawns, trims trees, mops and does whatever is needed in order to maintain the school. “I love working with kids. They keep me young,” Tootsie says.
In November 2002 Kerry contacted Tootsie about opening a barbecue restaurant in Lexington. They had known each other for years prior. Kerry had eaten her food before. “If I was going to do it (open a restaurant) I wanted it to be with her,” Kerry said. He made his pitch. “I knew he (Kerry) was serious, but I needed to know for sure. We had to have a heart to heart and sit down and talk about how this would work,” Tootsie remembers. She agreed. And Kerry got to work building the pits. A jack of all trades, in his life, Kerry has been a rodeo clown, cattleman, welder, prison guard, surveyor, equipment operator, fence builder, worked in real estate and drove eighteen wheelers, hauling cattle. His wife Kim confirms his always on the go mentality. “He never stops. He’s also a great handyman, fixing everything around here.”
Snow’s BBQ opened for service on Saturday March 1, 2003, at the old peanut mill. At the time, there were just five employees. Kerry and his two daughters, Ally and Larissa, Phyllis Rogers and Tootsie. And service would only be on Saturdays. While it might seem strange to be open for business only one day a week, the event of weekend barbecue is common practice in small towns across Texas and the South. Lexington was particularly known for their Saturday only barbecue. It was a time to gather with friends and family and talk about the week, something that at times seems to get lost in our fast-paced world. People come from all walks of life, different states and countries, of varying ages, races and political affiliations to experience Snow’s. At these tables, the common denominator is the shared love for good food. And the people who make it. It’s refreshing, really. In times of what seems like constant conflict, there’s none here. At least for a few hours. People laugh. Some cry. They converse, listen and learn, meeting new people in the line and at the community tables. Nearly all leave happy, with a story to tell.
EVERYTHING CHANGED IN 2008. DANIEL VAUGHN, BARBECUE EDITOR AT TEXAS MONTHLY NAMED SNOW’S BBQ THE BEST BARBECUE “JOINT” IN THE TEXAS. ALMOST OVERNIGHT, SNOW’S BBQ BECAME THE PLACE THAT EVERYONE WHO LOVES BARBECUE AND A GOOD STORY WANTED TO VISIT.
Everything changed in 2008. Daniel Vaughn, Barbecue Editor (yes, that’s a real job) at Texas Monthly named Snow’s BBQ the best barbecue “joint” in the Texas. Almost overnight, Snow’s BBQ became the place that everyone who loves barbecue and a good story wanted to visit. The media and social media blitz were overwhelming to Tootsie. “I wasn’t used to that kind of attention. I just wanted to come work,” Tootsie recalls. Now everyone wanted to take pictures with her, talk barbecue and hear her story. And for someone who experienced none of this over her prior four decades cooking, it was an adjustment. But it was an adjustment for the whole Snow’s BBQ operation. Kerry always knew he had a good product, however selling out of meat wasn’t always a sure thing back in the early days. “Sometimes we’d have meat at 3 or 4 in the afternoon. A lot of times we had left over,” Kerry remembered. That never happens now.
Snow’s BBQ has evolved in many ways over the years, yet the feel has remained largely unchanged since opening. It’s small and quaint, with one main building, which more resembles an old house than a restaurant. And it’s still only open one day a week, on Saturdays. This will likely never change. Snow’s feels like a backyard barbecue with family and friends, yet it’s unlike any other backyard barbecue you’ve ever experienced. Over the past few years, they’ve started cooking during the week over the last few years to accommodate demand from mail orders. Their barbecue has made its way out of Texas, across the country and around the globe. The Snow’s operation has grown to 16 employees to help with the growth, which has been substantial. People line up into the early morning hours, traveling from around the world, hoping, even praying, for a chance to get their hands on their signature brisket, pork steak, ribs, chicken, sausage, turkey and all the other fixings.
For many, that’s part of the allure. Unpretentious and unassuming, it’s a no-frills operation. There are no temp gauges on the direct pits. To check heat, Tootsie places her hand on the top of the pit. “I feel with my hands. It’s instinct to me,” Tootsie says. The nights are long. Meats start going on at 9:30pm the Friday before opening, starting with brisket. Ribs go on at 1:30am, pork steaks at 2am, chickens at 2:30am and sausage before 5am. During this time, Tootsie shovels coals into the direct heat pits, as they pork steaks, chicken and sausage. Clay maintains the fire on the large offset smokers cooking briskets and ribs. It’s a long night. With a market style set-up, people order their meats by the pound, like many of the German/Czech influenced barbecue restaurants across Central Texas. It’s not uncommon for people to order pounds of the various meats to take home and share, not knowing when they might return. This This can lead to selling out before everyone in line has had a chance to order, but the objective of every operation is to sell out, ensuring nothing is wasted. Barbecue is labor intensive and expensive. While there is available seating inside, many people eat outside, overlooking the pits, which are flanked by wooden picnic tables. Here, it’s almost like you’re eating in a kitchen, as people witness Tootsie, Kerry, Clay and others pull meats from the pits, slice and tend to the fires.
