Q: My friends and I were paddling the Devils River in Val Verde County last spring. We drank some beer, we spilled our gear, and before we knew it, it was getting dark and we hadn’t found a good island to camp on. So we pitched a tent on the bank below a bluff. Or at least we’d started to, when the owner of said bluff appeared and loudly informed us that we were on his property and needed to get lost.
I clearly remember the summer day in 1996 when Evan Smith asked me to come to his office for the first time. He was Texas Monthly’s deputy editor. I was an unpaid intern, sitting in a cubicle within shouting distance of his doorway and searching something called “the Internet.” When I heard my name, I felt like I was being called up to the big leagues.
The favorite places of thirteen notable Texans—captured with artfulness and affection in the August issue by photographer Jeff Wilson—struck a sentimental chord with most readers. Or at least twelve of them did. The thirteenth, from cyclist Lance Armstrong, drew a decidedly critical stream of feedback.
"I thought you'd be fatter."
It’s a common outburst when people first meet me at a barbecue event, book signing, or one of the hundred-plus barbecue joints I visit in a year traveling across Texas and beyond.
“How are you not . . . ,” a pause to size me up, “. . . four hundred pounds?”
At least they figure I weigh less than a car engine. Otherwise I might consider the question rude.
This line of inquiry appears to be an unavoidable hazard of the job. Since Texas Monthly named me the nation’s first and only full-time barbecue editor in March 2013, my health has been a topic of international discussion. When the New York Times reported on the news of my hiring—calling me “a walking milestone in the history of Texas barbecue”—they asked Jake Silverstein, Texas Monthly’s then editor in chief and the man who hired me, about plans for my fitness program. “He’s figured out how to make the barbecue lifestyle compatible with staying above ground” was his response. A few months later, a live spot with an Australian morning show ended with the female host exclaiming, “Oh, your poor colon!” They went to commercial before I could thank her for her consideration.
The Greek chorus of Twitter also regularly pipes up, with followers happy to stand in for my mother:
From @chuck_blount: @BBQsnob How often do you get your cholesterol checked?
And @JaimesonPaul: Daniel Vaughn’s heart attack is going to be so sad.
And @KLewie: @BBQsnob I had a heart attack in march. Not fun. Be careful my friend. But I’m still smokin but just not eating as much. Luv ya man.
Weird as it is to say, I understand the morbid fascination with my 36-year-old cardiovascular system. My job requires that I travel from one end of the state to the other eating smoked brisket, one of the fattiest cuts on the steer. And I can’t forget to order the pork ribs, sausage, and beef ribs. Of course my diet is going to raise eyebrows. Including those of my doctor. During one of my semiannual visits to see him, when my blood work showed an elevated cholesterol level, he gave me a scrip for statins and a helpful catalog of high-cholesterol foods to avoid. First on the list? Beef brisket. Second? Pork ribs. When I told him about my role as barbecue editor, he just said, “Maybe you could eat a little less brisket.” I promised to focus more on smoked chicken, but the pledge was as empty as the calories in my next order of banana pudding.
My wife, Jen, also has concerns. My editor, Andrea Valdez, once asked her if she was worried about my health based on my profession. Jen replied, “Shouldn’t we all be?” But to her credit, she’s been supportive of my decision to change careers (albeit a bit less enthusiastic than she was when I was made an associate at the Dallas architecture firm I worked with for six years). Only once has Jen placed restrictions on my diet. Back in 2010, when I was regularly writing for my blog, Full Custom Gospel BBQ, and doing research for my book, The Prophets of Smoked Meat, she declared February “Heart Healthy Month” and banned me from eating barbecue. Suffering from withdrawal, I turned to cured meats. She got so sick of seeing salami and speck in the fridge (I think I even staged a bacon tasting at one point), she let me off the hook three days early. That was the last prolonged barbecue hiatus I can remember.
All jokes aside, I do understand the long-term perils of my profession. I’ve taken those statins religiously for several years, and I’m doing my part to keep the antacid market in business. But I’m usually more worried about the acute health concerns I face. I judged the “Anything Goes” category at a cookoff in South Texas and spat out a submission mid-chew that featured some severely undercooked lobster tails. At a barbecue joint in Aubrey, I took a bite of beef rib that I had reasonable suspicion to believe had been tainted with melted plastic wrap. And the most gastrointestinal discomfort I’ve ever had came from the 33 entries of beans I judged in one sitting at an amateur barbecue competition in Dallas.
But my health is my concern. To anyone who asks if I’m worried about an early grave, I just say I’ve pre-humously donated my body to barbecue.
