Confessions of a Fat Bastard

"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. 

Cherry Bounce Sour

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.

The Feast of Stephan

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?

Calabacitas

Rarely does the humble squash inspire desperation and subterfuge. But that’s exactly what happens around this time of year, when Texas is darn near overrun with the alarmingly prolific, highly perishable Cucurbita pepo.

Laredo Gin Fizz

Flowerwater, which is commonly used in Moroccan and French cooking, can be obtained from specialty markets. This drink is refreshingly tart. If a sweeter drink is preferred, increase the amount of sugar.

1 tablespoon orange flowerwater
½ cup fresh orange juice
1 teaspoon orange zest
½ cup superfine sugar
¼ cup fresh lime juice
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
¾ cup (4 jiggers) gin
4 egg whites
½ cup heavy cream
2 cups crushed ice
4 orange slices, for garnish (optional)

Avocado Soup with Mexican Marigold Pico de Gallo

It's recommended you use the Hass avocado – that’s the one with the pebbly skin that’s almost black in color. The Fuerte is the other common type you’ll see. This soup should be made only a few hours before service, because the avocado will begin to oxidize. The soup will still taste good the next day, but will have khaki color tones.

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