texasmonthly.com: Are you a barbecue fanatic? If so, why? If not, why not?
Patricia Sharpe: I don't crave it, but when I get fantastic ribs or a really good piece of brisket, I can't quit eating. The whole experience is obsessive, like eating chocolate. And I do think that barbecue is a true artisan craft, like baking or cheesemaking or winemaking. It's basic and simple—just meat and smoke and heat—but there is so much art and experience that goes into it.
Paul Burka: I'm a cautious barbecue fanatic. I rarely try places I've never been before unless they have been recommended to me. There's a lot of bad barbecue out there, and I do my best to avoid it. But once I like a place, I keep going back.
Joe Nick Patoski: I'm a barbecue aficionado. Why? Because I've been eating it since I was three, and I like it more than ever.
Katy Vine: I didn't realize just how big a barbecue snob I'd become until I found myself taking mediocre barbecue personally.
Michael Hall: Yes, but it's not like I eat meat every day. I think I like the barbecue culture as much as the meat itself—the small places, the impassioned people who run them, the family histories, and the recipes.
Eileen Schwartz: I wouldn't say I'm a fanatic, but I love eating barbecue. There's something about eating meat with your hands that really appeals to me. I also love to eat outside whenever possible. Everything just tastes better outdoors.
texasmonthly.com: What area did you cover?
PS: I went first to the Panhandle; then I did a little strip of Central Texas along Texas Highway 71 west from Austin and up to Burnet; then I helped out with part of East Texas around Nacogdoches, Lufkin, and Henderson.
PB: The northwest Hill Country and beyond, including the great barbecue capitals of Llano, Mason, and Brady. I went as far south as Big Earl's in Kerrville and as far north as the Shed in Wingate, almost to Abilene.
JNP: South Texas, south of Interstate 10 from Houston to San Antonio and east of I-35 from Austin to Laredo, with a few exceptions.
KV: Austin to Abilene to the area just south of Fort Worth.
MH: Central East Texas, from Round Rock north to Waco and east to Oakwood, then back down along U.S. 79 to Round Rock again.
ES: East of Austin, from Interstate 10 and U.S. 190.
texasmonthly.com: How long did you work on this assignment? How many places did you visit?
PS: I spent five days in the Panhandle, a couple of days in Central Texas, and about three days in East Texas. I ended up visiting around 35, plus 5 or 10 more in Austin.
PB: I packed everything into two days, the southern half on a Saturday and the northern half on a Sunday. I covered 1,100 miles and nineteen barbecue places.
JNP: I started eating for judging purposes back in December. I ate at 67 or so barbecue joints.
KV: I hit about twenty places in about a week.
MH: I worked on it off and on for three months, some while I was working on another story.
ES: About six or eight weeks, probably. I went to 29 places.
texasmonthly.com: How did you find out about most of the places you visited?
PS: We tried to visit all the ones we had listed in our Top Fifty in 1997. Then we called local newspapers and asked them for local favorites. That was a great source of information. And, of course, friends told me of the ones they knew.
PB: I found a great Web site, which I stupidly forgot to bookmark, so I started out with a list. Then I stopped at every barbecue place I saw, including a Fina station in Goldthwaite.
JNP: Advance word of mouth or reputation. I ate at very few places I just stumbled upon. There are too many joints in Texas to do that. So I talked to folks and worked off recommendations mainly.
KV: I got help from barbecue connoisseurs at small city newspapers, as well as some policemen in smaller towns.
MH: Most from past issues of TM and other magazines that have done barbecue features. But I found a good third of them by just driving through the little towns—the joints weren't hard to find.
ES: Word of mouth, locals, readers' recommendations.
texasmonthly.com: Did you learn anything new about barbecue on this assignment? If so, what?
PS: The Panhandle has bad barbecue, with few exceptions. I think it's because trees are not native to the area, so there is not a historical tradition of using wood to cook and smoke meat. All that craft had to be imported from outside the area. And when you don't have people around with years of experience to ask and to train you, it's hard to figure it all out on your own. East Texas is a little better—some good stuff there. Central Texas is the best. I hate to be discriminatory, but that's just the way it is.
I've also decided that the time of day you visit a place is crucial to the quality of the meat. I think that brisket is very unforgiving, especially if it's lean, and the very same piece that is fabulous at eleven in the morning is tired at two and a disaster at four. Pork loin is tricky, ribs less so because they are pretty fatty. Just think of what smoke and heat do to your face, particularly if you're standing over a grill. That's what happens to barbecue, so it's no wonder that my most common criticism of brisket is that it's dry, especially late in the day.
PB: I learned two things. One is that barbecue is an economic indicator. Show me a town with a lot of barbecue places, and I'll show you a town with tourists and younger people who have good teeth. But a significant number