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The pilgrimage to the countryside in quest of barbecue is a sacred Texas ritual A never more so than when its goal is the New Zion Missionary Baptist Church on Huntsville's sleepy south side. There, outside a rickety clapboard parish hall, three hulking barbecue pits belch apocalyptic clouds of smoke, a sight as inspiring in its way as Chartres Cathedral rearing up over the fields. Tended by taciturn black gentlemen, the ribs that emerge from New Zion's well-sooted pits trigger something very like a religious experience: to gnaw on these magnificently crusty bones, awash in the incense of smoldering post oak, is to be convinced that there is a God.
Inside the low-ceilinged shed of a parish hall, deliberate church ladies cleave heroic rib racks and whack briskets asunder, bearing meat mountains to the assembled supplicants. Geoffrey Chaucer would have reveled in these long, motley tables, where families from the 'hood occupy beat-up metal folding chairs near Panama-hatted Houstonians fresh from the lake house; where a T-shirted Hispanic fellow rubs elbows with a bejeweled matron from down Conroe way; where trailer-park kicker teens feast alongside baseball-capped black youths whose napes trail slim, perfect rat-tails. A careworn, overalled man pulls up in his pickup. A woman who might be a librarian pauses at the door to deliver a shy testimonial to newcomers. For the moment, they are bound together in a single, beatific community, a microcosm of Texas as it should be.
Such is the power of the barbecue served up by the New Zion church volunteers five days a week A Hall of Fame stuff that is, as the Guide Michelin would put it, "worth a journey."
For Houstonians, that means a 65-mile shot north on I-45 past the flotsam of the megalopolis. Portable-building yards, spa purveyors and auto-supply warehouses finally yield to the rolling, piney woods of East Texas; just south of Huntsville, at the Casa Tomas Mexican restaurant, you turn right onto FM 1374 and drive a half mile or so, until smoke signals (and the tiny brick New Zion Church) greet you on the right.
Park in back. Breathe deeply. Pay homage to the rib guardians and their billowing pits, one rigged improbably to a portable electric fan. At the counter inside, in full view of a kitchen jumbled with chopping blocks and roaster pans and crockpots, prepare to surrender to charity the best six dollars a Texan can hope to spend.
That sum will get you New Zion's all-you-can-eat platter deal, a bargain twice over. Order up front. Obey the tart elderly lady who asks, "Who wants the platter?" and enjoins takers, "Y'all go sit down." Find a seat at a table laminated with ads from local businesses, each place set with a plastic baggie containing two crucial slices of Mrs. Baird's white bread. Make sure that one of the plastic-domed communal plates of pickles and thickly sliced red onion is situated within easy reach. Take a moment to savor your surroundings A the smoked-buff patina of the walls; the obligatory corner TV; the yellowed press clippings and scriptural art ads and rustic blue ribbon for "Great BBQ & Pecan Pie" A because once the meat arrives, nothing (and I mean nothing) else will matter.
Everyone at my table fell eerily silent when the mountain of ribs, brisket and links materialized. Our first bites of rib called forth the wild animal that lurks within: single-minded, non-verbal, intent solely on exercising the carnivorous imperative.
New Zion's ribs themselves have an untamed wildness. Extravagantly crusty, deliriously smoky, they are gnawable in the extreme. Forget the picture-book uniformity that city ribs often display A these countrified specimens range from the short, meaty and tender to the long, charred and chewy. Maybe better ribs exist. I haven't tasted them.
There are delicious, smooth-textured links tucked underneath, thinly sliced and yielding, colored a deep, deep rose. Assembled with a slice of Mrs. Baird's finest and a sweet slab of red onion, anointed with New Zion's seemly barbecue sauce, they make a perfectly realized sandwich. As to that sauce, it is a model of discretion, and no small part of New Zion's genius: thin and translucent, with a vinegar tang and a tinge of sweetness, it allows the glorious flavors of the meats to shine through.
A great argument for ordering the platter is that it includes ungainly chunks lopped from the crusty brisket ends A the prized "out" factor that characterizes "in-and-out" barbecue. Not that there's anything wrong with New Zion's standard slices of cut-against-the-grain brisket. They're fine. But the exterior hunks are purely astounding A they literally fall apart along the grain lines, rich with carbon and texture and soul.
Side dishes and accoutrements cannot loom large in the presence of such monumental meat. It's a pity, because the church ladies produce a pickly, church-suppery potato salad of pale-golden hue. It beats the severely plain pinto beans, which come without a trace of sauce or pot liquor. Iced tea comes in two versions A plain and radically sweet. Pies come in flavors of sweet potato (unsampled), lemon icebox (slightly chalky, but brisk and expertly meringued) and pecan (lovely stuff, anchored with fluffy, chestnut-brown Karo-syrup goo). But in the end, there is meat.
And there is parable, fittingly enough. The tale of New Zion Missionary Baptist's barbecue enterprise has been passed down and chronicled for years in southeast Texas; the discerning friend who brought me my first eyewitness account of the place invariably glorified it, in tones of the highest respect, as "The Church of the Immaculate Barbecue."
In the beginning A was it 15 years ago?, nobody's quite sure anymore A there was only Houston painting contractor D.C. Ward and his wife, Annie Mae. Mr. Ward took some time off work to paint his mother's little East Texas church; Annie Mae took off from her dry-cleaning job and came along to New Zion to keep him company. The first day, a Thursday, she smoked him some barbecue for lunch, right there by the side of the road.
Lured by the smoke, people stopped. And smelled. And wheedled. And bought. On Friday and Saturday, Mrs. Ward cooked extra. She sold it all. By Sunday, she was asking New Zion's pastor to give his blessing to an idea that had seized her: she would sell barbecue and donate the profits to the church. The rest is history, complicated by a brief unpleasantness when the health department made the volunteers move their operation indoors, where kitchen facilities were available. Barbecue profits built the air-conditioned parish hall, where congregants are now fed from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. sharp, every day but Sunday and Monday.
One comes away from New Zion filled not only with ribs, but with a sense, however transitory, of the rightness of things. There is peace inside this modest building, and a connection to a rural past that still holds Texans in its mythic sway, however urban we have become. That connection, more than anything, is the holy grail, the reason that we drive forth in search of barbecue.
New Zion Missionary Baptist Church, 2601 Montgomery Road (