In the first great awakening of our state’s food culture, back in the eighties, notable Texas chefs challenged the culinary orthodoxy of the day, choosing to promote local ingredients and cooking styles. In the current, if modest, shift away from the usual power centers, bartenders have joined the regional revolution, and none so passionately as Houston’s Bobby Heugel and Alba Huerta.
Writing a trendy menu is a piece of cake. You start with some charcuterie and cheeses (be sure to include Point Reyes blue), add a kale salad with pine nuts and currants, and toss in some line-caught salmon with saffron aioli. Finish with chocolate panna cotta and salted caramel in a canning jar and—bam!—you’ve got it. A far harder job is creating a bill of fare that hasn’t been done before. Yet that is exactly what Stephan Pyles has pulled off at his latest restaurant, San Salvaje. Dubious?
Because of the macular degeneration, his eyes don’t work like they used to. He doesn’t talk about his vision much, so it’s hard to know exactly how much he sees. But if you linger long enough on a Tuesday evening at Austin’s El Gallo restaurant, chances are good he’ll make out that you’re there and swing by your table for a serenade. Perhaps he’ll sing “Guantanamera.” Or a romantic ballad. Or a bolero, perhaps in Spanish, perhaps in English.
In this month's cover story ("Land That We Love"), we asked thirteen famous Texans to tell us about their favorite places in the state. But we also turned to you, dear reader, and asked you to upload photos of your favorite places with us on Instagram and tag them #myfavetexas. So far, you've shared more than 1,000 photos with us.
Charlie Strong is probably ready to stop talking. The conventional wisdom is that he doesn’t shine at press conferences or while giving speeches, something that’s been brought up time and again since the 54-year-old took over as the University of Texas football coach on January 6. Brought up time and again, that is, by members of the media.
The conventional wisdom isn’t wrong. Strong is not a politician or PR man. But after all the drama and distractions that accompanied Mack Brown’s final seasons—the Longhorn Network, A&M’s joining the SEC, the regents’ back-and-forth with UT president William Powers, and, yes, the lack of conference championships and major bowl appearances—fans just want to see the Longhorns win ten games (at least) again.
That’s why Strong, who led the University of Louisville to a 23-3 record the past two seasons (including a Sugar Bowl win over the University of Florida in 2013), came to Austin in the first place. Assuming he succeeds, the other stuff won’t matter. The question shouldn’t be whether Strong can fit himself into the often melodramatic University of Texas empire. Rather, it’s whether the University of Texas will fit itself to him.
Jason Cohen: You’ve talked a lot about “putting the T back in Texas.” What exactly does that mean?
Charlie Strong: You always look for a niche. The image at Texas has been a program that didn’t play physical. And when you talk about being physical, you talk about toughness. So when I say “put the T back in,” I’m talking about toughness. I’m also talking about trust; I’m talking about togetherness as a team. I want to build the toughness back into the program.
JC: So toughness was missing?
CS: I don’t know if it was missing. I just think you have to ask, What do you want to hang your hat on? And right now, that’s what we’re hanging our hat on.
JC: It’s a brand.
CS: It’s a brand. It’s what you look for. Go brand your team.
JC: You’ve made another big symbolic statement: the players aren’t allowed to make the Hook ’em sign. What did you say to them about that?
CS: You have to have pride within your program. When we put up the Hook ’em sign, let’s make sure that it’s being represented the right way. It’s gotta mean something to them; they really have to believe in it. So it goes back to, Have we played hard enough? Have we fought hard enough? We’re not gonna throw the Hook ’em sign up just to throw it up.
JC: Do you think that’ll change during camp?
CS: I don’t know yet. But I think we’ll work them hard enough that they’ll earn their way back.
JC: If I’m writing the movie about this, that’s the end of the second act. They earn the Hook ’em sign and go out and win the game.
CS: Or that’d be the conclusion: at the end of the game you’d watch them put it up, and they’d walk off the field.
JC: At Louisville, you took a losing team to 7-6 twice and then 11-2 in 2012 and 12-1 in 2013. What are the expectations, inheriting an 8-4 team at UT?
CS: At the University of Texas, the expectations are always high. It’s a team that has always competed at the highest level. So that’s what you want to do here. You want to compete at the highest level and make sure the players understand that you’re looking for their best effort each and every game.
JC: You keep getting asked about the comments you made in the spring, that the team’s not going to play in the College Football Playoff Championship Game this year.
CS: I don’t ever like to put pressure on our football team. When you start talking about a national championship, that’s what you do. We still have a lot of work. We’re not who we were [in April], but we still have a long way to go.
JC: But is it fair to expect UT to compete for a national championship every season?
CS: You want to compete. And you’d like to go compete year in and year out.
JC: I’ll ask you a much narrower question then: Are you going to beat North Texas in your season opener on August 30?