Tootsie Tomanetz: First Lady of Texas Barbecue

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Opening spread of Round Top Register's story on pitmaster Tootsie Tomanetz
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Tootsie Tomanetz Pitmaster at Snow's Barbecue
Tootsie Tomanetz, pitmaster at Snow’s Barbecue, prides herself on meeting customers’ needs by providing a good product.

Barbecue aficionados around the world know Tootsie Tomanetz as “possibly the greatest female pitmaster in Texas history,” but she’ll always be Miss Tootsie to me. I was wrapping her pork shoulder in white bread and washing it down with an RC Cola long before she was the darling of Texas Monthly, the New Yorker, NPR, the Food Network and anybody else with an opinion on smoked meat. She was also my first employer. (Watch Lorie and others talk about Tootsie.)

In fact, soon after Snow’s BBQ in Lexington, where she now cooks with her son Hershey and Kerry Bexley, was named the Best Barbecue Joint in Texas by Texas Monthly in 2008, I stopped by to see her. People were lined up to the auction barn waiting for barbecue and the opportunity to take her picture.

She pulled me out of line, hugged my neck and whispered, “All these cameras make me feel like Mickey Mouse.”

In the ensuing years, she has grown accustomed to the well-deserved attention and wears it as comfortably as her apron. Today, people don’t have to tell Miss Tootsie when they’re first-time visitors to Snow’s—cameras around their necks give them away.
“If they’ve been here before, they’ve already taken pictures with us,” she said.

The business — and the story—have taken on lives of their own. Noted TV chef Bobby Flay did an episode featuring Snow’s. It aired three times recently, reigniting the buzz and keeping the Saturday morning crowds huge.

“I never thought it would go this far,” she said. “The new wears off of everything, but not good meat I guess.”

The Beginning

Miss Tootsie became part of my world when she and her husband, White Tomanetz, bought the City Meat Market in Lexington in the late 1970s. They had worked for Hershel Doyle at City Meat Market in Giddings and in his nearby slaughterhouse for years. There was no such thing as boxed beef and no trendy marketing labels like grassfed.

“All the beef was farm-raised and grassfed,” Miss Tootsie said. “It wasn’t marketing. It was where it came from and what people in Lee County grew up eating.”

White started in 1956. Miss Tootsie came on board in 1966, a year after their youngest son, Hershey, who was named after Doyle, was born. Doyle asked her to come fill in. The temporary assignment turned out to be permanent.

“As a kid, I never really considered what I wanted to be,” Miss Tootsie said. “I was a daddy’s girl always riding horses; I think being a cowboy might’ve suited me.”

While she didn’t end up riding the plains on a cow pony, Miss Tootsie has spent a lifetime working with beef. She learned the meat and barbecue trades alongside Orange Holloway, Doyle’s right hand man and primary pitmaster. She eventually began working at the slaughterhouse too when Orange could no longer handle the physical demands of the kill floor. She learned her trade so well that Doyle asked her to run the City Meat Market in Lexington when he bought it in spring 1976.

“When Hershel said, ‘I’m going to send you to Lexington,’ I was scared to death,” Miss Tootsie recalled. “Hell, I didn’t know what to do, but I figured it out. I enjoyed it so much that I talked to White about buying it.”

Tootsie Tomanetz Texas Pitmaster Stirs Her "Wet Mop" Sauce
Miss Tootsie bastes her meat with a “wet mop” to help infuse flavor and keep it moist. Her secret meat seasoning? Salt and pepper.

The Homecoming

Miss Tootsie and White were raised on String Prairie just east of Lexington. Although Miss Tootsie and White didn’t know each other as children, their families were acquainted. Miss Tootsie’s father, Herman Otto, was a rural mail carrier. Miss Tootsie used to ride the route with him and remembers meeting “Mr. Tomato,” the man who would one day be her father-in-law.

Miss Tootsie was too young to remember an event that changed the Tomanetz family forever. White accidentally burned down the family’s first home when he was five years old. The Tomanetzes eventually settled in Giddings in 1942. As fate would have it, there was a slaughterhouse on their property. It was where Doyle started his meat business.

Miss Tootsie and White didn’t meet until 1952, the year Miss Tootsie graduated from Lexington High School and White returned from serving in the U.S. Army. Miss Tootsie, after a suggestion several years earlier by mutual friend, fellow resident of String Prairie, and unlikely cupid Henry Harzke (see “More Stories from City Meat Market” for more on Henry) had been writing “soldier letters” to White, who was stationed in Alaska. Miss Tootsie and White married in 1956, building a career and a home in Giddings. They commuted to Lexington when they bought that City Meat Market in 1976.

“The best part of running the market was getting back home and reconnecting with all the families I knew,” Miss Tootsie said. “After 20 years in Giddings, I had the chance to come to Lexington and get to know the kids of people I grew up with.”

The Hired Help

The day I started working for Miss Tootsie and White I was sleeping late, at least for our house. The phone rang about 7:15 on a Saturday morning. My momma knocked on my door and said, “It’s Miss Tootsie Tomanetz. She wants to know if you can come help them today.” Bleary eyed and tongue tied, I agreed. Somebody drove me into town because I wasn’t old enough to drive myself.

I assumed Miss Tootsie called me because she thought I had good manners, or she had some sense of the work ethic my folks had instilled in me, or she liked my personality. When I got around to asking her about it 30 years later, her reason was much more practical.

