82-year-old BBQ pitmaster up for prestigious award that she didn’t know existed

LEXINGTON, Texas (KXAN) — Thursday marks 15 years since the best barbecue joint in Texas, according to Texas Monthly’s hallowed list, opened for business in a town about an hour outside Austin.

This weekend, Snow’s BBQ in Lexington is hosting a party for all its customers, featuring live music, Bloody Marys, prize drawings and, of course, the smoked meats that bring visitors from all over the world to the town of under 1,200 people.

The pitmaster there, “Tootsie” Tomanetz, is a semifinalist for a James Beard award — considered the “Oscars of the food world” — for the best chef in the southwest. It’s a title Aaron Franklin, of Austin’s Franklin Barbecue, won three years ago.

“I can’t think of anyone more deserving of that award that Ms. Tootsie,” said Kerry Bexley, the owner of Snow’s.

That’s despite the fact that Tootsie, who turns 83 next month, cooks just one day a week after working 30 hours at her day job, and despite the fact that she’d never heard of the awards until another reporter called her and told her she was a finalist. “I’ll try to get excited,” she told that reporter.

“I can’t say it was a challenge because I didn’t know it,” Tomanetz told WISH-TV’s sister station KXAN last week. “I guess it was a blessing in disguise.”

People line up for hours to try her cooking. Snow’s opens Saturdays at 8 a.m. and closes when they run out of food, usually about 1,000-1,200 pounds of meat later. Even on a recent rainy Saturday, the line stretched beyond the covered deck out front.

Dylan Wiggs was camped out with a group near the front of the line. “They beat us by five minutes,” he said, motioning to the line leaders. “We were so close.”

From Dallas, Wiggs was on a barbecue tour of central Texas, stopping at all the hits the connoisseur could manage. “I haven’t slept in two days,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for this almost two years.”

Back in the pits, made custom to her specifications by Bexley when he opened Snow’s 15 years ago, Tootsie rotated racks of sausage and slathered pork shoulder and chicken with her homemade marinade.

“I don’t use a recipe. I just pour it all together and hope it turns out good,” the semifinalist for one of cooking’s greatest honors said.

She starts her Saturday at 2 a.m. to get the ribs and pork shoulder smoking; that comes just a few hours after she finishes the 30-hour week at her other job, working grounds maintenance for Giddings ISD, a few miles down the road from Lexington.

“I float wherever they need me,” she said earlier in the week, guiding an old Chevy pickup down a bumpy road to deliver supplies to the middle school. “I think that’s one reason I don’t want to consider retiring. I feel like that I’m a pretty good asset to the school because anytime anybody calls, I’m ready and willing to go and help them with whatever.”

“I think that she loves her job here as much as she does the cooking of her barbecue,” Giddings ISD superintendent Roger Dees said. When he started with the school district three years ago, one of the first things he heard was he had to make the trip up north to get Lee County’s finest barbecue. “And at that time I didn’t know Tootsie worked for the school district.”

She’d been there 17 years when he started. It won’t come as a surprise that she was working when she got the call about being named a semifinalist. Two decades into her school district job, she hasn’t cooked up a plan to leave yet.

“I enjoy the work and being around people,” she said. “And I guess that’s one reason that I still barbecue. I enjoy barbecuing and enjoy being around people.”

Tootsie started putting smoke to meat 50 years ago. She and her husband opened a meat market in Giddings and ran it for 20 years until he had a stroke and they had to sell. Bexley wanted to start a new restaurant with her at that point, but she had promised to stay on to cook for the new owners. A few years later, she called him up.

“I said, ‘Kerry, if you’re still interested in opening up a business,’ I said, ‘let’s sit down and talk.’”

Fifteen years in, Snow’s is going strong, and so is Tootsie. “Always work to do if you look for it and find it and get up and do it,” she said.

“Whatever she does she gives it 100 percent,” Bexley said. That’s why they haven’t opened up more than a day a week — and won’t, even if their pitmaster moves on to the finals. “I mean, she put in a solid week at the school this week and then comes here on Saturdays, that’s all we want to do. And we’re not going to do none of it without her.”

The barbecue chef is one of 20 in the southwest region, which includes cooks from Colorado to New Mexico to all across Texas, to be in the semifinals. Three others are from the Austin area. The James Beard Foundation will announce the finalists on March 14, and the award ceremony will happen in Chicago in May. Tootsie’s biggest concern when she heard about the location of the gala was whether she’d be able to bring Bexley along with her.

Tootsie says in the couple weeks since first finding out about it, she’s gotten excited about the award, mainly because it will be good for the area. She won’t brag about it or her cooking, “but around here in Lee County, we will do it for her,” Dees said, “because we’re extremely proud of her.”

“I think they’ve gotten more excited than I have about winning this award,” Tootsie said, of both her school and barbecue families. Back at Snow’s, she loaded up a big metal bowl with smoked sausage to take inside to the line of hungry customers.

“If I don’t win it, that’s OK,” she said. “I’m just happy to be the person that I am… I’m going to keep cooking. Keep the fires burning.”