Feature

Snow’s Queen

One Tough Tootsie

by Daniel Vaughn · November 8, 2016
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This story about the amazing Tootsie Tomanetz originally ran in our October issue. We’re posting it here in its entirety along with a collection of photos from Wyatt McSpadden. He was assigned with capturing the essence of Tootsie for the story, which he did masterfully, but we could only run so many in print. Thankfully, McSpadden has provided some of his favorites from the shoot for this version of Snow’s Queen.

Tootsie Tomanetz McSpadden 13Every Friday that the Buffaloes of Giddings High School have a home football game, Norma Frances Tomanetz parks her pickup truck next to the stadium just after the morning bell rings. At the age of 81 she still works thirty hours a week for the school district’s maintenance department, and on these Fridays the stands require some sprucing up by her and her crew, following the JV game the night before. There’s trash to collect, bleachers to wipe down, and toilet paper rolls to replace. It’s all part of her routine. She’d mow the field too, but these Buffaloes roam on artificial turf.

She hasn’t actually seen a Friday night game in decades, because her Saturday wake-up calls are awfully early. She goes to bed by nine at her home in Giddings and rolls into Snow’s BBQ, a fifteen-minute drive away, in Lexington, at two in the morning. On weekdays she trims trees and hauls garbage, but on Saturdays Tomanetz—or Tootsie, as she is known to her friends and to barbecue connoisseurs around the world—ties on an apron and becomes the pitmaster at one of Texas’s most beloved barbecue joints.

One morning this spring I had planned to meet Tootsie before daylight to watch her prepare for Saturday. I was at my hotel, waiting out a swiftly moving storm front, when my phone rang. It was Tootsie. With motherly concern, she warned me about the heavy rain and urged me to delay my drive.

The signpost in front of Snow’s held just an empty frame when I arrived, the sign itself having fallen victim to the high winds. The concrete beneath Tootsie’s boots was wet from the driving rain, but the sheet-metal walls and the metal roof over the open-air barbecue kitchen were undamaged. Fluorescent shop lights shone on six barbecue pits, smoke seeping from their seams. The stillness of the country morning was interrupted by the repeated thud of a shovel. Tootsie, who’d started work hours before I’d gotten myself up, was digging into beds of coals, which would require constant replenishing throughout the morning.

During her early drive to Snow’s, she would have called ahead to Clay Cowgill, the pit hand, to tell him to start the fires. (She also likes for someone to know she’s on her way in case a deer or hog jumps out from the darkness along the roadside.) Now, with her stout forearms clenched and a slight bend in her back, Tootsie carried load after load of coals to each pit, where she’d scatter a shovelful into a wide opening cut into the base. This would keep it heated for almost an hour.

The kitchen at Snow’s was an L-shaped concrete pad. Two enormous steel smokers, which had been filled with briskets by Cowgill and the owner of Snow’s, Kerry Bexley, the night before, made up one leg of the L, and the other was spanned by the six cookers that Tootsie tends: flat, lidded pits that had been cut and welded by Bexley to Tootsie’s specifications. At three feet tall and about eight feet long, they were each the size of a large freezer chest. The grates were 24 inches from the hot coals below. It was like the biggest charcoal grill you’ve ever seen, but with the meat farther from the heat.

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Tootsie had the steady, bowlegged gait of someone who has spent many years on horseback. An outsized set of keys hung from her belt loop, jingling a bit as she walked. There was plenty of walking to do: earlier that morning she’d fetched deep plastic tubs full of pork ribs, pork steaks, turkey breasts, and half chickens, which had been seasoned with table salt and 16-mesh ground pepper the day before, from a walk-in cooler; wheeled them over to the pits on a cart; and dropped them onto the grates, piece by piece. Next she would check the fires and add more coals to compensate for the chill of the meat. There’s no escaping the heat in the pit room, and even in winter she keeps a towel tucked into her back left pocket to wipe away the sweat.

