"My father had no idea what he was creating when he dug his boot heel into the ground, drew a circle in the dirt around him with a barbecue fork and outlined a barbecue pit," writes Scott Roberts in his magnificent new "The Salt Lick Cookbook." "Sure, he wanted to serve food that reminded him of home — and barbecue was the best way to do that."
Far more than a mere cookbook, this oversized volume is a compelling story of the land, the people and the social life of Driftwood for more than 100 years.
In some ways, the story mirrors every enduring Central Texas family story retold. It took perseverance, ingenuity and a deep love of the Onion Creek valley to produce a family that has so fundamentally affected the way people eat, drink and socialize there.
"(My father) anticipated only a small weekend operation that served his community," Roberts continues about the barbecue and (now) wine mecca. "He never would have imagined people trekking across the county, the state or even the country to eat what he was cooking over an open pit. But sometimes the simplest things attract the most attention."
Roberts’ handsome book — written with Jessica Dupuy — is a simple thing as well. Every page is written as if Roberts were telling stories over a picnic table outside the Salt Lick, or by the swimming hole at Camp Ben McCullough across the way, or on the porches of Roberts family homes nearby.
It will attract a lot of attention.
Owner Roberts, son of founders Thurman and Hisako Roberts, reports that the roadside restaurant on narrow Farm to Market 1826 serves more than 600,000 meals a year. If only a fraction of his customers purchase his University of Texas book, it could become the unofficial Austin gift of the holiday season.
Not just because Roberts relates in detail how to slow cook brisket, sausage and pork ribs, as well as family recipes for dozens of other hearty dishes. Not just because photographer and illustrator Kenny Braun’s glowing images take us deep into the Hill Country, then into the kitchen and onto the heaping plates.
But because stories stay with the reader, long after the reading, the cooking or the eating is done.
This book also gives the reader an excuse to head back toward the green valley, now blanketed with vineyards and dotted with other culinary attractions, for another taste of heaven.
A family history
"This book is dedicated to strong Texas women — Mammie, Roxie, Hisako, Susan and Maile — not because it’s a cookbook, but because without strong women like them, there would be no Texas."
Roberts’ dedication is no mere Texas chivalry. These women, his relatives, overcame enormous odds to contribute to the culture of Driftwood in their singular ways. Two generations lost grown children. Another two have endured serious — at one point seemingly insurmountable — medical conditions.
Roberts, who resembles a much younger, Asian-American version of beloved actor Wilford Brumley, tells it all with a charming lack of pretense.
In 1874, Roberts’ great-grandfather met and married a 20-year-old woman without any family of her own in Mississippi. This was Bettie, known to the family as "Mammie."
"She told him she couldn’t promise to ever love him," Roberts writes. "But that if he would marry her and take her to Texas, she would raise his kids and be good to him."
Roberts great-grandparents joined a wave of settlers from the Deep South who landed in hurricane-prone Indianola and then drove wagons across the barely tamed state to find the best and cheapest land.
After a few false starts, the family settled in Driftwood in 1880. The Mexican government had granted this land to Ben Milam in the 1820s. Alamo leader William Barrett Travis was also associated with the fertile fringes of Onion Creek before his death.
Mammie gave birth to Roberts’ grandmother, Roxie Elena, in 1891. Roxie eloped with Bill Roberts of Gatlin when she was 16. After two years of exile in Kyle, Roxie was allowed to return to the family hearth where she remained the rest of her life.
She and her husband often took care of the young cookbook writer and his late brother, known as "Butch." In her kitchen and garden, the future Salt Lick chief learned many of his first lessons about the cultivation and preparation of food.
Among the first chapters in the cookbook is one devoted to Roxie’s house and the recipes he learned there.
In fact, food proved a crucial cultural connection for all the families in Driftwood. Sunday dinners — the Baptists and Methodists shared a tiny chapel for years — were subjects of pride and competition.
The author’s father, Thurman Roberts — Roxie’s son — became a Navy Seabee, part of a construction battalion in the South Pacific during World War II. He married Roberts’ mother, Hisako Tsuchiyama, a Hawaiian of Japanese descent. The couple spent years on the road while he worked on bridges around the state, always returning to Driftwood.
Further chapters are reserved for memories and recipes from ranch sites associated with Hisako, Thurman and Butch, as well as stories about Roberts’ wife, Susan Goff, whom he met in Hawaii and almost lost during surgery to remove a brain formation, and their daughter, Katharine Maile Roberts.
In 1967, his parents, after losing their son Butch to a construction accident in Austin, opened a barbecue stand. Thurman was already well known for his cooking, not only in Driftwood and among the folks who flocked to Camp Ben McCullough, the site that held Confederate family reunions annually.
"They poured all their energy into the restaurant," Roberts writes. "Almost as a way to manage their grief from losing Butch. As they say, it takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears to build something great and building the Salt Lick took a lot of all three."
The open pit that Thurman inscribed with his boot heel and barbecue fork still serves as the heart of the restaurant.
The truck tour
If Roberts ever offers to take you on a truck tour of the valley, go. He loves showing off the land around Driftwood and telling stories about each oak mott, low-water crossing, rusting farm utensil or fresh tourist attraction.
If you read the book, you can already see the images in your head — Roxie’s house, where turkey coops once stretched out into the fields; Hisako’s house, low and graceful, opening into ranch lands flecked with reminders of former crops such as cotton and grains; Thurman’s Mansion, the odd, smooth-columned structure that overlooks the entire valley and now houses Salt Lick’s offices and special event center above Roberts’ graceful vineyards.
But this is just the beginning of the tour. A rope swing over a green hole on the creek below Camp Ben McCullough wrings out memories of misadventures and summertime siestas. A stop on a bridge shows the scars of frequent floods along with the village’s namesake driftwood — mastodon-like remains of ancient, uprooted cypresses.
Roberts laughs at the buzzards drawn to his mountainous compost heaps, which contain nothing but the odorous memory of what they seek. Everything decomposes quickly in these heaps.
He lingers at the other vineyards, wineries and tasting rooms that now guard the hillsides between Driftwood and Wimberley. He sees the area as the next Fredericksburg, or the next Napa Valley, at least the next tourist magnet. While protecting the land, he wants to be ready.
He knows the soils underneath former oxbow lakes like his own relatives. He has chosen hot-weather grapes to grow on them and sells the fruit of these labors — developed and bottled at Susan and Chad Auler’s Fall Creek Vineyards — at Salt Creek Cellars, a new must-drop-by for the burgeoning complex.
Like his father, Roberts can’t stop building. Thurman erected a pecan-shelling shed, ranch structures and more than one house, and his son has thrown up pavilions, picnic areas and environmentally sustainable projects.
Yet Roberts doesn’t slow down. Like his relatives before and since, he works hard and it shows up and down the valley.
The Driftwood legacy
"Earth berm." "Earth hearth." "Burned-rock middens." "Pit cooking."
These terms have been applied to the techniques for slow cooking that Native Americans and early settlers handed down to Roberts’ family. They are still applied by pitmaster Carmen Gonzales, who has worked at the Salt Lick for more than 40 years, and his sons Jaime and Robert Gonzales, the No. 2 and No. 3 masters.
Some might argue that without 100 years of family tradition, it would be difficult to reproduce the delectable Salt Lick specialities. Yet with Dupuy’s help and scores of images, Roberts gives a credible, step-by-step guide to doing just that. Just don’t expect any zany ingredients or purely experimental methods.
"The recipes my family used have been preserved for generations and are virtually the same that we serve at the Salt Lick today," Roberts writes. "There was no mayonnaise; there was no celery or pimento. They used what would last and kept recipes simple."