“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.
My interest in barbecue started casually enough thirteen years ago, when I moved to Texas from Ohio, with irregular though much-savored dinners at local barbecue joints. But the fixation began in earnest in 2006. Using Texas Monthly’s 2003 list of the top fifty barbecue joints as a guide, my friend Sam Watkins and I set out on a Central Texas and Hill Country adventure, stopping at sixteen barbecue places in three days. On Saturday morning, August 19, 2006, a bite of peppery smoked brisket at Louie Mueller Barbecue, in Taylor, changed my life. From that point forward, barbecue was a personal obsession.
It took almost two years before I started to write seriously about the cuisine. Inspired by Tex Smith, the founder of one of the first websites dedicated to reviewing barbecue joints, I launched Full Custom. On July 31, 2008, I wrote my first post: it was a single paragraph on Rick’s Smoke House Barbeque, in Garland. (I’ve since learned that “carcinogenic” isn’t a positive adjective for describing flavor.)
The prose was pretty awful, but the timing was impeccable. The zeitgeist of Texas barbecue was in its infancy but growing fast. Barbecue hounds treasured their grease-stained copies of the Texas Monthly top fifty lists from 1997, 2003, and 2008. Robb Walsh laid the foundation for barbecue historians with his 2002 book, Legends of Texas Barbecue Cook Book. Then, the year after I started Full Custom, the landscape of barbecue in Texas—or really in this country—changed forever. On December 2, 2009, Aaron and Stacy Franklin opened their trailer at Interstate 35 and Concordia Avenue in Austin. On a drizzly afternoon a month later, I met two fellow barbecue bloggers, Drew Thornley and Brad Istre, from Man Up Texas BBQ, for our first slice of fatty brisket from Franklin Barbecue. It was barbecue nirvana equaled only by that day back at Louie Mueller. Since then Aaron has become a bona fide foodie celeb, and his restaurant is the most well-known barbecue joint in the country.
Emboldened by brisket, I sent an unsolicited email a few days later to Texas Monthly’s food editor, Patricia Sharpe (whose 2005 piece for this magazine about being a food critic, “Confessions of a Skinny Bitch,” inspired my own “Fat Bastard” confessions), pleading for a spot on the tasting team for the next barbecue issue, to be published in 2013. We met for dinner at Lamberts Downtown Barbecue, in Austin, where I tried my best not to be sheepish, and she did her best to leave the possibility open. After a few more meetings and a bit of cajoling, my dream was more than fulfilled: I signed a contract with Texas Monthly that not only landed me a spot on the tasting team but eventually led to my job as a full-time barbecue editor.
Eighteen months after taking the leap, this mutual decision to go sauce-deep into ’cue culture seems to have been a sound one. The barbecue bandwagon gets a new passenger every week. The Houston Chronicle hired a weekly barbecue columnist in April; Eater, a national food blog, recently debuted a new column titled Smoked; the Dallas Observer, Big D’s alt-weekly, launched a series called Shigging, a glimpse into the secrets of the pit; and it’s hard to tell these days if Zagat is a restaurant site or a dedicated barbecue blog.
This competition might create some overlap in coverage with our own standalone barbecue site, TMBBQ.com, but as an ambassador for this culinary movement, I want nothing more than for its tentacles to have the broadest possible reach. More people talking about barbecue means more people making it means more chances for me to eat it. I read an interview recently with Ohsaki-san, Tokyo’s most well-respected ramen critic, who described his ramen-eating habits. “There are two types of ramen junkies: the repeater and the collector. I’m a collector—I try to eat as many different bowls as I can.” That’s me too. Trying a new joint that turns out to be mediocre is more rewarding than having another meal at one of Texas’s best. If all I wanted was to eat ’cue for pleasure, I’d stop in at Dallas’s Pecan Lodge, just a few miles from my house. But I’d rather save the stomach space for finding the next hidden gem and sharing that experience with my readers.
This need for relentless exploration is also how my travel itineraries get so large. I’ve visited plenty of joints in the past eight years—closing in on nine hundred total—but I feel a responsibility to try them all. (And, yes, despite eating untold pounds of meat, I do still crave and enjoy barbecue.)
