A bachelor's in brisket
Hendrix College president has passionately studied smoked meat for a lifetime
It’s a safe bet there aren’t many other college presidents as cool as Hendrix College president Bill Tsutsui. In a profession filled with stuffy, academic types, Tsutsui stands out with his passion for Godzilla, a subject which he has written a book and consulted with filmmakers on, and barbecue. The son of Texas A&M University professor parents, Tsutsui grew up in College Station, Texas, and learned to enjoy Texas barbecue at a young age. Tsutsui came to Hendrix in November 2013 with an impressive resume: In addition to graduating summa cum laude from Harvard University with a degree in East Asian studies, he also holds a master’s in modern Japanese history from Oxford University’s Corpus Christi College as well as a master’s in history from Princeton University. He was a visiting research scholar at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo before completing his doctoral dissertation at Princeton.
Tsutsui dove headlong into his position at Hendrix and has used his love of barbecue as a way to spread Hendrix’s message, vowing to eat barbecue with Hendrix alumni in all 75 Arkansas counties.
Q: What is your perfect barbecue meal?
A: My vision, when I say a barbecue plate, is sliced beef brisket, sausage, beans, slaw, pickles, onions and, being from Texas, I want a slice of griddled Texas toast. I haven’t been able to find Texas toast in Conway. I am going to need to get a friend in Dallas to FedEx it to me.
Q: Why are Texans so passionate about brisket and turned off by pork?
A: A couple of things. It is a macho thing because when you smoke a pork shoulder, it usually turns out nice. When you smoke a brisket, it isn’t always good. Sometimes I have to cut mine up and hide it behind some sauce. When you smoke a nice brisket, there is a level of respect there. A brisket kind of defines Texas. I am getting used to pulled pork and ribs, but I would always rather have a smoked brisket sandwich.
Q: Were you frustrated during your time in the Northeast and England when barbecue was hard to find?
A: One of the first things you learn about living in Massachusetts or England is just because they say they have barbecue doesn’t mean it is something you want to put in your mouth. It is kind of like a tofu hot dog. You don’t eat Mexican food in Boston, either. Whenever I came home for spring break my mom asked me what I wanted to eat, and I always asked to go out to eat barbecue. I was in Japan for a year, and Korean barbecue isn’t bad, so I managed, but beef was so expensive you couldn’t get a sandwich for less than $30. It wasn’t until I took my first faculty job at the University of Kansas that I was introduced to Kansas City barbecue, another classic style.
Q: How excited are you to eat barbecue in every county in Arkansas? What has been the feedback so far?
A: I am thrilled. There are two things that Arkansans are passionate about — the Razorbacks and barbecue. Everyone has an opinion. I have already had dozens of emails from people around the state who have suggested places to go. I think it is a fun way to get to know the state. Who doesn’t want to sit down and eat a plate of barbecue and get to know each other? People love to talk and eat, and I happen to specialize in those, too. We have already done a small get-together in Conway and a bigger one in Fort Smith at Ralph’s Pink Flamingo BBQ.
Q: How did you become so fascinated with Godzilla?
A: It was another childhood passion. My father is Japanese, and growing up in central Texas we were 100 miles from another Japanese-American. I saw a Godzilla movie when I was 8, and I thought it was cool and something I could be proud of. It was part of my identity in elementary school. In high school and college I kind of hid it because it wasn’t cool. When I started teaching Japanese history, the Godzilla movies were a good way to learn about Japanese history. Once I gained tenure, I began writing books and articles [about Godzilla]. It is like a second childhood for me.
Q: Have you thought about writing a book on your barbecue journey?
A: I would actually love to do it. Like Godzilla, barbecue is something that people are very passionate about. I love passionate people. I still have fans who write me because they disagree with me about Godzilla. I love it. If I wrote about barbecue, some people would say it is the gospel truth and others would damn it. But I am a provocateur, so that would be OK.
Q: What would be a more popular class at Hendrix — The Cinematic History of Godzilla or Barbecue 101?