With the pits full and the fires steady, it was time to get the onions simmering for the mop sauce, so called because it’s applied with a small cotton mop. Prepared with vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, dry mustard, and margarine, the sauce adds flavor to the meat while it’s cooking and also keeps it from drying out or burning. Then she started cutting some chunks of bacon for the scratch-made pinto beans. Tootsie told me there was no need to soak the beans overnight; they would have plenty of time to simmer.

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As the sun rose, it illuminated the haze over each churning pit. At times the smoke became so thick that I could hardly make out Tootsie as she lifted each lid to reach the sizzling meat with her mop. There were no pauses to accommodate my photo-taking. When a pit lid needed to be shut, it was. When I was in the way, I didn’t have to wonder. She was all business, as you’d have to be when the people you’d be feeding had already started gathering twenty feet away on the porch of the restaurant. Some would wander over to the pits before finding their spot in line, but at 7 a.m. Tootsie offered only polite nods. She was saving up all the smiles and poses for later.

Part of Snow’s mystique is that it opens so early, but this ritual of barbecue for breakfast originally started because of a misunderstanding. In 2008, before he had any idea of how famous Snow’s was about to become, Bexley answered a call from a fact-checker at this magazine. Bexley was a busy man, and he was rushing to finish the call. Asked for a phone number and hours of operation, he blurted out his personal cell number and that Snow’s opened bright and early at 8 a.m. What he meant was, the sausage was usually ready that early for locals who happened to stop by for a quick bite. The rest of the barbecue didn’t come off the pit until around 10.

In the June issue of the magazine, Snow’s BBQ was named the best barbecue joint in Texas. Bexley’s phone rang so often that he had to change his number, and Tootsie became famous almost overnight. Crowds descended upon Lexington, which meant she got loads of extra attention and needed lots more pit space. But other than the added demand and the early start time, it didn’t change much about how she cooked barbecue. Those were habits that went back fifty years.

Tootsie was a 31-year-old housewife when she first started cooking barbecue, in 1966. Her husband, Edward “White” Tomanetz, was a butcher at City Meat Market in Giddings, and she would help him load quarters of beef from the slaughterhouse into his pickup. Tootsie wasn’t an employee—she was just helping her husband—but she was well-known by the staff and by market owner Hershel Doyle. Then one day Doyle found himself shorthanded: his lead butcher had retired, and one of the barbecue cooks failed to show up for his shift. “They asked me if I’d come in and help manage the pit,” Tootsie recalls. “I told them I didn’t know anything about it, but I was willing to learn and do my best.”

Tootsie was no stranger to hard work. Growing up on a farm a few miles east of Lexington, she spent many days threshing peanuts and cutting hay with a sickle. (Her daughter, Pat, still lives in the house there, and Tootsie runs 25 head of cattle on the land.) Tootsie remembers when Bexley’s grandfather would deliver ice in fifty-pound blocks three times a week. “The gentleman’s pants were always wet to one side as he carried the ice into the house.” An extra block was needed if the family planned to make ice cream on Saturday evenings. When she was seven, her parents bought a refrigerator, after the electric lines reached the house.

It’s hard to find a photo of Tootsie wearing anything other than her blue jeans. She wore them even in her school days, when other girls wore dresses or, as she describes them, “fancy slacks.” She recalls that she “rode a horse a mile to the bus stop, and a dress was in my way to ride a horse.” Tootsie stopped taking the bus at fifteen, when she learned to drive the family’s 1935 Ford. In addition to being a farmer, her father was also a deputy sheriff. That’s probably why local officers looked the other way when she drove without a license. She never lost that sense of independence, although she didn’t aspire to be anything more than a wife and mother.

She married White, a veteran who’d been stationed in Alaska during the Korean War, at 21. They had three children, Patricia, Dale, and Hershel (named after White’s boss, but they called him Hershey). She was asked to help at City Meat Market when Hershey was just a year old. The other two kids were in school, so she found him a babysitter and went to work the pits six days a week.