When I plan a trip, I map it out so that I can visit as many restaurants, trailers, and food stands as I can feasibly cram into a day. That strategy causes things to quickly balloon, as they did one week this past July when I hit 23 places. That’s excessive, even by my standards, but it was Texas Barbecue Week (think Restaurant Week in New York but with barbecue). Here are my notes on what occurred over just two of those days:
July 15, 2014
7:30 a.m. Wake up to get my son and daughter ready for the day. I’m a little groggy because I turned in my weekly column to my editor at 1:20 a.m.
8:30 a.m. Drop the kids off at day care and head south on I-35.
11:30 a.m. Arrive in Austin. First stop: Micklethwait Craft Meats, where I order beef cheek tacos (a Barbecue Week special), a few slices of house-made kielbasa, and one slice of too-tempting-to-ignore brisket I spy on the blocks. They also give me a new lemon bar dessert they just started serving. I can’t possibly eat all three tacos, so I give one to the trio ogling my plate at an adjacent table. The other I wrap up for Andrea, whom I’m meeting for a second lunch.
12:15 p.m. Pick up Andrea and drive over to Lamberts as part of my research for a midterm report card on the 2013 top fifty list. I order us two combo plates as well as the fried pie and the banana pudding, two desserts endemic to barbecue menus, an aspect of the culture that I plan to write about in the next few months. I debate adding the boar ribs, but they’re not smoked. Second lunch is over.
1:30 p.m. Return my very full editor (she made the rookie mistake of eating too much) to the office and head out to Schmidt Family Barbecue, in Bee Cave, for a meal I’ll later review on TMBBQ.com. The brisket is good, so I eat it all. That’ll cost me later.
2:30 p.m. Before going back to the Texas Monthly office, I stop in at Terry Black’s Barbecue to bring a little ’cue back to my colleagues. Being the brisket fairy is a perk of the job.
4:30 p.m. Go to a local pub called the Crown & Anchor to film a segment with Aaron Franklin for his new barbecue show on PBS. It’s happy hour, so we drink a beer and talk about the history of brisket.
5:55 p.m. Arrive at a Texas Monthly dinner event at Franklin Barbecue to a full house. It’s the best barbecue in the world, but I’m already full, so I keep it to a few bites each of beef rib, brisket, and prime rib.
10:15 p.m. Drive to Lockhart and check into the Best Western—a motel I’ve stayed at many times. Prep for an interview scheduled for the next day with Nina Sells, the owner of Smitty’s Market.
11:00 p.m. Transcribe an interview with Tim Hutchins and his father, Roy, owners of Hutchins BBQ, in McKinney, to be posted in the morning on TMBBQ.com.
2:15 a.m. Upload the finished interview to the site. Turn in.
4:00 a.m. Wake up with terrible heartburn. Chew on a Gaviscon, drink some water, and go back to bed.
July 16, 2014
8:15 a.m. Shower, get dressed, check Twitter, rush to Smitty’s.
9:00 a.m. Arrive at Smitty’s and meet with Nina. There’s no coffee, so I caffeinate with an RC Cola while we do the interview.
10:30 a.m. They have a combo plate on the menu at Smitty’s, a Barbecue Week special, so I order a brisket, rib, and sausage plate. And add an order of rare (just the way I like it) prime rib.
11:00 a.m. Arrive at Kreuz Market, just up the road, and order the same meal I’ve just eaten at Smitty’s, which I’ll review as part of my midterm roundup.
Noon Mad Jack’s BBQ Shack is the newest barbecue joint in Lockhart. Stop in for a meal on my way out of town.
1:00 p.m. Pull into Zimmerhanzel’s BBQ, in Smithville, as part of my goal to interview every pitmaster featured in the top fifty. Bert Bunte isn’t much of a talker, so after fifteen minutes, I wrap it up and order a sampling of meats to go. I’m already late for a meeting in La Grange.
2:15 p.m. Interview the Prause family, who own a 110-plus-year-old meat market and barbecue joint in La Grange. I’m almost thankful that they’re sold out of barbecue.
3:30 p.m. Leave La Grange and head for home.
5:00 p.m. Stop at HiWay 77 Café, in Rosebud, for two pieces of chocolate cake to go, a peace offering to the family, as I’ll be late to dinner.
7:15 p.m. After 565 miles and nine barbecue joints in two days, arrive home, bathe the kids, put them to bed, and pack their lunches.
10:00 p.m. Sit down to write a weekly barbecue news roundup for the site.
1:30 a.m. Complete my post and go to bed.