A: How about combining them together into a seminar class? Students would sign up for that in droves.
Q: Your first experience with a smoker landed you in the emergency room with a cut hand. Have you perfected the home-barbecue experience now?
A: My wife loves to tell that story. It is so embarrassing. I can do a good brisket three out of four times. It’s an art, not a science. It’s like golf or fly fishing. You can work on it for a lifetime and still not get it right. My wife always has a plan B when I’m cooking. I get up on Sundays about 5 a.m. and start. I had too many nights where it was 10 p.m., and I was cooking by flashlight, and my wife was waiting in the kitchen.
Q: Your wife, Marjorie Swann, is a professor of English. How is having her on campus?
A: I think it is great. She really loves the students and teaching. She feels fortunate to be teaching [at Hendrix] and is really loving it
Q: What is the best barbecue restaurant you’ve experienced?
A: I would say Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas. Franklin takes brisket to another level. Sometimes something that gets so much acclaim as they have is all marketing and can be overrated. Franklin’s brisket is truly great. It has a smoky flavor and meatiness and juiciness with the texture that is just absolutely perfect. I live in awe of the man who makes it. If you are considering atmosphere, Smitty’s Market in Lockhart, Texas, is great. Franklin is clean, but with Smitty’s you feel like you are entering Dante’s Inferno. You walk in and see the dirty, open pit. It looks like something out of the 19th century, and they serve hunks of meat on wooden boards. I’ve seen someone order 78 cents worth of meat because that is all they had in their pocket and a guy carves them 78 cents worth of meat. You have to experience [Smitty’s] at least once.
Q: What is the first barbecue meal you remember eating as a kid?
A: It’s funny because I don’t remember the first time, but I can remember barbecue being around as part of my regular diet as soon as we moved to Texas when I was 6. There was a place around the corner from us that was one of my mother’s default settings. When she didn’t have time to cook, we went to Randy Sims Barbecue. They had the big cafeteria trays, and you didn’t want to ask the health department about the pit. In 40 years, it had only been cleaned by smoke. I know the pitmaster stayed there 24 hours tending the brisket. I didn’t realize that Lone Star beer bottles were used for anything other than barbecue sauce until I was in high school. I have a lot of great memories of Randy Sims.
Q: You want to heighten Hendrix’s national profile. How do you aim to do that?
A: [Hendrix] is a hidden gem. The professors are very modest and don’t want to blow their own horn, but this is an elite school, and you can see that by the number of students that move on to medical school and other advanced programs. We need to do a better job at marketing. A kid in Chicago wouldn’t think twice about going to school in Maine or New Hampshire, but they wouldn’t think about going to Arkansas. Arkansas has a better winter and some great people, and Hendrix offers a superior academic experience. We just need to get around the stereotype [about Arkansas].
Q: Hendrix reintroduced football last year after 53 years and was greeted with a positive reaction. How does the football program enhance the college experience?
A: I grew up in College Station, Texas, and Young-Wise Stadium isn’t gong to be confused with Kyle Field (Texas A&M), but at Hendrix we want to educate the whole person and athletics is part of that. Football enhances the college experience. We have a wonderful coach that does a great job of integrating the players into the community. We aren’t a Division I program, so we don’t have a snazzy players’ dorm or a huge stadium. I joke about how I think I could start on all of our teams, even the women’s programs, but college sports is all about community and having fun, and we have that at Hendrix.
Q: You’ve had time now to settle in at Hendrix. How have the first eight months gone?
A: It has been really great. I love Arkansas; it is the friendliest place in the world. The nice summer has helped. The community at Hendrix takes academics seriously, but it is a fun place with a bunch of good young people.
Q: What does the future look like for you?
A: Hendrix is a place where we are putting down roots. We are building a house, so we are going to be here for a while. The past six years Hendrix has been listed as one of the up-and-coming schools in the U.S. News and World Report. I want to be here when we make it.