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The history of Central Texas barbecue has generally been condensed to celebrate only the contributions of German and Czech meat-market owners. Talented black pitmasters are rarely given equal billing, and so have been all but forgotten today. I’ve only recently uncovered names like Houston Wright and Lightning Alexander, who helped build the reputation of Kreuz Market, in Lockhart. In Giddings, a name I’d never heard before was that of the black pitmaster Orange Holloway. He was a hunting buddy of White’s and cooked barbecue for decades at City Meat Market. It was Holloway’s techniques that Tootsie learned when she went to work at the market. Tootsie remembers him as a great teacher, showing her how to cook ribs, chicken, and sausage in a brick smoker that’s still there today. But brisket wasn’t popular back then, and so you wouldn’t find it on the menu. 

Tootsie built her barbecue foundation at the market but also learned the retail side of the business while working shifts at the meat counter. Ten years after she started, Doyle bought the existing meat market in Lexington, renamed it City Meat Market, and asked Tootsie to run it for him. “I was nervous,” she recalled, but she took the promotion in stride. Although White came in a few times a week to help out, she was in charge. 

From the start, Tootsie was also expected to cook the barbecue. The pits left by the previous owners in back of the market were of a different design from the ones in Giddings: they had burn barrels to make coals, and the barbecue was cooked over direct heat rather than in a smoker. She didn’t have someone like Holloway to show her the ropes, so she says she “tried [direct-heat cooking] out and it seemed like it worked pretty well.”

Tootsie had been thrown into an intimidating situation, but she doesn’t remember being unsure of herself. “I took it as the day came,” she told me. It’s basically her motto. Throughout our interviews I tried repeatedly to get her to acknowledge that her outlook on new challenges and her subsequent perseverance were exceptional. Her humble nature never gave me the satisfaction.

After finding her groove at the market in Lexington, she convinced White they should buy it. It was theirs just over a year after she’d started managing it. This was before beef was shipped in neatly packaged boxes. City Meat Market dealt with whole animals. Tootsie would pick out cattle at the Saturday auction in Lexington and have them slaughtered in Giddings on Monday. They’d bring the carcasses back to the market inside their Chevrolet utility van and have the cuts ready for the case on Wednesday morning.

While White tended the farm in the afternoons, Tootsie kept the market going throughout the day, even if it meant doing some butchery of her own. “If it got to the point where I needed something that wasn’t broken down already, it was root hog or die. I’d go in and get the quarter of beef and break it down.”

The market became part of the community fabric. Bexley, who grew up in Lexington, remembers eating ham-and-cheese sandwiches there during his lunch breaks from school. Cowgill’s family would go to eat barbecue on Saturdays, one of which he remembers vividly: he almost choked on a piece of barbecue, but his dad dislodged it from his throat.

While barbecue at City Market in Giddings had become popular enough that it was served six days a week, for many other meat market–style joints of the time barbecue was a by-product. Whatever meat was left over in the case on Friday went into the pit, and the barbecue was served only one day a week: Saturday. The Lexington market had a regular menu of pork ribs, chicken, brisket, and pork steaks, but you might also find beef tenderloin or sirloins on the pit if they didn’t sell out that week. One loyal customer, Mr. Jensen, had a standing order for a thick barbecued T-bone.

Tootsie’s barbecue had loyal fans, but ultimately it was a side business, a utility, and nobody was there to obsess over the smoke ring on the brisket. When she cooked brisket—which began to find its way onto more barbecue menus in the seventies—it was split in half lengthwise so it would cook faster, an unorthodox move that would garner some one-star Yelp reviews today. Barbecue was such a Saturday tradition in Lexington that Pat even scheduled her wedding on a Sunday so her parents wouldn’t have to close up shop.

