I have often said that I would rather interview the average dude you meet on a street, or in a bar, or at a restaurant, than a celebrity. And I mean it. Give me the sanitation worker over Derek Jeter. Give me the mailman over Selena Gomez. Give me the traveling salesman who is passionate about BBQ and believes strongly in the Houston Astros and the Second Amendment and cool hats over, well, anybody.
Which is why we’re here.
On the surface, Paul Shroyer’s narrative isn’t sexy. He’s a middle-aged man who roams the Southwest selling stuff. But take a look. A close look. He’s the last of a dying breed to traveling salesmen. He’s a BBQ connoisseur who goes to great lengths to find America’s yummiest meat. He and his family were involved in a terrifying gun holdup, and he had to talk his way out of a Jamaican riot. He blogs (somewhat) regularly and (often) brilliantly here, and Tweets (not often enough) here.
Trust me, trust me, trust me—Paul Shroyer and I may well agree on but six or seven things. But he’s an awesome guy, and an even better Quaz.
Paul, take a break, pull up a chair and have some beef. You’re good ol’ No. 229 …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So Paul, you’re a traveling salesman. Which leads me to ask, how does one become a traveling salesman? What was your life path from birth to meat peddling?
PAUL SHROYER: I was born a middle class fat child in Pittsburgh. My father worked for Gulf Oil at the time and Gulf was headquartered there. My parents had just been transferred from London. My father is from Crockett, Texas and he met my mother in Fort Smith, Arkansas at Fort Chaffee during World War II. She was a singer with the USO and, well, they met and got married. I am the second of two boys. My brother is a tenured professor of political science in Washington, DC. I was a late-in-life child for my parents as my mom was 39 when I was born and my dad was 43.
I spent the first six years of my life in Pittsburgh where I became a Pirate, Steeler and Penguin fan. We then moved to Toronto for four years. It was interesting to be an American in a country that seemed to a 7-year old to be just like the United States. From my perspective at the time, Canadians had a big chip on their shoulder toward the United States, because I spent the first three years of elementary school in Canada getting my butt kicked to and from school. We then moved on to Denver for four years. When I was a freshman in high school, we moved to Houston which was my father’s last move before he retired. Moving from a great place like Denver to Houston was a little traumatic. Houston was a big culture shock. High school in Denver was great, no dress code and very relaxed. In Texas, at the time, no hair on the collar was allowed and absolutely no shorts. However, we could have gun racks in our trucks and it was not uncommon to see a Winchester 30.30 lever action rifle in the gun rack on the back window of somebody’s pick-up truck. Really, I am not exaggerating. We also had corporal punishment which was infinitely better than detention hall. Ninety seconds of stinging pain vs. two hours of D-Hall? No brainer. I was not misbehaving, but it seems that my mouth moved more often than my teachers would have liked.
I graduated (much to my teachers’ surprise) and attended Stephen F. Austin State University where I planned on studying forestry to become a forester, hoping to go to work for a big paper company. One of my professors told me that in 30 years newsprint would be dead, so I changed to Ag-Business.
I met my wife and she foolishly started dating me and said yes when I asked her to marry me. She has since quit drinking because of the impaired judgment it caused. This year will be my 28th year of marriage and she is my great love. She is a Texas native, BOI (Born On the Island, Galveston). She is still a mystery to me and I suppose she always will be. She claims to hate old classic country but when I have “Willie’s Roadhouse” on Satellite radio she seems to know all the lyrics. My wife is responsible for my love of smoked meats. After dealing with under-cooked, overcooked, poorly seasoned, and just bad home BBQ, she got together with my cousin and sent my cousin’s husband and I to #BBQcamp at Texas A&M University. It is put on by Foodways Texas and has become my passion outside of my family and faith.
I always had a natural inclination toward sales. My mother in law must have thought I was going to be good at it because she used to say that I was “full of shit.” I bounced around my first couple of jobs and then began working for a company that makes air pollution control and liquid filtration products. I enjoyed the work, had some success and have been with them for 20-plus years. I travel around my territory meeting with customers and prospective customers. I have traveled all over this hemisphere from just south of the Arctic Circle to the southern part of Chile. I have two wonderful kids, my son just graduated from Texas A&M University and my daughter just started there. I have been living in the Houston area since college and have come to love and hate this city.
