Texans don’t just like barbecue, they love barbecue. They eat it, write about it, study it, take photographs of it, send it to friends, and then some. So it’s not surprising that when Aaron Franklin opened Franklin Barbecue and people began to take note of his amazing brisket, word spread quickly via Twitter and blogs. Lines began forming and getting longer, and the national press even applauded the newcomer. But who was this pitmaster? How could a young guy in Austin be producing some of the state's best brisket? It came to be known that Aaron had once worked with John Mueller, of the legendary Louie Mueller clan in Taylor. John had learned the ropes from his father, Bobby, and then started his own successful shop in Austin. The joint had a loyal following, but in the end, John couldn’t make it work and eventually pulled out and moved on. Aaron ended up with John’s pit. As the buzz about Franklin Barbecue grew louder and louder, John remained silent. And then the rumor started floating around that he was returning to claim his crown as best in town. Could John make a comeback? Senior editor Katy Vine, who with her husband brought Snow’s BBQ to the attention of TEXAS MONTHLY’s pit crew back in 2008, masterfully weaves together the pieces of this tale in the February issue. Here’s the story behind the story.
So, which do you like better—Franklin Barbecue or JMueller BBQ?
Aw, come on. I can’t tell you that! I could get killed! Besides, I leave the official taste testing to the inimitable Patricia Sharpe. She has eaten at a million barbecue joints by now.
TEXAS MONTHLY obviously knows barbecue. How did you go about researching this story?
Well, since the story wasn’t as much about rating the places as it was about the current barbecue subculture and the circumstantial relationship between Aaron and John, I didn’t really have to eat. But, that said, I did eat a lot. There were days I went to the restaurants for interviews and told myself I would not have brisket for the third, fourth, or fifth day in a row, and then there I was eating brisket.
Did you ever get a chance to master the barbecue pit?
Heavens no. I wouldn’t know what to do with a pit.
How did you decide on the style of your story?
The narrative followed the events chronologically, so that wasn’t a difficult decision. But I wanted to create the line as a third character—and that was a little trickier.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Nah, not really. I didn’t genuflect toward Taylor & Lockhart or anything like that before sitting down to write. Maybe I should have. Next time.
John Mueller and Aaron Franklin both knew from a young age they wanted to barbecue meat. Did you always want to be a journalist?
No, my desire to become a journalist grew out of my realization that after studying fiction for four years I didn’t really want to write fiction. (Or at least nobody wanted to read my fiction.) So hello, nonfiction!
Fans of Franklin Barbecue and JMueller BBQ start lining up hours in advance in hopes of getting to eat the revered meat before it runs out. Do you love something so much that you would wait hours in line for it?
Sure. Barbecue. In fact, when I was discussing this story with a friend of mine, I found myself telling him that on the coldest day of the year I ran over to Franklin hoping for a short line and had to wait for an hour outside. I told my pal, “Who are these crazy people?!” And my friend replied, “Would you listen to yourself?”
In your article, you say, “Three months after the opening of John’s trailer, it is difficult to say whether his and Aaron’s competing businesses truly represent a barbecue rivalry.” Do you think this story will ignite a full-on war?
Nah. There’s too little supply and too much demand for a war.
What made you think this story was important to write now?
First reason: No restaurant in Texas history has had a line of two hundred people waiting out in front of it on every day of operation. Second reason: The people who go to barbecue joints now are crazier about the food than they have ever been. Off the charts. I mean, have you seen all those folks taking pictures of their meat? They’re hilarious. They’re totally obsessed. I love it.
Your stories range in topics from your 2005 feature about an Odessa prostitution parlor to the trial of Warren Jeffs to your recent tribute to the breakfast burrito. What topic do you want to tackle next?
Something that doesn’t make me hungry.