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It all came to a sudden halt in 1996, when White suffered a debilitating stroke. “He was unable to walk and was blind,” Tootsie remembers. “He needed twenty-four-hour care. There was no way I could be at the meat market and take care of him at the same time.” She made the tough call to put the market up for sale after twenty straight years. She recounts it only as an obvious and pragmatic decision, but the market represented her and White’s life’s work together. Tootsie was the first person in her family to own a business other than a farm, and it was gone.

These days the weekly cattle auction is still a constant in Lexington, and so is barbecue. The cattle barn is just a block south of Snow’s BBQ, and you can hear the mooing from the grass-and-gravel parking lot on Saturday mornings. Some of the cattle might even be from Tootsie’s herd. Thankfully, the smell of barbecue dominates.

The 49-year-old Bexley is a former rodeo clown who has his hand in a little bit of everything in Lexington; he’s a realtor and a rancher, and he works at a nearby mine monitoring coal quality for Luminant, the energy company. He’d long wanted to turn a vacant building in town into a barbecue joint, and he wanted Tootsie to join him in the business. She had to decline his offers because, once White began to recover from his stroke, she’d promised her services to the new owners of her old market—some locals had bought it and begged Tootsie to keep cooking. She was able to leave him alone at home on Saturdays to work the pits, and they renamed the place Always Tootsie’s in her honor.

Eventually, White recovered enough to take care of himself, and Tootsie needed to work more than one day a week, so she applied at the local nursing home, where she washed dishes and later became a cook. Then, in 1998, she joined the maintenance department at Giddings Independent School District, while still barbecuing every Saturday. Bexley continued to check in with Tootsie every once in a while, and finally, in November 2002, following another change of ownership at what was now called Tootsie’s on the Square, she said she would come cook for him.

Not looking to master any new tricks of the barbecue trade, Tootsie instructed Bexley to weld up a few steel pits to match the ones she’d been using for decades. They added some picnic tables and put up a sign. Bexley, who was known by the nickname “Snowman” as a kid, opened Snow’s BBQ on the morning of March 1, 2003.

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Tootsie continued to cook just as she had at her old market. Before offset smokers became widely used, it was common to cook meat above a bed of hot coals. In smokers, which have become standard in Texas barbecue, meat is cooked away from the fire, or indirectly. But direct-heat cooking allows fat to drip into the coals, providing a flavor an indirect smoker can’t. There’s almost a crunch on the outer bark of the meat. Tootsie would rather shovel hot coals into her preferred flat pits and use the palm of her hand to gauge the temperature than watch a thermometer and baby a firebox.

Another old technique rarely seen in Texas anymore is the use of a mop sauce, which adds a more complex flavor than mere smoke and a dry rub. Compared with the briskets resting lazily in the smokers at Snow’s—which Bexley added because of growing demand for their brisket—the meat Tootsie cooks requires more effort and attention. Besides the mopping, every piece of meat gets flipped at least once. Some pieces are moved away from the fire to slow their cook time, while others might need to be hurried in the event of, say, a rush on ribs after opening. As with all barbecue, it takes patience to get the meat to its optimal level of doneness. But with direct-heat cooking, only the experienced can monitor hundreds of cuts of meat in six pits and make sure they’re all great.

Snow’s remained a manageable hobby for the team of two until 2008. Tootsie remembers that it was the morning before Mother’s Day when Texas Monthly’s founder and then-publisher Mike Levy showed up and told Tootsie and Bexley that the magazine had named Snow’s BBQ the best in Texas. After he left, they were overcome with emotion. “We just hugged each other and began crying. It was a tremendous shock to be named number one,” Tootsie says.

It was also a shock to barbecue aficionados. Fans bought the magazine expecting to see one of a few familiar names at the top of the list. Stalwarts like Kreuz Market and Smitty’s, in Lockhart; Louie Mueller, in Taylor; and Cooper’s, in Llano, were always part of the conversation, but this little place, open only on Saturdays and unheard of outside Lee County, was being exalted above them all.