I hate the traffic and constant suburban sprawl. However, there are few cities in this world with the same level of economic opportunities, cultural diversity, recreational options and great restaurants. One writer for the New York Daily News described Houston in a byline during the 1994 NBA finals this way—“This place is a hellhole.” I get that from someone who only spends a few days here. Jerry Jones once compared Dallas to Houston this way (my paraphrase): “Dallas is champagne and white linen while Houston is beer and checkered picnic table cloths.” He is right and I can live with that. In one way it really is the caricature of Urban Cowboy and yet we are home to one of the nation’s most prestigious universities in Rice. Recently Forbes ranked Houston as the No. 2 city in the U.S. for young adults to live. People fly from all over the world to seek medical treatment in our medical center.
While on the road I do my best to take time to experience the great food options in this state. I try and stay away from the chain restaurants and instead look for the local dives that people love. I especially look for good BBQ. I hope to retire someday and open up a little BBQ trailer that is open only a couple days a week. I think I am like a performer who gets a high off of the audience’s applause. I love to hear people tell me that they have never had better BBQ. I don’t always hear that, but when I do, it’s a rush.
J.P.: In your Jan. 12, 2014 blog entry you wrote an absolutely beautiful paragraph: “So why is BBQ an essential to life? Because it is fire (warmth), meat (sustenance), sharing (human contact), and art (human expression). It is connecting with our primal selves and sharing in our heritage and sharing this with our friends and family.” I don’t quite share the sentiment, but it’s wonderfully put. So do you feel like people who don’t barbecue are missing out on something? Or people who don’t eat meat?
P.S.: Now that I read that paragraph it comes on a little strong on the “essential to life part,” huh? Maybe I should have written that as, “BBQ contains all of the essentials of life.” That being said, it is certainly essential to the Texas lifestyle. You asked if people are missing out, and I would have to say yes. I have shared more hopes and dreams, laughs, personal disappointments, religious disagreements, heated political discussions and deep personal moments with friends and family while sitting next to the pit drinking beer or coffee. Every time I cook, I feel that I am sharing a part of me that is deeply personal that no one else can see. They may not get that deep connection, but I do.
As far as vegetarians go, I have not tried to put smoke to tofu but it probably wouldn’t make it worse. If there were vegetarians at one of my BBQ events I wouldn’t discourage them from trying one little bite.
J.P.: You end every blog post with “God and Texas.” Which I get, but don’t get. Texas has, from my perspective, some crazy backward political beliefs when it comes to the teaching (or lack thereof) of evolution, the dealing with immigration, the denial of climate change, the desire for God in public education, blah, blah. But I know we come at this from different perspectives. So lemme ask it this way, Paul: A lot of outsiders view Texas as this crazy, backward state where half the people wanna secede and the other half walk around with guns in holsters. What are we missing? And what, to you, makes Texas so great?
P.S.: Three quotes may help here:
1. “I have said that Texas is a state of mind, but I think it is more than that. It is a mystique closely approximating a religion. And this is true to the extent that people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox. But I think there will be little quarrel with my feeling that Texas is one thing. For all its enormous range of space, climate, and physical appearance, and for all the internal squabbles, contentions, and strivings, Texas has a tight cohesiveness perhaps stronger than any other section of America. Rich, poor, Panhandle, Gulf, city, country, Texas is the obsession, the proper study and the passionate possession of all Texans.” — John Steinbeck, 1962.
2. “All new states are invested, more or less, by a class of noisy, second-rate men who are always in favor of rash and extreme measures, But Texas was absolutely overrun by such men.” — Sam Houston, President of the Republic of Texas and hero of the revolution.