“Lorie Lou, I needed a warm body,” Miss Tootsie said with a laugh. Someone didn’t show up to work that morning, and Saturdays were too busy to be short-handed.

She continued, “All kidding aside, we hired high school students to give them the chance to work in a small business and learn how to serve the public. At the market, I worked real hard to meet every customer’s individual needs.”

When Miss Tootsie handed me a clean white apron for the first time, I was scared. I didn’t know what I was doing.

Miss Tootsie’s instructions: “Smile. Be friendly. Work hard and fast. And learn to count change.” I must’ve caught on because I worked for Miss Tootsie and White until I left to go to college.

About the time I was 17, Miss Tootsie and White took a vacation. They went to Vegas leaving me the keys to the building, the checkbook and a “to do” list
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Little did I know at the time, I could’ve ended Miss Tootsie’s shot at fame.

“I knew where you came from and how you were raised,” Miss Tootsie said. “I knew if the money didn’t add up it wasn’t going to be because you stole it but because you made a math mistake.”

I remembered them being gone about three weeks. Time moves slowly when the register doesn’t balance, and you’re sure you’re bankrupting a business. Miss Tootsie assured me it was only four days, Saturday evening — Wednesday night, because they had to be back to make hot gut sausage on Thursday.

Tootsie Tomanetz Checks Chickens at Snow's Barbecue
Despite the long lines and full pits, Tootsie Tomanetz finds time to talk with customers and friends.

A Saturday Tradition
In Lexington, barbecue on Saturdays was a tradition. The City Meat Market was a gathering place for young and old, black and white, long-time residents and weekenders. It seemed everybody made their way to the market for brisket, ribs (beef and pork), chicken, and hot gut sausage. The hot guts are made from coarse-ground beef rib meat seasoned with salt, pepper and a hint of red pepper according to Hershel Doyle’s time-tested proportions, a recipe Miss Tootsie still closely guards.

The phone rang constantly with people, who couldn’t make it before the meat disappeared, placing orders. We wrote them on a sheet of butcher paper beside the phone and marked the meat on the pit by writing names on a wooden ice cream spoon whittled to a point and sticking it into the meat.

Meat was hauled from the pits to the scales in battered silver dishpans. Sauce was packaged in recycled baby food jars. People could eat directly from the butcher paper at wooden tables in the back, or we’d wrap their orders to take home. A lot of people also shopped at the meat counter selecting fryers or a chuck roast for Sunday lunch or pounds of red Taylor wieners for a Saturday night wienie roast.

“I didn’t have favorite customers,” Miss Tootsie said. “I tried to get along with everybody and meet their individual needs.”

Traffic didn’t slow until after lunch, and then we’d custom-process meat, usually beef but sometimes pork. White would leave to check cattle at their place on String Prairie. Miss Tootsie would manhandle the beef quarters herself.

“Suzy Freeman (a former columnist for the Rockdale Reporter) wrote that the first time she saw me I was carrying a half of beef,” Miss Tootsie said. “It was really only a quarter.”

Just so you’ll know, a quarter weighed about 150 pounds. Miss Tootsie stands a little over 5’2”. When it comes to bearing weight, she’s like an ant able to carry a lot more than she looks like she can.

Occasionally, we’d have a slow afternoon, which tempted us to wash the butcher tables and saws a little before the 5 p.m. closing. Washing meat saws caked in bone meal takes a lot of steaming hot water, Dawn dish washing soap and elbow grease. Invariably somebody would come in and want something other than what was in the counter. If Miss Tootsie couldn’t cut it by hand with a hacksaw, she’d reassemble the saw and get the customer what he wanted—and she’d smile while doing it.

“To make a business successful, you have to be willing to give people what they want when they want it,” she said. “And you’ve got to work hard, but I was never afraid of that.”

Tootsie Tomanetz pitmaster at Snow's Barbecue believes in the power of hard work.
80-year-old Tootsie Tomanetz has been described as a “workaholic,” but at 80 years old retirement from either barbecuing or her job with the Gidding School District is not in her plans.

The Value of Hard Work

I suspect hard work may be afraid of Miss Tootsie though.

“There’s value to hard work,” Miss Tootsie said. “It perturbs me to see people loaf around, not apply themselves and then complain that they’re not being paid what they’re worth when in truth they’re probably getting paid more than they’re worth.”

She turned 80 in April and works five days a week for the Giddings Independent School District in maintenance. On the day we talked, she had spent the morning lopping limbs off an overgrown pear tree.

“I guess I will retire someday, but retirement is not in my plans,” she said.

She admits, though, to slowing down a bit because of White’s health. The stroke he suffered in 1996 is what prompted them to sell the market soon after. These days she and White arrive at Snow’s at 4 a.m. instead of 2 a.m. to oversee the cooking because “starting at 2 a.m. just makes the day too long for White.”

“I’ve been told I’m a workaholic,” Miss Tootsie said. “But really, I just like being around people and turning out a good product.”

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by Lorie Woodward Cantu
Photos by Anna Spencer Morse, Grace Photography

Editor’s Note: If you don’t know, Snow’s Barbecue is on 516 Main St. in Lexington. It opens at 8:00 a.m. on Saturdays only and stays open until the meat is sold out. My favorite? Pork shoulder. Chicken is a close second. They’re famous for their brisket. I may be biased, but the barbecue is five-napkin kind of good. And if you’re in the market for a first boss, I highly recommend Miss Tootsie.