Snow’s received a massive amount of attention and launched Texas barbecue into the national spotlight. Legendary food writer Calvin Trillin traveled to Lexington for a New Yorker story about Snow’s. The frenzy likely propelled the barbecue boom in nearby Austin, which began in earnest with the opening of Franklin Barbecue the following year.

Galveston-based food writer Robb Walsh wasn’t as enamored of Snow’s as most. He criticized the pick because of the short hours. “The average barbecue fan has a snow cone’s chance in hell of getting anything to eat there,” he wrote. He later elicited a quote from Kreuz Market’s Rick Schmidt, who scoffed, “Anybody can make great barbecue for a few hours on Saturday morning.” There’s always controversy with any barbecue ranking in Texas, but these attacks were more heated. They signaled the beginning of a serious debate about barbecue that went beyond friendly ribbing.

Bexley dismisses the naysayers. “With all the people that have come through that door, ninety-nine percent of what we hear is positive. I think that’s amazing.” There’s also quite a few of those customers who are on the first leg of a day-long barbecue road trip, which, perhaps in part because of Snow’s, has become a staple of Central Texas tourism. After a good barbecue breakfast, there’s still room (in theory) for lunch and supper.

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Tootsie had been cooking barbecue for over forty years, and this was the first real recognition she’d received for her craft. She was unprepared for what came next. The first weekend after the ranking was published, the patrons at Snow’s were still mostly locals. The next weekend, Tootsie cooked 500 pounds of meat, up from a typical Saturday’s 300 pounds, and Snow’s ran out by noon. That was just a preview. A swarm of disappointed customers walked back to their vehicles without barbecue the following week. Snow’s had cooked 1,200 pounds, more barbecue than ever before, and it had sold out ninety minutes after opening.

There are no doors to the kitchen at Snow’s, so as Tootsie was mopping, flipping, and checking all the barbecue for doneness, an endless stream of adoring fans could not help but interrupt her. Her hearty, infectious laugh, grandmotherly looks, and inability to say no made folks feel especially welcome, yet at times, she says, she was seething with impatience. She describes the feeling as “flustration,” which she has mostly overcome. “I’ve gotten used to it, but it’s still hard to imagine,” she says of her celebrity turn. Even eight years later she’s baffled by the lengths people will go to visit Lexington for barbecue. At least one visitor a week comes from outside the country, or as Tootsie calls it, “Buxtahootah.” A barbecue joint in Boston even named its new smoker “Tootsie.”

The lines aren’t quite as long these days, but Snow’s still sells out most every Saturday, and barbecue is rightly recognized as suitable for breakfast, the most important meal of the day in Lexington. And through all the interruptions from fans, television camera crews, and impromptu interviewers, Tootsie maintains her manners. “I still feel simple. I hope none of this has gone to my head so much that I don’t try to be polite to everyone,” she says.

She and White had assumed the fame would wear off quickly. Not long after “the recognition,” as she and Bexley call it, White had to resume using a wheelchair, and she would park him in his chair by the pits so that he could watch her work and see the fans continue to gather. They marveled that she was still cooking barbecue twelve years after selling the market, let alone as one of the country’s most famous pitmasters.

After the restaurant’s popularity surged, Tootsie needed help, but she admits she didn’t have much patience for training new pit hands. “I’ll explain anything to you two times, but doggone it, the third time it comes around, I want you to know what you’re supposed to be doing.” There weren’t many who could meet the challenge, but one Saturday, her son Hershey stopped in. As she remembers, “He was up here looking at the crowds, and I’d say, ‘Hershey, I need some wood,’ or ‘I need some sausage.’ He knew where to go in and get it.” That was the only audition he needed, and in August 2008 he was hired. Hershey, who lived in Giddings, would stay over Friday nights with Bexley, and they would “shoot some bull, have a drink, and discuss things we could do to keep making things better,” Bexley said.