3. “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story” — Line on my cousin’s business card
There is a book by a man named Fehrenbach called Lone Star: A history of Texas that is an excellent read and used as a textbook in many college courses on Texas history. I think that people in the United States look at Texas much the same way the world looks at the United States. Loud, brash, gun totin’ racists who are a little bit nuts. Texas is a country within a country that had it’s own revolution, was an independent country, and still thinks of itself as having the right to pick up its ball and go home but won’t because we are fiercely loyal Americans. What makes this state great is its diverse population. I am married to a native Texan who’s family immigrated from Poland and was raised Jewish. Her best friend’s family were Chinese immigrants who moved here from Minnesota. She is married to a man of Hispanic heritage who can trace his family back to before the Texas Revolution. I am a Yankee whose father was born a poor cotton farmer and raised here but got an Ivy League education after his discharge from the Army. There is a saying that Aggies use that fits the rest of the state well. I am not an Aggie, but my wife and I made two of them so I think I get it: “From the outside looking in, you can’t understand it. And from the inside looking out, you can’t explain it.”
The other 49 states have the great privilege of being associated with us. As far as the gun totin’ and fighting, I will leave you with four more quotes …
1. “Like most passionate nations, Texas has its own history based on, but not limited by, facts.” — John Steinbeck, Travels With Charlie, 1962.
2. “No true Texan ever used summer as a verb.” — Molly Ivins, talking about George Herbert Walker Bush and his vacations in Kennebunkport, Maine.
3. “Texas has yet to learn submission to any oppression, come from what source it may.” — Sam Houston.
4. “Screw you, we’re from Texas.” — Ray Wylie Hubbard.
J.P.: In another blog post you wrote, “I am thankful for wonderful friends and family. I won’t go into to much detail here but God has blessed me with wonderful friends and extended family.” So, as you know, I’m not big into faith, but I’m fascinated by it. My question to you—you write a lot about God’s blessing, and giving you this and that and that and this. Which I get. But somewhere in the Middle East ISIS is wiping out scores of people. In Africa AIDS, Ebola, myriad diseases have killed countless numbers. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust. I guess, Paul, my point is: Isn’t it possible this is just blind luck, not God? Because why am I—a non-believer—sitting in a coffee shop, comfortable and secure and living in Southern California, while some poor Cameroonian child is being sold off into sex slavery at age 12?
P.S.: Jeff, I am not a theologian but I am a believer. This is one of the great questions of mankind against the existence of God. What I can tell you is that I have read extensively on the subject and I personally have come to the conclusion that God does exist and his son died on the cross to atone for my sins as well as everyone else’s. I am human and still have my doubts, but I always come back around to belief as the most logical for me. As to why all the bad things in this world exist while some of us live in relative safety and comfort I will draw upon something that C.S. Lewis wrote in his book Mere Christianity: “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.” I have come to believe that God has imprinted upon us the ability to discern good from evil. However, he has also given us free will to act upon that knowledge. I do not believe that God has us on strings like a marionette. We are free to choose or deny him on this earth. I have a quote from the pastor at our church and I don’t know if he is the originator but I believe it to be one of the truest facts of life on earth. “We do not break God’s laws, we break ourselves against them.” God’s laws are immutable and breaking them only hurts us.
I am by no means perfect, and I still sin every day. But I do try to own it and then learn from it. I don’t act the way I do to get into heaven. I do it because of what has already been done for me through Christ.
To answer your question, I used the term “blessed” not because I believe that God has given me favor, but to express my thankfulness to God for the wonderful things in my life. I have complaints, I wrestle with God often about the world and the things I am not happy with in my life, but there is a peace in understanding his word that I cannot explain. Jeff, you say that faith fascinates you and I see that you Tweet often about it. It seems mostly negative, but I admit I have not read all of your Tweets to see if there are positive Tweets as well. I do not mean to be rude or disrespectful in any way, but I challenge you to read 3 books:
• Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
• The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
• In the Grip of Grace by Max Lucado
They are not going to prove the existence of God to you. However they may open your eyes to what the Christian faith is about to me.
J.P.: I absolutely love your passion for barbecue. Therefore, I must ask: What’s the difference between awesome, top-shelf BBQ and meh BBQ? Are there things people can look for before choosing a restaurant? And do you count chicken as BBQ? Or does it have to be beef?
