Twenty years ago, and five years before Franklin Barbecue opened in Austin, Aaron Franklin’s brisket got its first newspaper coverage. He and his wife, Stacy, had held a backyard barbecue in Austin, but it wasn’t featured in the local paper. Instead, the Big Bend Sentinel, in Marfa, had the scoop in its May 13, 2004, issue. “This was no ordinary back yard affair,” Alex Manley wrote in that month’s Buen Provecho column (found here on page five), in which she compared Memphis and Texas barbecue. It was Marfa’s—and the world’s—introduction to the brisket that would make Franklin famous.

I sat down with Franklin and Manley in Austin a few months ago to delve into the details of the article. She was a chef at Maiya’s in Marfa when she wrote the column, and after moving to Austin, she worked at many local restaurants, including as executive chef at pizza place Bufalina. She’s now a partner in Swedish Hill Bakery. We shared burgers and a shrimp cocktail at Uptown Sports Club, Franklin’s newest restaurant. Franklin’s and Manley’s opposing impressions of that backyard barbecue twenty years ago were immediately apparent. “It was way before I made [a brisket] that was tender,” Franklin said. Manley disagreed in the article. She wrote, “The brisket was so tender and juicy it didn’t really need any sauce but I tried the sauce anyway as it was there and Aaron had made it.”

The Franklins were living with Benji Jacob at the time. The now former Franklin Barbecue manager had a house at the corner of Anthony and Haskell, in East Austin, a couple blocks from where Launderette is today. “I didn’t have a job,” Franklin said. “I was cooking barbecue because I had a lot of time on my hands and no money.” The party was a Cinco de Mayo celebration. It had been just two years since Franklin’s first brisket.

There isn’t much from the smoking process back then that Franklin still uses today. The smoker was a $99 Hondo Classic model of a New Braunfels offset smoker from Academy. Franklin doesn’t remember shopping for the brisket, but he assumes it was the cheapest one he could find at H-E-B. He wasn’t burning post oak, either. “We had a pecan tree that fell in the backyard,” he said, adding, “I probably started that fire with a splash of gasoline.”

The famous espresso barbecue sauce was still years away. The sauce Franklin served was based on a recipe from his parents’ former barbecue joint, in Bryan. They made it in a pot with measurement lines for each ingredient etched into the side. “He said he knows what all the ingredients are (one of which happens to be Dr. [sic] Pepper) but he can’t quite get the proportions to his liking,” Manley wrote. Franklin remembered that he had traded out the Coca-Cola preferred by his parents.

Manley said she wasn’t really invited to the event. She and Franklin have a mutual friend, Jeff Keyton, known as Big Jeff, whom Manley described as a “Texas barbeque aficionado” in the article. Franklin plays bass and had toured with Big Jeff’s band the Transgressors. “We bonded over our love for barbecue on long drives,” Franklin said. If you’ve read Franklin’s first book, Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto (see page 22), Big Jeff is the guy who went around one of Franklin’s early backyard barbecues collecting donations.

Big Jeff was friends with Dominic “Dom” Welhouse, whom Austin music fans may know as DJ Lord Highpockets. Manley was making her first trip to Austin to visit Welhouse. (They’re now married.) The two of them waited on the sidewalk while Big Jeff went inside to ask if his two guests were welcome. They were. “I remember everyone was really friendly,” Manley said. Chad Nichols, lead singer of the Transgressors, was also there with his soon-to-be wife, now former Texas Monthly executive editor Pam Colloff. At another backyard barbecue three years later, it was Colloff who took the first bite of a brisket that Franklin was sure he’d overcooked. In his book, Franklin describes that brisket as “the best I’d ever made up to this point.”

One must remember that back in the day, finding a great barbecue joint in Austin felt like a true discovery. Manley was just a visitor back then. She had spent several years in Memphis, and she was more familiar with its barbecue style, but she was intrigued by the meat market–style barbecue in Texas. Prior to her move to Marfa, she was living in Los Angeles, and her neighbor subscribed to Texas Monthly. She was taken with Wyatt McSpadden’s photos in the 1997 Top 50 barbecue issue. “Those photos were so powerful and spooky, with the forks on chains and the fire on the floor,” she said.

The spread from Aaron Franklin at the 2008 rehearsal dinner for Alex Manley and Dominic Welhouse in Austin. Courtesy of Alex Manley
Aaron Franklin slicing brisket at the 2008 rehearsal dinner for Alex Manley and Dominic Welhouse in Austin. Courtesy of Alex Manley

Manley didn’t make it out to Llano, Lockhart, or Taylor on that 2004 trip, but she tried both Sam’s Bar-B-Que and Ruby’s, in Austin. “The chopped beef sandwich from Ruby’s paled in comparison to Aaron’s brisket from the night before,” she wrote. It was so good that when she and Welhouse were married, in 2008, they had Franklin smoke briskets for their rehearsal dinner. “That was the first and only catering thing I ever did before we opened up the trailer,” Franklin said.

I hoped either Franklin or Manley had photo evidence of the event from twenty years ago, but, Manley reminded me, “that was before phones had cameras.” At least we have her article to remind us of this important piece of barbecue history.