The Goode Son

Houston's First Family of Barbecue has anointed an heir apparent to its expanding empire. And his name is Levi.

Still, the man demanded his money back. Jim refused. The bean lover dumped the chili on a vacant table and ran out of the restaurant.

Jim ran after him, leaving the cash register unattended, his smooth-soled boots slip-sliding on the parking lot pavement. At a car lot, the bean man doubled back, heading toward his car in the Goode Co. lot. He jumped in the old Pontiac, but Jim caught the door and tried to extract him from the car. The bean lover managed to crank the Pontiac and roared away.

When Jim walked back into the restaurant, the remaining customers applauded. Those were Jim Goode's people; to hell with the bean lovers.

The family - Joe, Liz, Levi, Jim and Jana - stares Blankly into the camera, all seriousness and purpose, like Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl.
Courtesy of Jim Goode
The family - Joe, Liz, Levi, Jim and Jana - stares Blankly into the camera, all seriousness and purpose, like Okies fleeing the Dust Bowl.

Likewise, in the abstract, Jim thought it made sense to avoid nepotism. But outside of his relatives, hardly any of Goode Co.'s early employees met his approval; he considered them a mix of warm bodies and drunks. Instead, he wanted people who'd be "like family": people like Liz and Joe, who'd do a job without being told, who didn't whine, who felt as fiercely about Goode Co. as he did.

Stanley Woo was one of the first outsiders to qualify for Jim's adoptive business family. Jim describes Stanley as a "Chinaman," 70 years old, who'd spent his adult life working at Texas barbecue joints. Stanley was reliable and a hard worker, a guy who'd rather sweep the floor than sit still -- but even more important, he knew how to carve a brisket, a skill neither Jim nor Joe had mastered. At first, Jim says, it took him 15 minutes to cut meat for a sandwich. Stanley taught him the secrets of speed.

But Stanley began telling another employee that the only reason Jim was succeeding was luck. She told Jim, and Jim didn't like it.

Stanley, he said, you gotta quit saying that.

Stanley said okay. But a week later, he did it again.

Stanley, Jim said, I'm going to have to fire you.

You can't fire me, Stanley said. I'd lose face.

Jim was exhausted; Jim was like an animal. Jim said losing face is better than losing your ass.

That was the last he saw of Stanley.

"He was a good man," Jim says mournfully now. He tells the story to show how tired he was, how hot his temper was running, how Goode Co. Barbeque operated then: not by the cool rules of a policy manual, but with the passion and heat of a family fight.

By the next summer the zeitgeist was smiling on all things Texan. Gilley's was hot, Willie Nelson was on the radio, and customers were lining up at Goode Co. Barbeque. Houston and Texas were full of themselves, and more than any other place in town, Jim Goode's place fit that mood.

But Jim didn't relax. Nothing but the restaurant commanded his full attention; even his family came second. Off the top of his head, he can tell you what Goode Co. Barbeque was grossing in the summer of '78 -- $1,500 a day -- but he can't remember the year he and Liz were divorced. It was 1980.

Liz remarried and moved with Levi and Jana to her new husband's home, Delcambre (pronounced "del-cum") in southeast Louisiana. The tiny town, only a few miles from the Intracoastal Waterway, had one pharmacist, no hospital, and even in the '80s, remained effectively segregated. There was no Wal-Mart, no McDonald's, no Sonic. Kids swam in horse troughs. Crawfish shells filled the potholes. Cops carried coolers of beer in the backseat of the police cruiser. "I think we had one homosexual," says Jana. "But he was married."

Jana, a fourth grader, had a hard time breaking into the social circle of kids who'd known each other practically since birth. But preschool Delcambre welcomed Levi as one of its own. He grew up hunting and fishing with his Cajun buddies, watching as their grandmothers transformed the morning's catch into the evening's gumbo. In return, Levi taught his friends to break-dance, an urban skill he had learned in the big city.

Back in Houston, Jim also remarried, and with his second wife, Kate, soon had two more daughters, Katie and Emma. Kate, too, was absorbed into Goode Co.: She watched over the finances, the profit-and-loss matters Jim had never much cared for.

Levi and Jana saw their dad every couple of weeks. Usually that meant flying to Houston and spending time at Goode Co. Barbeque. On Friday nights Pappy Selph, a Texas swing fiddler, would play at the restaurant. Five-year-old Levi, big boots clomping, would lug beer out to the crowd; Jim taught him how to open a bottle so that the cap flipped into the air. Both Levi and Jana would join Pappy on stage to sing "The Cotton-Eyed Joe."

At first all Levi knew was the word "Bullshit!" It was cute, but cute wasn't enough for Jim: If Levi wanted to keep singing, he'd have to learn the verses. Levi played the 45 till he knew the words by heart.

Jim took Levi hunting and fishing. The girls, Jana and Katie and Emma, didn't like stuff like wade-fishing, Levi says; they hated to get dirty. Jana remembers things differently: She went fishing a couple of times with her dad, she says, but generally wasn't invited on such excursions. "I begged all my life to go hunting," she says with a shrug. "But I was a girl. Levi's the guy."

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