P.S.: BBQ is a method for smoking meat. Whether it be poultry, beef, pork, or whatever. BBQ to me is smoking meat with real wood on indirect heat, over a long period of time. There is a rich history for this style of cooking from many regions of the country. East Texas BBQ is very different in taste and style from Central or West Texas BBQ, Kansas City is different than Memphis, etc. I have found that the best way to find good BBQ is to find a blogger you like and follow their advice. I follow @BBQsnob on Twitter. He had a blog called “Full Custom Gospel BBQ.” He has since transitioned his blog into a job as the BBQ editor for Texas Monthly Magazine. He has also written a book called the “The Prophets of Smoked Meat”. However, there are some clues to look for in a good BBQ restaurant:
1. Is there a line at lunch time? The best joints have only so much pit room to smoke meat and serve it fresh. Most of the best joints in Texas run out of product by 2 or 3 in the afternoon. If there is long line, it’s probably for a good reason. I met a guy from Chicago in line at John Mueller Meat Company in Austin who planned his honeymoon around touring the BBQ joints in Central Texas. We waited in line together for more than an hour. Franklin BBQ in Austin has two-to-three hour waits and people start lining up at 8 am to get in. They sell out every day.
2. Stay away from gas fired pits. These are pits where the heat comes from natural gas burners and they use wood chips to add smoke flavor the meat. Some have decent BBQ, but they have taken a lot of the artwork out of tending the fire and cooking the meat.
3. Stay away from chains. For the most part chains do not have freshly cooked meats. There are a couple of chains in Texas that aren’t bad. Rudy’s and Pappas BBQ are OK if you don’t want to wait in long lines for craft smoked meats.
4. If the meat needs sauce, it’s not good BBQ. Good BBQ should stand alone. Don’t get me wrong, good sauce can compliment BBQ. I like it on drier meats or on a sandwich.
J.P.: On Oct. 23, 2003, you wrote a blog post about your struggles with weight loss, adding, “I am morbidly obese.” At one point you lost a crazy 170 pounds by limiting yourself to 1,500-1,700 daily calories and lots of walking. I feel like a lot of people look down on those among us who are obese, without empathy or understanding. So, Paul, what is it to be obese? What does it feel like? Is it always a struggle? Can you forget about your weight, or is it always … there? What don’t people understand?
P.S.: Tough question, Jeff. It is something I have struggled with all my life. Here is the thing—I don’t think of myself as obese. People think of me that way but I don’t. I spend 45 minutes to an hour in the gym five days a week and ride my bike 10 miles a day on most weekends. If I eat more than 2,400 calories in a day I will gain weight if I don’t work out. It’s frustrating as hell, actually. I have been diagnosed with hypothyroidism, which is something that my mother dealt with as well. It’s hard to find clothes that fit me the way I want to dress. Everything is more expensive, and never looks quite right. Those of us who are obese are looked upon as lazy, yet I work more hours during the week than most people I know.
I am sure that some people who read this Quaz will think to themselves, “Well, maybe he should lay off some of that BBQ.” However, many times I get the chicken or turkey and eat low calorie sides such as pinto beans or green beans. So, what do I do? Well, first thing, I am trying to accept myself the way I am and try to be as healthy as I can be. I am who I am but I hope that I am always trying to get better. I have developed a pretty thick skin. The unfortunate part is that it is so obvious to others. People make assumptions about me that may or may not be true. You just hate to be judged by others based on something that is so difficult to hide. I mean, there are people with much worse personal issues that no one knows about because it is not outwardly obvious. Bottom line is, most people find me to be an OK guy to hang out with. I can live with that.
J.P.: You travel across the Southwest selling. So, please, give me the craziest story of your career?
P.S.: Most of the really crazy stories seem to happen to others. I have been lucky/unlucky enough to not have experienced anything too weird or dangerous. The craziest thing that ever happened was when I was in Jamaica on business. I was staying in Kingston and traveling to different customer sites during the day. I was always told that if you see people putting old tires in the streets that you should turn around and go the other way as soon as possible because a protest or riot was about to start. So I am driving down the road and I see people lighting fire to tires in the street about 300 yards ahead of me. I notice that there is no traffic in this part of Kingston, which is rare. I look for a place to turn around, the fire is getting larger, and I have to make a three-point turn to go the other way. I am moving as fast as I dare back down the street and another group of people are laying tires in the street ahead of me. I was trapped. I was getting kind of nervous. A guy walks up to my rental car, laughing at me and says, “You’re not from around here, Mon.” I laughed and said no, not from around here. He told me to wait in my car, jogged up to the crowd—which was starting to pour gas on the tires—talks to them, and they start moving enough tires to let me get through. The guys waves me through and I stop to thank him and he just tells me, “Ho, Mon, go.” I will be forever grateful to that man.
