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Just the Facts

The butt was tender and yielding. Or was it? Confessions of a veteran fact checker.

By June 2017Comments

Illustration by Tim Bower

The Texanist is a fellow of multiple talents. To those who read this column with any regularity at all, this will come as no surprise. But even among the loyal crowd, few are the folks who are aware that for all the while I’ve been penning these monthly compositions—nearly ten years now—I have at the same time held down another job at the magazine. Indeed, my primary position since I was hired by Texas Monthly, in October 2005, has been as a fact checker.

This issue, however, represents my swan song in the quietly esteemed fact department. I have been sprung by way of a promotion and will soon be producing more writing for public consumption. The prospect of spreading my creative wings is exciting, but there is a part of me that will miss checking the facts.

As a going-away gift, my colleagues—when fully stocked, the department holds four full-timers—have graciously allowed me to take my curtain call with this month’s big barbecue feature story: I fact-checked the top ten joints.

That may sound pretty sexy, but in reality it’s not nearly as toothsome an assignment as you are imagining. The actual fact checking of such a story, you will be shocked to learn, doesn’t call for the actual eating of any actual barbecue at all. Not officially, anyway. I’m a little bit ashamed to reveal this publicly, but my process for this story, as with most of the stories I’ve handled as an arbiter of accuracy, involved a whole lot of fine-tooth combing of text and just the normal amount of barbecue eating. Although, looking back (and down at my midsection), I probably did eat a bit more barbecue than usual while taking my victory lap. You try spending the day reading about the best barbecue in the world and not get overwhelmed by an excessively watery mouth and a powerful hankering for smoked meat. You can’t do it. It’s impossible. I checked.

To illustrate how the fact-checking process works outside of your fevered imaginings, let me take you back to 2008, when Texas Monthly senior executive editor and legendary barbecue connoisseur Paul Burka wrote about Snow’s BBQ, a then-undiscovered joint in Lexington that we proceeded to name the best purveyor of barbecue in the state (an honor it relinquished in 2013 and—spoiler alert!—regains this month). In the historic review, the ever-eloquent Burka wrote that “the pork butt was tender and yielding.”

Let’s break this statement down. First off, and you will probably find this surprising, the butt’s tenderness and yieldingness are not really much of a concern to the fact checker. Such attributes are subjective observation. It’s Burka’s opinion. And as Burka is an experienced barbecue eater and trusted source on such matters, it is accepted. The checker, in this case, just wants to make sure that Snow’s serves pork butt. What if Burka’s reporter’s notepad was so greasy and sauce-smudged that he misread his own notes? What if, on that particular day, he had actually eaten “poor cuts” or “poured guts” or “pork nuts”? And wait a minute, the Snow’s menu he provided in his file of source materials lists “pork shoulder steak,” not pork butt. And what is pork butt anyway? Is it the same as pork shoulder steak? How could that be? One is pork butt and one is pork shoulder. Exactly which part of the pig did Burka eat? I’m confused.

“Hello, Snow’s? This is David Courtney. I am a fact checker at Texas Monthly. Do you serve barbecued pork butt? You do. I see. Your menu says ‘pork shoulder steak.’ Ah, pork shoulder steak and pork butt are the same thing. I see. Okay. I did not know that. Thank you very much. Hey, hey—while I have you, would it be a fair statement to say that your butt is tender and yielding? Hello? Hello?”

Even when the topic is as seemingly uncomplicated as barbecue, fact checking is not easy. But I prefer it to ditch digging.

The truth is, being a fact checker at Texas Monthly has been a very rewarding experience. The big draw, the thing that has kept it interesting all this time, has been the ever-changing subject matter. The variety of material that comes across the desk of a fact checker at a general-interest magazine, especially a general-interest magazine that chronicles the licit and illicit goings-on in an often wild and sometimes woolly place like Texas, is dizzying—mostly in a good way.

In the course of my work, I’ve had the uncomfortable pleasure of viewing the classic X-rated romp Debbie Does Dallas at my desk, spoken on the phone with the president of an outlaw motorcycle gang, and texted with Aaron Franklin. I worked hard to hold back the tears when I talked with Claire Wilson, who as a pregnant student was shot in the abdomen by Charles Whitman on the UT campus in 1966. And the tears came in torrents as I asked the mother of young Johnny Romano, the ten-year-old skateboarding hero and cancer patient from Houston, to go over the details of his final moments. I’ve crossed paths with shysters, champions, and superstars. I’ve had to deal with angry folks, happy folks, sad folks, and crazy folks. One time I had a woman “neither confirm nor deny” the fact that she was 61 years old. (She was 61 years old.)

I’ve delved into the mating habits of armadillos, the comings and goings of big-city socialites, the rises and falls and falls and rises of Selena, Earl Campbell, Pappy O’Daniel, Austin’s midnight assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, Blind Willie Johnson, Buddy Holly, the Butthole Surfers, and Van Cliburn. I’ve investigated chili, cheeseburgers, and chicken-fried steak. Dr Pepper, Big Red, Lone Star. Archie Bell and the Drells, drill teams, big hair. The coast, the mountains, the rivers. Wildflowers, wild hogs, jackalopes, jackasses (both kinds), and white-tailed deer. Sports, politics, business, music, murder, movies, books, science, and history. I’ve even traded emails with Willie Nelson as he rode his bus across America in the middle of the night. Through it all, I’m happy to report, I’ve been lucky to have worked with the very best people in the business.

But that’s just a subjective observation, so don’t even try to check it.

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  • Keith Horne

    Bravo! Humorous & Enlightening, but that’s just my opinion.