Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
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For all the stories that we publish in TEXAS MONTHLY, there are always more that we don’t publish, usually because we run out of space and time. In a state that spans 261,232 square miles and contains 25,145,561 people, it’s a safe bet that the things we could cover are going to outnumber the things we do. My job is to make sure that whatever falls into that latter category is worthy of being chosen, from the vast multitude of possibilities, as the object of our attention and yours. Many factors are weighed in that selection, and occasionally, as I’m not too vain to acknowledge, stories we really ought to do get overlooked or neglected.
There are various reasons why this happens, but one of the inevitable causes for editorial hesitation, delay, and even blindness is when a story takes place in Austin, where the magazine’s offices are located. This will come as a shock to those readers who accuse us of Austin-centrism, but in terms of story selection the opposite tends to be true. In the past twelve months, we’ve published only one feature story that was set primarily in Austin (this does not include political stories that transpire in and around the Capitol but that truly have a statewide setting, with lawmakers from all over). During the same time span, there have been eight features set primarily in Houston, eight more in the Metroplex, and five in San Antonio. Heck, there were more stories from northern Mexico (Tamaulipas, Ciudad Mier, and Juárez) than from Austin.
It’s no mystery why this is the case. Sometimes the hardest subjects to know what to do with are the ones sitting right under your nose. Take senior editor Katy Vine’s cover story this month (“Of Meat and Men,” page 92). It’s a beautifully written, impeccably reported, and surprisingly moving account of the history behind two Austin barbecue joints, Franklin Barbecue and JMueller BBQ. And yet we kicked a version of this story around for almost two years without doing anything, as we watched Aaron Franklin’s operation reach higher and higher peaks of barbecue glory, growing (at warp speed) from an unknown trailer on the side of the interstate to an internationally renowned destination restaurant with a never-ending line.
Part of the problem (and let this suffice as a series of disclosures as well) is that many of us are frequent customers of both joints. In fact, I am actually eating a plate of John Mueller’s brisket as I write this (which, by the way, is not recommended: the grease is highly detrimental to a laptop’s track pad). The original location of Franklin Barbecue was directly across the highway from the magazine’s old offices, and until the line began to get in the way, it was a kind of lunchroom for us. As Katy notes in her story, both she and executive editor Pamela Colloff are casual friends of Aaron’s and attended some of his early backyard barbecues. And it doesn’t stop there. Franklin Barbecue was picked as the “Newcomer” at the Texas Monthly BBQ Festival last year and took home the People’s Choice Award for best brisket. And John’s sister, LeAnn Mueller, is a photographer who shoots frequently for the magazine.
The knowledge of all these potential conflicts, and the myopia that often comes from being too close to a story, made us drag our feet. But that turned out to be for the best. As you’ll see, the story became much richer last fall, when John returned to town and began smoking meat again. The grandson of the legendary Louie Mueller, he had previously run a joint in Austin (which we’d all heavily patronized as well), where it just so happens Aaron had gotten his start.
Finally, we overcame our hesitance. It’s one thing for a story to be right under your nose. It’s another for it to be right under your nose and smelling like barbecue.
Senior editor S.C. Gwynne charts the course of Southwest Airlines and the future of air travel; contributing editor Stephen Harrigan explores his family's culinary history; executive editor Patricia Sharpe picks the best new restaurants; writer-at-large Oscar Casares jogs along the border; and our favorite photographers offer their own highly idiosyncratic takes on the traditional bluebonnet photograph.