On Character (Spoiler Alert: Chef’s Table BBQ on Netflix)

I’ve been thinking about character.  Something the Australian Tyson Yunkaporta wrote in his book Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World sticks with me as a truth.  He wrote:  “As usual, I seek the most insightful knowledge in the most marginalized point of view.”

Yes.  The most insightful knowledge can be expressed by the least likely of people.  You don’t need fancy words, you don’t need fancy degrees or fancy jobs, you don’t need embellishments or anything else.  Character.  Simple values, insightful knowledge communicated with authenticity and strength, values that unite us as human beings, values that connect us with each other.  Characters with heart that reach across the page or the screen and the viewer or the reader feels it. 

She’s got a broad round face, a double chin and she’s a stocky build.  She looks like she could fell trees, lug giant rocks around, pick up a whole cow if she had to.  Her vehicles are a garden tractor and a big white pick up truck. She wipes the sweat off her face with her scrunched up denim shirt.  The shirt has her name embroidered into it.

I felt her. It was an unexpected experience. It was just a Saturday night and we needed something to watch after a long drive to the coast and back for a family outing.  We were tired. Four hours on the road, two hours there in the morning, two hours back in the late afternoon, a good visit playing with the grandkids and now time for bed but let’s scroll around and find one show.

We see her first driving her little garden tractor vehicle, like an oversized golfcart across the school grounds.  At one point she comes across what looks like a wayward cow, a bull, who’s standing up against the school building.  She smiles.  You can almost hear her saying “I’ve got to deal with this guy now.” But she doesn’t say anything.  We see her using her garden shears to clip limbs off a tree.  We see her pushing her long broom slowly across the floor inside the hallway.  She tells us she’s a custodian at the school. 

And then she tells us that every Friday night when she goes to bed, she sets her alarm for 1 a.m. and gets to Lexington for 2 a.m.   Her name is Tootsie Tomanetz.  She’s 85 years old. She’s a school custodian and a Texas barbeque pitmaster and she’s my new hero. 

I don’t know why exactly the story of this woman has touched me.  There’s a few things that she does that reminds me of my own grandmother but putting that aside, the storytelling and Tootsie’s spirit comes across so tangibly, it’s no doubt in my mind why she’s a celebrated barbque master.  It’s her spirit.  She tells you: “ There’s nothing special or secret about my recipe.”  She uses salt and pepper to season the meat. 

Yes, but there’s more than just seasoning.  There’s her mop she uses on the meat. We see her hand resting on top of the pit where the coals are burning hot to see if it’s the right temperature.  We see her using a big ass shovel to shovel the fiery burning coals in and out of the pit.  The little finger on her right hand sticks out away from the other fingers. Maybe she’s got arthritis in that hand, or maybe the finger got hurt.  She says she doesn’t know what the temperature is of the pit, her hand tells her the right temperature.

She’s suffered loss.  As she’s driving her white pick up truck across the hill country, light from the dawn just breaking through a few lone trees in the distance, she tells us about her life, how she met her husband, how when he was in hospital she knew something was wrong, the nurses said he was fine and two hours later he had a stroke. 

She’s suffered loss.  We hear her tell the story of how her youngest son was having troubles and came to work at the pit, how they worked it out together over the pit, how he came and said he had brain cancer.  She’s suffered.

And after those losses she tells how touched she was when people came up to her at the barbeque just to say “I’m sorry for your loss.” And at that moment, the weight and sadness of that time for her reached into my own heart and tears welled up in my own eyes for Tootsie.  She tells us about loneliness.  She tells us how lonely she felt when her husband was in the care home. 

She tells us how she had to sell the meat market she and her husband ran together and how hard that was but she couldn’t go on with it.  She suffered.  And she tells us that her friend came and said to her “Tootsie, why don’t you come and work with me at the school.”

There is a strength in this lady.  She communicates universal experiences of being human.  She epitomizes the strength gained in community and selfless giving. She is a force of nature and I am glad she is being celebrated. I applaud the filmmakers for the masterful storytelling. It is the best tv episode I have watched all year.

Tootsie Tomanetz – Image Credit: Netflix

With apologies to anyone who has not seen the episode- please do yourself a favor and go watch it.

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