Hershey became a fixture at Snow’s. A ball cap couldn’t contain the long hair atop his lanky figure, which was usually bent over a barbecue pit. Tootsie loved having him there: he knew without being told when to hold a lid or fetch a shovelful of coals. “It reminded me so much of White and I working in the market. We worked together without talking much,” she told me, fighting back tears. Then, about eighteen months ago, Hershey began to get headaches severe enough to send him to the hospital, where doctors discovered a brain tumor.

Hershey spent several months going back and forth to an Austin hospital to undergo chemotherapy and radiation. When those treatments failed, he was moved to a nursing home in Giddings. Meanwhile, White entered hospice care. Tootsie would leave Hershey’s nursing home to go to White’s bedside. On December 8, 2015, White passed away. He and Tootsie had spent nearly sixty years together.

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The loss brought the family closer. Her middle child, Dale, retired from his highway job after thirty years. He helps Tootsie tend cattle on the same land where she grew up, although she confesses, “He’s not real crazy about [the barbecue].” Her daughter spends more time at the barbecue joint, bringing a few of Tootsie’s ten great-grandchildren along. Pat sees the same hardworking mother she’s always known but has noticed one change. “She sits more often than she used to, but she should, doggone it.”

In March, almost a year after his diagnosis, Hershey died, at age fifty. Though he hadn’t worked at Snow’s during that year, the shovels and wood and barbecue pits were all constant reminders to Tootsie that he wasn’t coming back to help. Bexley thought the pain might keep her away for good.

But instead, she took just one Saturday off. “I missed it. I could feel that it would help me get over that grief,” she told me. Pat reiterated the point. “She enjoys people, so she needed to get back.”

Behind the pits she was still a celebrity. She obliged the customers looking for a
photo op, though with a forced smile. Hershey used to be the one to grab the camera from visitors who wanted their shot with Tootsie.

Recently the sincere smiles have crept back in, and she laughs a little more. The customers continue to ask when Snow’s is going to open on more than just Saturdays. She used to let Hershey answer them, but now she repeats his mantra: “Once a week, it’s fun. After that, it’s work.”

She has no plans to retire from painting fences, trimming trees, and cleaning the stadium for the school district. Her daughter calls her a workaholic, but Tootsie says she prefers to stay busy. To those who suggest she should be taking it easy at her age, she says, “I don’t know how an eighty-one-year-old person should feel, but I do not consider myself to be eighty-one. I feel young at heart.”

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Late last year, Texas A&M hosted a Barbecue Town Hall, which brought together pitmasters and barbecue joint owners to discuss the industry. I was late to the event, but while rushing to the meeting room I found Tootsie alone in the hallway holding a tissue. Her eyes were red. She had buried her husband the day before. I told her I was stunned that she’d found the resolve to make the trip. “This is where I belong. I have to keep going or I might not be able to anymore,” she said.

I noticed her name tag. She had written her name, then added “Snow’s” in parentheses, as though someone in that room might not know who she was by name alone. Bexley came out to the hall to summon Tootsie, and soon she was called to the front of the room to be recognized. She received a standing ovation. With tears in her eyes, she thanked everyone, but it was obvious she couldn’t wait to get out of the spotlight. “I’m the old country girl, and I like the low profile,” she told me. Tootsie certainly knows she’s famous, but to this day I’m not sure she understands why.

As for questions about her longevity, Tootsie does have some answers. “I’ve never been sick in my life,” she says, adding that, “by staying active and busy, it helps me have a long life.” She doesn’t often take medicine, has never smoked, and will drink a beer only occasionally. She also credits her faith. “I still have a purpose here, and I know as long as I have a purpose here [God] will continue to give me good health and leave me here so I can keep barbecuing.” It seems that she’ll have to quit one or both of her jobs eventually, so I asked which she’d hold onto longer. She chose barbecue. “It’s the hardest work that I do, but for just one day it’s not that bad.”

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