Their brisket has been revered since Snow’s BBQ opened. Many barbecue “experts” still struggle to find the words to articulate why it tastes is so unique. Briskets are smoked on large offset style smokers, using only post oak wood after being seasoned with only salt and pepper. Smaller than the much larger briskets at other locations, Snow’s briskets typically run about 7-8lbs, pre-cook, after being aggressively trimmed. These days, about 70-80 briskets are being smoked for up to 12 hours. About halfway through the cook, briskets are wrapped in foil, not butcher paper, another unique step, but not atypical of how brisket were cooked for years prior. While perfectly acceptable, it’s a departure from most locations across the state. Some even scoff at wrapping brisket in aluminum foiI, as it tends to facilitate a pot roast effect on the meat, not allowing the meat to breath. It’s futile to argue with the results. And it’s unlike any other foil wrapped brisket I’ve ever tasted. Another distinction about the brisket at Snow’s is that it’s not the highest grade. They use Select. This is also atypical, given the popularity of higher-grade beef and the proclivity of their counterparts to use Prime or Wagyu. These higher-grade briskets are more expensive too. And if I’ve learned anything over my years of eating barbecue, a better indicator of quality is the Pitmaster, not the grade of brisket. Furthermore, given the location of Snow’s BBQ in rural Texas, people are far more price sensitive. And Kerry never wanted Snow’s to be inaccessible to the people in his community. Historically, barbecue was always food for the working class. The community likely would’ve not been fond of $30 per pound brisket. The irony? Snow’s brisket is better than many of the places using higher grade brisket. I’d venture to say their Pitmaster has a lot to do with that.
THE AMERICAN ROYAL, AN ORGANIZATION BASED IN KANSAS CITY INDUCTED TOOTSIE INTO THE BARBECUE HALL OF FAME IN 2018, WHICH AT THE TIME MEANT SHE WAS ONLY THE SECOND WOMAN TO BE INDUCTED.
The accolades have continued to accumulate. Television, print, radio and social media spread the word about Snow’s. Film crews, reporters, writers, photographers, chefs and everyone in between flock to Snow’s. People must see it for themselves. Of course, with hype comes expectations. And with many places, this can break an operation. Quality had to be maintained. “We wanted to grow, while maintaining quality,” Kerry had said at the time. They did both. As more people experienced Snow’s, more conversations were being had about their impact within food culture. The James Beard Foundation would select Tootsie as a semifinalist for Best Chef – Southwest region in 2018. Considered the Oscars of the culinary world, many chefs appreciate the significance of this recognition. Not Tootsie at the time. “I didn’t know what it was. The American Royal, an organization based in Kansas City inducted Tootsie into the Barbecue Hall of Fame in 2018, which at the time meant she was only the second woman to be inducted.
While achieving great success with Snow’s during this time, it was also the most challenging for Tootsie, fraught with tragic events. Her husband White passed away on December 8, 2015, at the age of 87. They were nearly married 60 years. Her son Hershel passed away on March 4, 2016, after a yearlong battle with brain cancer at the age of 50. Losing a child and a spouse is devastating on their own, though experiencing the deaths of both in a span of four months is dreadful, almost paralyzing. “I lost White, then Hershey. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I know I didn’t want to be alone,” Tootsie recalls. She was back at work the Saturday after Hershey passed. “The people made it a little easier. They were the best medicine.”
AFTER APPEARING ON NETFLIX’S CHEF’S TABLE IN 2020, TOOTSIE’S PROFILE, ALONG WITH SNOW’S BBQ ROSE, DRAMATICALLY. AGAIN, THEY’D HAVE TO ADJUST. JUST LIKE IN 2008.
These days, it’s common to sell out of food before noon, even with the significant increase in cooking capacity to meet the demand. After appearing on Netflix’s Chef’s Table in 2020, Tootsie’s profile, along with Snow’s BBQ rose, dramatically. Again, they’d have to adjust. Just like in 2008. When they reopened for service after being closed for months during the COVID-19 pandemic in November 2020 they had people lined up at 9pm. On Friday. Nearly 12 hours before their scheduled opening. Think about that. People are driving from hours away, sometimes even flying in, waiting up to 12 hours, for a chance at experiencing Snow’s. It defies logic. At the same time, it makes perfect sense once you experience it yourself. Nowhere else does this environment exist in Texas. And having traveled around the country for barbecue, I can say, it doesn’t exist there either.
The COVID-19 pandemic was hard on the food industry. Many places shut down. Some would never reopen. At Snow’s, this was no different. They closed in March 2020 and pivoted to mail order only. With school out as well, this was especially hard on Tootsie. “I had nothing to do. I tried to keep busy, but I ran out of things to do. I would say I was depressed,” Tootsie recalled. She saw friends, went to church, but mainly stayed home during the six months Snow’s was closed. “I missed the people. I felt alone,” Tootsie would say. What’s interesting is isolation is a hallmark barbecue. Pitmasters usually spend their entire shifts alone, tending to the fire, ensuring their food comes out perfect. But they stay busy. And that’s precisely what compounded the problem for Tootsie during this time. She was alone with “nothing to do.” At 86, for a woman who’s spent her whole life working, she now had to persevere and find a way to keep her mind occupied. Easier said than done. She’s back to herself, surrounded by the people who she inspires, many of whom are young girls and women, who hope to gain wisdom and insight so they too can pursue their passions. Men even can’t hide their excitement to learn from one of the best to ever put on an apron. When asked when she’ll retire, Tootsie responds, “I don’t know. I suppose when I can’t do it anymore. I do the best that I can at the age that I am. Lately, I’m more tired than I used to be. But I don’t know what I’d do with myself. I guess when that time comes, I’ll know.” Hopefully for us, that time is not anytime soon.