No, I don’t eat it all. In fact, I don’t eat most of it, but it still adds up. I have never tried to measure the amount of meat consumed during a typical trip, but I’m sure it’s more than most people are comfortable with eating. This doesn’t stop the requests to tag along from rolling in. If I had a beef rib for every time I’ve had someone offer to be a road trip buddy, I’d have a sizable herd. I’ve entertained a few requests. These companions join me in the morning with wide eyes, high hopes, and a newbie’s expectation of their stomach’s tank capacity. Eating too much at the first place is the most common mistake, one that’s hard to recover from. By the final stop, I’m usually eating alone.
I prefer traveling with a group, both for camaraderie and to share the ’cue, but riding solo has its perks, especially when it comes to being efficient with my time. (Also, no one looks at me like I’m crazy when I crank “Meat Is Murder,” by the Smiths.) Reviewing a plate of barbecue doesn’t take long. A third bite is rarely required to determine the quality of the meat. To be honest, amassing leftovers is the worst part. My car fills with Styrofoam containers of food, and the smell of smoked meat mixed with pickles and hot mayonnaise lingers for at least a day.
People romanticize the notion of being a food critic, but the challenges of covering a state as vast as Texas and a cuisine as niche as barbecue are something I wasn’t really aware of until I entered this world. Overnight trips keep me away from my wife and kids. Spending the morning and afternoon driving and eating means keeping late hours so I can meet daily deadlines. Mainlining coffee to jump-start my day only adds to the dehydration brought on by consuming vast quantities of salty meat. An addiction to Twitter and Instagram causes fatigue and sometimes muscle spasms in my scrolling thumb. My poor car, which I’m on pace to put 33,000 miles on by the end of this year, suffers collateral damage (I’d use the airport more regularly, but then I’d miss out on all the in-between barbecue).
And as I mentioned before, there’s my health to consider. After a couple of carnivorous days, painful white bumps form on my tongue. I crave broccoli—not salad, always broccoli—when I get back home. Combine a fiber-poor, protein-rich diet with dehydration and sitting in a leather seat for many hours each week, and you get some pretty nasty—well, you can look up the symptoms on WebMD yourself.
The closest thing I’ve had to a serious health scare actually happened while eating a plate of fried chicken. In 2011, as my book’s deadline loomed over me, I started experiencing some chest pains. At Sunday dinner, I mentioned them to Jen, who mildly panicked and insisted I go to the doctor. It was the weekend, so I was forced to go to a doc-in-a-box, an urgent care clinic in a strip mall. In what seemed to me to be a move to wring out every last penny from the insurance company, the clinic performed an EKG. It came back perfectly normal, but the doc told me not to ignore the stress. I was struggling to finish my book while still working my architecture job and trying to be a decent dad and husband. It got to be too much. The symptoms were short-lived, but the EKG had staying power. It became part of the medical records required by any life insurance company. Just the fact that the test was administered causes insurance companies to laugh at my pravastatin-popping ass and declare me too high of a risk for their bottom line. Trying to secure life insurance on the open market has certainly been a humbling experience and something I think about on every road trip as I barrel down the interstate hoping to avoid a catastrophic false move.
But people seem less interested in traffic fatality statistics than my cholesterol score. So to answer the burning question, my cholesterol has never been above two hundred since I’ve been the barbecue editor. And thanks to my pharmacist, the LDL level is just fine too.
As for my weight, that battle is harder to win. I’d like to eat better at home, but I have a wife and two kids who enjoy pizza, burgers, tacos, and fried chicken, in that order, and they never gain a pound. Thankfully, none of them really has a taste for barbecue, but they don’t always want a plateful of veggies either. After one particularly long barbexcursion, I suggested a couple of days of vegetarian meals at home (yes, I’ve seen the documentary Forks Over Knives, and I understand the benefits of a plant-based diet). But instead of the rah-rah support I expected, my wife gave me a guilt trip about depriving our growing children of protein.
Right now my weight hovers around ten pounds heavier than when I started the job, and that ten pounds is really bothersome. I’ve always been a bigger guy, but that’s the difference between an XL and an XXL.
Despite this small blow to my vanity, it’s hard to argue with the thousands who have told me that I have their dream job. A recent tweet from @johngmarks sums up the general view of the public: “Sometimes I really worry about the health of @BBQsnob, but mostly I’m just jealous.” I know I’m a lucky guy, and I don’t take it for granted, which is why being health-conscious is something I strive to do. Believe me, I’ll go to the grave—hopefully much later rather than sooner—knowing that I do, in fact, have the greatest job in the world.