Our destination was the Texas State Aquarium. Junior finds sea creatures fascinating, and has long insisted that he wants to be a marine biologist when he grows up. This is an interest we try to encourage, although personally I'm happy to go almost anywhere in Texas because it's always an adventure, and I'm always sure to encounter something astonishing. Being from England, I sometimes only have to step out into the garden to encounter some creature of improbably exotic constitution; so the prospect of a road trip, even with the certain knowledge of it being mostly mile after mile of highway, seemed loaded with potential, besides which it was a good excuse to make corned beef sandwiches.
We set off in the morning, and after an hour or more, Junior finally gave up repeating the word pandemonium over and over in a portentous voice to what he clearly considered hilarious effect, at which point we passed the turning for a town called Swinney Switch. I was thinking about the name when my wife announced that she had been there whilst serving as a pork judge.
I looked at her, wondering if I'd heard right. 'You were what?'
'I was a pork judge at Swinney Switch,' she repeated.
To my ears, pork judge sounded lurid and strangely futuristic - a creature that mutant bounty hunter Johnny Alpha would have encountered in the pages of 2000AD comic.
My wife's previous husband is something big in the world of barbecue, which in Texas is as much spectator sport as setting meat on fire in the back garden. I first became aware of this when I moved here and learned that Byron, the first husband in question, had his own barbecue team, this being a bunch of guys who take a trailer around various outdoor events, cooking up ribs and beans for whoever happens to be hungry. Barbecue teams regularly compete to see who can come up with the best marinade and that sort of thing; and Byron has achieved the accolade of having his beans judged the mightiest in all Texas - or something along those lines. Bess told me the details, but it's difficult to remember things for which you have no frame of reference. Barbecue in England is a miserable pastime where people stand around shivering as they dutifully gnaw on undercooked Walls sausages on the understanding that it's fun because it's outside and there will probably be beer. In Texas it's closer to a way of life, sort of like the force in Star Wars.
Anyway, Byron's barbecue beans were declared the finest out of around three hundred submissions from other contestants. I still have no idea of the criteria by which the beans would have been judged, and assume that really tasty would probably be my taking an overly simplistic view. I can't even imagine what the judging process would entail other than someone eating dangerous quantities of beans and gradually narrowing it down by a process of elimination. Suffice to say, I would think you have to really know what you're doing to get ahead in a competition of this sort.
So Byron's team were competing in one of these events at Swinney Switch, and for some reason they were lacking a pork judge. Bess explained to me that a pork judge was, quite logically, a person who judged the pork prepared by the various contestants. Assuming that judging pork was roughly the same deal as judging beans I asked how she managed to reach a consensus.
'Well, you don't eat every last piece,' she told me. 'Some of that pork looks pretty funky, still with the hairs on and everything.'
'So you just pick an entry that seems okay?' I was distantly aware of potential double entendres all backed up, but the subject already seemed too bizarre to fritter away on lavatorial humour.
'Yeah.' My wife shrugged. 'I mean whatever.'
I realised that the role of pork judge might not require quite the same level of commitment as I had anticipated, and it really isn't such a big deal for those born here in Texas. Nevertheless, for those of us who weren't but got here just as soon as we could - as the bumper sticker has it - it's one of those textural details that makes life in this land so interesting. Texas is brimming with this sort of thing, sights which leave me once again struggling to scrape my eyeballs off the glass of the passenger window. Even the most unremarkable landscape seen from the monotony of the interstate seems somehow bigger than anything I ever saw in England; the plants and animals are stranger, more exotic, and there's more of them. Life in Texas happens in full technicolour, as distinct from the apologetic and dripping wet mid-grey of the old and seemingly forever cold country. My state of perpetual wonder is perhaps typified by how even under the potentially dullest of circumstances, an innocuous observation from my wife can open up a whole new world so weird as to require a good two or three minutes of explanation.
Having received the daily expansion of my horizon, there wasn't much more to be said about the work of the pork judge. As we drove on towards Corpus Christi our conversation wandered off in other directions like a pig questing for truffles, and I wondered why my life couldn't have been more like this for the first forty or so years.