Barbecue fans travel far and wide to see the James Beard Award-nominated “first lady of Texas barbecue."
At 4:00 a.m., the stretch of road between Austin and Lexington is a solemn one, shared only with the vast horizon, an occasional 18-wheeler and travelers on a very specific mission: to taste the barbecue at Snow's BBQ, said to be some of the best in the state, and to meet the woman behind the smoker. That’s 83-year-old Norma Frances Tomanetz, known to locals, colleagues and fans as Ms. Tootsie.
By 5:00 a.m., a line has already started to form outside the brick red bungalow that is Snow’s—smoked meat enthusiasts having journeyed far and wide to show up well before sunrise, often bringing chairs, card tables and games of washers and cornhole to pass the time. In 2008, when Texas Monthly first named Snow’s the number one barbecue joint in Texas, owner Kerry Bexley said he quadrupled production over the course of a few weeks. And the accolades haven't stopped.
Just this winter, Tootsie was nominated as a semi-finalist for a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southwest. In September, she will be inducted into the Barbecue Hall of Fame. You wouldn’t know it from talking to her, though. “I keep myself low profile, very humble. I’m just a country girl,” she says.
“Never in my life did I think anything like this would happen,” Tootsie says. “And neither did the gentleman who hired me back in 1966. No way did we realize that barbecue would become such a high priority…Back then, it was just a staple food.”
Tootsie was initiated into the world of barbecue by pure happenstance. Her husband, White Tomanetz, was working as a butcher at City Meat Market in Giddings when Tootsie agreed to fill in one fateful, short-staffed day. She ended up working there for a decade, learning how to cook meat in a brick smoker alongside pitmaster Orange Holloway, before she and White went on to run the City Meat Market in Lexington for 20 more years.
After her husband suffered a debilitating stroke in 1996, they decided to shut down the market. Tootsie had continued to cook for the new owners when Bexley, a local who had grown up visiting her at the meat market with his family, began approaching her to come work at the barbecue joint he wanted to open. It took several years of convincing, but she eventually agreed to cook alongside him at Snow’s if he could weld up a few direct-heat pits identical to the ones she’d mastered over the years.
“None of them can pack the load she packs," says Bexley. “I wouldn’t have opened it if she wouldn’t have agreed to the do the work.”
Tootsie, who grew up cutting wheat and threshing peanuts on her family's farm, is no stranger to physical labor — though she admits barbecue, a year-round operation out in the elements, is harder than farm life. That doesn't stop her, however, from working five days a week for the school district’s maintenance department, then rising at 2:00 a.m. on Saturday to shovel smoldering coals into the box pits, haul stacks of live oak wood and swing open the pits’ steel lids to lift massive racks of sausage links.
In the past 15 years, Tootsie has only missed two Saturdays working the pits at Snow’s, and it was only because she was recovering from a complete knee replacement. She attributes both her success and longevity to her staunch work ethic.
And for Tootsie, who wore blue jeans and rode her horse to the school bus stop when all the other girls donned dresses, gender has never been a barrier to the work that brings her such satisfaction.
“If you’re not happy in the smoke and the sweat and the meat and so forth, you’re not cooking barbecue; you’re not a pitmaster,” says 5’3” grandmother of six and great-grandmother of 10 matter-of-factly, reaching to stir a paddle through a pot of beans the size of her torso. “But I enjoy the work involved…And I do not feel like an 83-year-old person. I do not consider myself that age.”