Barbecue Nonsense, Texas Style
Someone in South Carolina Fires Back
[Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of responses to the TMBBQ Top 50 list. Last week we heard an especially erudite reply to the list from Frederick Coye Heard at the University of Texas. Today, we bring you a counter-argument to our declaration of barbecue supremacy penned by Robert Moss, a food writer and restaurant critic for the Charleston City Paper and the author of Barbecue: The History of an American Institution (which we highly recommend). It originally appeared on the paper’s Eat blog. We enjoyed reading it, and will let it stand on its own without a reply (though we do have to point out that his football example is extremely far-fetched.)]
WHAT ON EARTH HAS gotten into those people down in Texas?
I’m talking specifically about the folks at Texas Monthly magazine and their single-minded quest to stir up trouble in the world of barbecue. It was mildly amusing to watch from afar as the magazine tweeted out its picks for the state’s Top 50 barbecue restaurants and, especially, to witness all the fans of the joints that didn’t make the cut howl in predictable protest.
Now the print edition of the magazine has hit the streets, and it turns out these Texas scribblers aren’t content with just fighting amongst themselves but want to start a scrap with the rest of the world, too.
“Texas barbecue has no peer on earth,” reads the first line of the cover article from the June issue. From there it gets even sillier.
In the process of crowning the 50 Best BBQ Joints in Texas, they poke fun at coleslaw, mock barbecue sauce, and slander pigs in general. They sucker punch Kansas City ‘cue as “paltry slices of gray beef covered in sweet ketchup” without even mentioning burnt ends, which is sort of like knocking the Vince Dooley-era Georgia Bulldogs because their passing game wasn’t so good.
And then there’s the title of the cover story itself. It’s not “The 50 Best BBQ Joints in Texas.” It’s “The 50 Best BBQ Joints . . . in the WORLD.”
“Our logic here is simple,” Jake Silverstein, the editor-in-chief of Texas Monthly, wrote on the magazine’s blog. “Texas BBQ > other states’ BBQ > other countries’ BBQ.”
This the same sort of dim reasoning that fans of middle-of-the-pack football programs (like, say, ones from the Big 12) engage in to convince themselves that their team should be named national champion: “Alabama’s only loss was to LSU, and Oklahoma beat LSU in a huge upset, and the Texas Longhorns squeaked out a win against Oklahoma with a last minute field goal, so therefore Texas . . .”
But, let’s be honest. What Texas Monthly is up to is hardly a form of well-reasoned debate. Their proclamations are intentionally inflammatory — unseemly cries for attention, schoolyard bullies drawing lines in the playground sand.
I refuse to take the bait. I’ll freely admit that Texas barbecue is pretty good, especially when you consider how new they are to the game, having only been cooking barbecue since around 1840. They should be rightly proud of their vibrant regional styles, too, which number at least four: East Texas, Central Texas, barbacoa, and the West Texas cowboy style.
We do have to put this in perspective, though. Texas occupies 268,000 square miles of land and has over 28 million residents. That makes it larger, in terms of both geography and population, than North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama combined. An unbiased observer might rightly ask of Texas. “Four styles? That’s all you’ve got?”
Of course, if the gang at Texas Monthly has it their way, those four distinct styles will be whittled down to only one: the German-influenced meat market variant of central Texas. The magazine’s food editor Patricia Sharpe and barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn declare outright that this style “has always been, in this magazine’s opinion, the primary form of Texas barbecue.”
That conviction is reflected in their Top 50 list, which focuses on places that serve what they call the “holy trinity” of brisket, sausage, and ribs. (They somehow manage to shoehorn pork and beef ribs together to create this so-called trinity, but I guess it sounds better than a “nifty quartet.”) Not a single place that serves cabeza de vaca (cowheads) from the Mexican-American barbacoa tradition made the cut, and there are only a couple from the long, proud west Texas cowboy tradition.
One has to wonder at this rather closed-minded approach, an enthusiasm for the One True Style of barbecue that seems dangerously insular. While it does allow the authors to make for a few grin-worthy wisecracks, too many of the “arguments” are little more than feeble, mean-spirited jabs, like Patricia Sharp’s assertion that, “anyone with half a brain can cook pork.” I hear that people who cook pork have cooties, too.