Other than that, not much crazy. Just getting stuck in bad weather, or having to slam on my breaks for a herd of pronghorn sheep. That’s it.
J.P.: It seems like, with technology, the need to traveling salesmen has sorta, well, vanished. No? I mean, why would a company pay for your travel expenses (gas, food, hotel, etc) when it can conduct business via e-mail, text, etc? So, Paul, do you fear this? Becoming obsolete? Or is there something about sales that needs to be face to face?
P.S.: The type products we sell are, for the most part, consumable products. We manufacture some capital equipment but is not a majority of our business. The bottom line is that I build relationships with my customers through face-to-face interaction. Much of the detailed work is done with the technology available today from my office. But if someone calls me and says I have a problem, then I can go to the site and see what the problem is and solve it for them. That is not something that can be done over the phone in my business. You build a level of trust, a relationship. My favorite book on the subject is “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. The bottom line is that my company is one of the few in our industry that has so many people in the field. Our company celebrated it’s 100th year in 2006. People don’t buy from people they like. They give information to people they have a relationship with to help them solve their problems. The truth is that helping someone solve a process problem with one of our solutions is more rewarding than getting the sale. I guess that’s why I love my job. Bottom line is that it is a lot harder to say “no” to somebody in person than it is on the phone or via e-mail.
J.P.: You and I exchanged Tweets about guns. You’re fairly pro-gun rights, and had a scary experience where you were approached by a gunman. I’m very anti-gun and kinda wish handguns were all but illegal. I just feel like we’d all be safer with fewer guns. Tell me why I’m wrong …
P.S.: As you stated, Jeff, we have disagreed on this before. I believe that we, as individuals, have the right to defend ourselves. I have personal experience in this matter. Let me say this first: I do not carry a gun at this point in time unless I am hunting or in the wild. I do not wish to talk about what measures of defense I have in my home, however, I am covered. I do not carry a handgun because of my company’s policy on this when I am on the job or in a company vehicle. Their vehicle, their rules. So the question comes up, would I carry if I were not already restricted? More than likely, no. However, I support people’s choice to do so.
Back in about the fall 2001 my wife and two children were returning from a trip to visit my mother in law. We stopped at a Fuddrucker’s for dinner. We ordered our food and sat down at a table in the middle of the restaurant. After about five minutes we saw people rushing to the back of the restaurant like they were hiding for a surprise party. Sounds weird but both my wife and I had the same feeling. We then heard yelling and I saw a man holding a gun to another man’s head, telling everybody to be cool. My wife and I immediately got the kids to the ground and we covered them up. I looked up and saw the gunman moving the gun from the captive’s head to the customers, back and forth and so on. If someone moved or made a noise the gun went in that direction. For a brief moment, the gun paused on us and then went back to the captive’s head. That was the first time I had ever had a gun pointed at me and I will never forget the feeling. You go cold. It seems like it lasts forever. I was mostly scared but very, very angry. Angry because I knew if the shooting started, all I could do would be cover my family and hope for the best. What right did that guy have to threaten my family? It was a primal rage. There are times I review this incident in my head. Truth is, after review, what would I have done differently? I almost always come to the conclusion that nothing would have changed whether I was armed or not. Not sure how that reflects on me, but that is the honest answer. The situation did not call for a hero. However what if they had decided to start robbing the customers as well? What if a customer resisted and shooting started? I will never know because that is not how it played out. I probably would not have acted unless directly threatened. However, you never forget that moment.
