Ohio-born Daniel Vaughn trained as an architect in New Orleans but when he moved to Texas, he began visiting the state’s best barbecue joints.
His guide was the “bible of barbecue” — the Texas Monthly list of the 50 best BBQ joints in the world,” which comes out every five years.
He blogged about it so passionately over the past decade that in March 2013, Vaughn was named the first Barbecue Editor of the magazine.
Texas Monthly has just released its latest list of best BBQ. And Vaughn has a new book out, “The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue.”
“We think we’ve got the best barbecue anywhere in the country, and we think the best barbecue is in this country, so if we’ve got the best barbecue in the country then it must be the best barbecue in the world,” Vaughn told Here & Now.
I make no pretense— I am not a native Texan. I first set foot in Texas in 1998. My Oklahoma- born girlfriend and I were in Dallas for the annual football game held at the State Fair of Texas between the University of Texas and their archrival the University of Oklahoma. Her father— who would become my father- in- law six years later— had bought us both our plane tickets and game tickets, and I was giddy with excitement to take in my fi rst live big- time college football game. The Sooners were playing the Longhorns, and my girlfriend’s father was a Sooner fan, so I was obliged to wear crimson. Come halftime, the outlook for the Sooners with just three points was grim, and our group’s spirits were low. My enthusiasm dampened, I darted out to the concessions to get some food— in this case, a rib sandwich from the Smokey John’s tent. I had always loved ribs. I paid quickly and ran back to our seats with my bundle of foil- wrapped smokiness. The band was leaving the field as I hurriedly unwrapped and bit ferociously into my sandwich. “Those idiots left the bones in!” I exclaimed to no one in particular. I was just an infant when it came to Texas barbecue and didn’t realize. . . .
Three years later I returned to Dallas for good. I didn’t know it, but I was about to experience a personal awakening similar to the one I’d had five years earlier, when I arrived at Tulane University in New Orleans, just a naive kid from small- town Ohio. Everything about life in the Big Easy was radically different from the hay fields and dairy farms of my youth, and I found my place in New Orleans through food. Before my first semester was complete I was exploring new parts of the city for that perfect po’boy, navigating what seemed like a whole new language just to get the right steaming bowl of seafood, and relishing the social lubricant of a crawfish boil, where hands stained red from spice could barely grip that third bottle of Abita. Lessons in food are lessons in culture, so the more food discoveries I made, the more at home I felt. After graduation, spurred by love, I drove straight to Texas. Once I arrived, it was again food that I sought to guide me as well as ground me in this strange new place.
My first week in town, Jessica, a good friend and Dallas native, suggested we dine at Peggy Sue BBQ for a taste of authentic Texas barbecue. Peggy Sue BBQ is a sit- down joint with table service and a decidedly fifties’ vibe in the upscale University Park neighborhood. But all I remember about that meal was the bold smokiness of the brisket, which I doused in the house’s signature spicy sauce that comes warm in a miniature metal pitcher. In Ohio, brisket is corned and boiled and served with a side of limp cabbage. My first taste of Texas brisket was a revelation. It awakened a desire for more of it.
A few years later my smoked- meat palate would be revolutionized all over again. My good friend Sam and I took a weekend road trip to Central Texas, the promised land of Texas barbecue. We planned a pilgrimage to all the hallowed barbeque joints there. In these sacred spots, butcher paper soaked to transparency is the only thing that resembles a plate, and forks are considered superfluous— instead, you use your hands, lubricated with animal fat, to convey the meat to your eager mouth. Even hours after you leave one of these barbecue joints, the smell of your clothes gives away your journey. But before Sam and I hit Central Texas, I knew none of this. I was a sheltered Dallasite who was used to a knife and fork and plenty of sweet sauce. But after repeating the primal experience a total of sixteen times over that weekend, I was never again able to enjoy mediocre barbecue the way I once had, and my quest to taste the best of real Texas barbecue began.
It’s taken me years to understand, but Texas barbecue is defined more by what it isn’t than what it is. A basic (and correct) definition might be “simply seasoned meat cooked to tenderness over hardwood smoke,” but Texas barbeque encompasses so much more than that.
Tell someone outside of Texas that barbecue sauce is actually peripheral to smoked meat in the Lone Star State and you’ll get the same blank stare you’re sure to receive when attempting to explain to a Yankee that beans don’t belong in chili. Ask a pitmaster for his or her rub recipe and surprisingly, they’ll usually give it to you— along with a grin that lets you know the secret to the transcendent barbecue isn’t in the ingredients but in the technique, a process they’ve repeated a few thousand times. Sadly for you, that pinch of onion powder isn’t getting you on that mountaintop. Texans cherish the simplicity that the best barbecue joints in this great state deliver, and any outsiders lucky enough to get a taste of it will return home with a hole in their charred soul.
After visiting more than five hundred barbecue joints across the state, I still yearn for new horizons. In my search for great Texas barbecue I’ve sampled some of the best of what this state has to offer, but the potential rush of discovery continues to lead me down back roads and through questionable neighborhoods. There’s always so much to keep learning— and tasting. The city of Memphis alone requires two barbecue styles (wet and dry) of its own, so why shouldn’t the Lone Star State— largest in the lower forty- eight— contain more than one style? Still, my experience has taught me that many people are surprised to learn that there are four distinct styles that characterize Texas barbecue, and that we eat more than just brisket. Each individual style has a loose geographical origin, but none have strict boundaries.
Jeremy Hobson joins Robin Young as co-host of Here & Now in its new 2-hour format, from WBUR and NPR.
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