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Southern Makers: Tootsie Tomanetz

Southern Makers: Tootsie Tomanetz
Written by Paula Disbrowe | Photos by Robert Jacob Lerma

True Grit

In the last ten or so years, Texas barbecue has rocketed from a time-honored cooking tradition to the obsession of a carnivorous cult. It’s worshipped on food television, documented all over Instagram, and is now served in the most remote corners of Brooklyn by bearded hipsters wearing “No Sleep Till Brisket” t-shirts.

Barbecue’s elevated status has resulted in some astonishing things. These days, it’s normal for enthusiasts to plan a vacation around, say, the best rib joints. Aaron Franklin of Austin’s much lauded Franklin Barbecue received a 2015 James Beard award for Best Chef: Southwest, becoming the first pitmaster to be recognized in a category typically dominated by fine dining chefs. And in 2008 and again in 2017, Texas Monthly declared Snow’s Barbecue, a tiny shack in Lexington (population 1,200), the “best barbecue in Texas.”

Tootsie Tomanetz in the pits

It’s not a stretch to say that Tootsie Tomanetz, the 84-year-old pitmaster at Snow’s, was the catalyst that set the barbecue craze in motion. The Texas Monthly nod was Tomanetz’ first significant accolade, but she’d been shoveling coals and wrangling large cuts of meat over a fire for more than forty years. “I do what I enjoy, and doors open up,” she says in her usual humble manner.

Tomanetz grew up in blue jeans, on horseback, on a farm east of Lexington. She didn’t start cooking until her thirties, when her husband worked as a butcher at City Meat Market in Giddings. When the market’s owner Hershel Doyle found himself shorthanded, he asked if Tomanetz would help manage the pit. What she lacked in experience she made up for in true grit, and with help from local pitmaster Orange Holloway, she learned to wrangle the shop’s smoker.

When Doyle bought another meat market and renamed it City Meat Market, he asked Tomanetz to take over the cooking (her husband returned to work their farm). It was here she inherited pits that relied on direct heat, and learned to cook barbecue in the Central Texas tradition: over a post oak fire and relying on indirect heat for long smokes and direct heat for most everything else. The market—where she cooked for the next twenty years—became an integral part of the community, and her meats amassed a devoted following.

Fast forward to the early aughts when a local named Kerry Bexley wanted to turn a vacant building on Main Street into a barbecue joint—but not without Tomanetz. (He fondly remembered eating ham and cheese sandwiches at City Meat Market when he was growing up.) Eventually she acquiesced, and Snow’s BBQ—named for Bexley’s childhood nickname—opened in 2003. The restaurant opens its doors at 8 am, and you’ll want to arrive soon after if you want to taste the full menu. 

Tomanetz’ day begins much earlier: She cinches on her apron at 2 in the morning. Bexley and pit hand Clay Cowgill help start fires and fill two enormous steel smokers with brisket. Throughout the early morning, the smokers will maintain a temperature of 250 to 275 degrees to create meltingly tender, deeply flavorful brisket. Meanwhile, Tomanetz will simmer pinto beans and tend to six cookers and hundreds of cuts of ribs, pork steaks, sausage from a local butcher, turkey breasts, and half chickens about two feet above the glowing coals.

The job is hot and sweaty in summer, and cold and disagreeable in winter, she tells me, but she can’t imagine not doing it, especially after two devastating personal tragedies. Her husband passed away in December 2015, and her son, Hershey, died from a brain tumor in March 2016. Since then her faith and work have been a refuge. “It was the Lord’s work to call them home because these opportunities were ahead for me,” she says. “God knew what my achievements would be, so he took them home.”

Tootsie tending the hog guts

The 2008 recognition from Texas Monthly was a game changer. When she and Bexley learned of the award, they hugged each other and began crying, Tomanetz says. “It was a tremendous shock to be named number one.”

Snow’s has remained a rustic operation—the open-air kitchen is framed by sheet metal walls and metal roof cover. What has changed is that locals now have a call-in number, so they can order their lunch with no wait and pick it up in the back. Other awards have followed. In 2017 the City of Giddings named her Citizen of the Year; in 2018 she was inducted into the BBQ Hall of Fame.

On a recent Saturday, an amiable line of fans stretched down the driveway. While Tomanetz posed for selfies with a couple who drove from Waco and a convivial group from Dallas, I chatted with two young men from Austin who drive their motorcycles to Snow’s every Saturday.

Tomanetz is famous for the food she prepares, but her lingering impression is that of warmth and humility. Her strong arms and lines in her face show decades of hard work and trying to make the best of things. “Tootsie represents all that is good with the world,” Aaron Franklin says. “Her warmth and work ethic finish the ingredient list for some of the finest barbecue meats around.”

This story was originally published in the June.July 2019 issue.

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