And what’s with this fetishization of brisket? Both Vaughn and Sharpe unleash lavish amounts of purple ink in praise of that humble cut of meat, calling it “the Mount Everest of barbecue” and analyzing its tissue and fat structure and explaining precisely why it’s so difficult to cook.
I suppose it’s a good thing that folks down in Texas had enough free time on their hands to fiddle around with an inferior cut of meat long enough to figure out how to make it edible. I suppose transforming armadillo into something tasty would be an even bigger accomplishment, the “K2 of barbecue,” if you will.
The funny thing is, cooking brisket is actually a pretty new thing. Back when beef slaughtering was a local business, Texas meat markets smoked the leftover forequarter cuts, like chuck and shoulder, that they couldn’t sell to patrons. In the 1960s, when feedlots and refrigerated transport made beef a national industry, markets could order pretty much any cut they wanted to cook for barbecue, and they chose brisket.
Daniel Vaughn makes a big deal about how challenging brisket is to cook, mocking with certitude “the self-basting pork shoulder that my four year old daughter could overcook to a point that a North Carolinian could eat it.”
Walter Jetton might have a word or two to say on that topic. Jetton was the most famous cowboy-style barbecuer in all of Texas. He cooked for President Lyndon B. Johnson and countless foreign dignitaries at the LBJ ranch, and he was renowned for his skill at slow-cooking whole steers over open pits.
As Robb Walsh relates in the Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook, Jetton considered brisket to be “practically a convenience food.” When a lumberman from Minnesota wrote to ask for guidance on how to barbecue half a steer, Jetton knew the man wasn’t up to the task. He wrote back, “Just buy eight- to ten-pound pieces of boneless brisket points.” The fat layer on a brisket melts slowly as the meat cooks, Jetton explained, making it “a self-basting cut.”
In Vaughn’s defense, I must point out that he is not a native Texan. He grew up in the barbecue-deprived backwater of Ohio and didn’t arrive in the Lone Star State until 2001. One can detect in his proselytizing the blind zeal of the newly-converted. One has to admire the passion of such convictions, but at a certain point they begin to get a little concerning.
One hopes that, given time and perspective, the folks at Texas Monthly will see the error of their ways and embrace a more ecumenical approach. Brisket, sausage, and ribs wrapped in brown paper are fine and wonderful things, delights that every barbecue lover should try. But, Memphis-style dry rubbed ribs and a properly-smoked Santa Maria tri-tip are things of beauty, too.
Why would anyone turn their backs on slow-simmered hash and rice, Brunswick stew, or burgoo? Or pork rinds, barbecue spaghetti, and bits of outside brown? For years I sneered at that weird white barbecue sauce they serve in northern Alabama, but that was only because I’d never tried it on a barbecued chicken wing and discovered what a delicacy it is.
And, speaking of sauce, it’s amazing how loudly the Texas Monthly folks can bray on about how little they care for barbecue sauce. The primary purpose of this condiment, if you believe their rhetoric, is to “hide [an inferior] product under a pool of sugary sauce.” Even taking the time to argue about it is “a disservice to those who don’t require it to make their meat palatable.”
Oddly enough, in 1937, the Dallas Morning News declared that since the days of the first European settlers, “Texas barbecue has been distinguished by the peppery variety of the liquids in which it is laved.” One need only point out that Aaron Franklin of Austin’s Franklin Barbecue, which tops the Texas Monthly’s list as the state’s number one barbecue joint, not only dresses pulled pork “with a dash of vinegar sauce” but also serves his famous brisket with a “deep and velvety” espresso sauce. That’s right, espresso sauce.
I could go on about the numerous contradictions and inconsistencies inherent in Texas Monthly’s barbecue jingoism, but here in the Carolinas, we try to be gracious. When we go to visit friends and they insist their 9-year-old daughter play us her latest recital piece on the violin, we clap when she finishes and murmur warm words about how well she played, considering her young age. If Mr. Vaughn or Ms. Sharpe offered us a plate of brisket or beef ribs from Snow’s or the Pecan Lodge, we would accept it graciously and say at the end of the meal, “My, that roast beef sure was tasty.”
Because our mamas raised us to be polite.
Reprinted with the permission of Robert Moss and Charleston City Paper.