But what if the gunman did start shooting? What then? Look at the Luby’s massacre in Killeen. What if there was a citizen with a concealed handgun who could have stopped that guy before the death toll got so high? Many on the anti-gun front associate pro-gun people as being nutjobs. The truth is that the people I know who carry are the most even keeled calm people I know. They don’t talk about bravado or that they can’t wait to be a hero. They just say that they want to protect themselves and their loved ones. I did not look up any studies or statistics, I am just shooting from the hip here (no pun intended) but it seems to me that most gun violence is caused by criminals and the mentally ill. So outlawing guns is not going to reduce violent crime very much, if at all. People will find a way to do harm to others no matter what. So what is the answer? I don’t know. I do know that, as long as I have the constitutional right to protect myself, I will. During prohibition, there was bootleg liquor and beer. Marijuana and other drugs are illegal, however it is easier for an 18-year old to get pot than it is to buy beer. Why would it be any different with guns? By the way, East Texas is overrun with feral hogs. It’s costing me thousands of dollars a year to fix the damage. Want to help me reduce the wild pig population?
J.P.: I don’t get Rick Perry. I mean, I look at him and hear him and feel like it’s some cartoon version of a Texas politician. Tell me what I’m missing. Or not missing …
P.S.: I have to admit, I am not a Rick Perry fan. I’m not sure you are missing anything. Texas politics is fun, isn’t it?
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH PAUL SHROYER:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Tofu, Nick Young, Rod Stewart, Goliad, Robert Brazile, beige, cranberry muffins, tap dance, your car, Bruce Lee, “Ant Man,” Kermit the Frog: Kermit, Robert Brazile, my car, Goliad, Rod Stewart, tap dance, Bruce Lee, cranberry muffins, Nick Young, Ant Man, tofu, beige.
• Why do you think the WNBA fails to draw more viewers?: My kids grew up with two of the Ogwumike sisters. So I paid attention to their careers until they got into the WNBA. In my mind it’s pretty simple. I just think there are too many options out there for the viewing public. I am a baseball and college football fan. I barely have the time to follow those sports the way I want to. I know I paid more attention to it when Houston had a team. It’s just not on my radar for entertainment.
• One question you would ask A$AP Rocky were he here right now?: I honestly did not know who this was until I looked him up on the Internet when I saw this question. So now that I know, I would ask him how his life has changed since he became successful and what parts of your life do you wish were still the same?
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Not really, but I was on a flight from Paramaribo, Suriname to Curacao on Suriname Airways. The pilot left the cabin door open and decided to fly back over the city and waggle his wings over somebody’s house. He also gave a little kid a tour of the cockpit during the flight. The lack of professionalism was a little unnerving but I really didn’t believe we were going to die or anything like that. It was the last smoking flight I was on. Pretty funny actually.
• Five coolest cities/towns in Texas: 1. Marfa (This is just one cool, quirky little town. UFOs (Marfa Lights), art scene, great scenery); 2. San Antonio (The River Walk, Great Food, The Menger Hotel, The Alamo); 3. Gruene (Oldest dance hall in Texas. Drops mic, etc.) 4. Bandera (Cowboy tourist town. dude ranches); 5. Austin (Berkley East. Very cool place to visit. Best BBQ on the planet; Bonus City—Turkey, Texas during Bob Wills Day).
• What’s your best joke?: Told in a Scottish Brogue: MacGregor walks into his pub on the Scottish coast, sits at the bar and orders a pint. He chugs it down, slams the glass on the bar and yells to no one in particular “ you see that house over there? I built that house with me bare hands. I framed the house and built the roof, but do they call me MacGregor the House Builder? NO! MacGregor orders another pint chugs it down, slams the glass on the bar and says “You see that boat down there? I built that boat with me bare hands. I installed the mast and sanded the planks on the deck, but do they call me MacGregor the boat builder? NO!” By this time the patrons are getting a little nervous and glancing around. MacGregor orders another beer, drinks it, slams the glass down and yells… “You see this bar here, I built this bar with me bare hands. I sanded it smooth and polished it to a glass finish, but do they call me MacGregor the Bar Builder? NO! But f*ck one goat …”
• How’d you propose to your wife?: On my knees, on the River Walk in San Antonio.
• The last time you threw up, what caused it to happen?: Vegas, ate bad sushi. Was like throwing up a bunch of dead minnows.
• If you had to vote for Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton for president, who do you go with?: Wow. Had to think about this one but Sarah Palin. I am not a Palin fan, but Hillary embodies all that I hate about politics.
• In exactly 17 words, make your case for Ariana Grande …: I have heard the name in Tweets and the news but who the hell is Arianna Grande?