by Esther Sung
The Prophets of Smoked MeatGrilling and barbecue season's "official" start date is still a few weeks away, but this year's batch of grilling and bbq cookbooks are trickling in. Daniel Vaughn's The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue (Ecco/An Anthony Bourdain Book) kicks off this year's coverage. It's a bit of an odd choice given that it's not a cookbook, per se (though the book does contain a number of choice pitmaster recipes from the Lone Star State). But if there was ever a paean for barbecue written for the common man who just happens to love barbecue, this book might have to be it. Vaughn's career trajectory wasn't exactly straightforward--exactly how does one plan on becoming "Barbecue Editor" for Texas Monthly magazine?--but the trained architect's insatiable zeal for barbecue pays off handsomely in this book. Part travelogue and part food reviews, the book is entertaining as well as sometimes maddening, thanks to Vaughn's subjectivity (there's a lot of less-than-excellent barbecue to be had that you have to read about). But no matter. Interesting and informative, The Prophets of Smoked Meat a must-read for anyone interested in what makes barbecue--especially Texas barbecue--so great. And while there's no handy pull-out map to study (perhaps there'll be an app?), I have no doubt that the book will inspire many a roadtrip throughout the state.
Epicurious: Someone once told me, "Everything's bigger in Texas." How does that apply to Texas barbecue?
Daniel Vaughn: I don't know a Texan who wouldn't love to see that phrase retired in a New York minute, but the barbecue culture here is large enough to warrant a BBQ joint in nearly every small town from Dalhart to Brownsville. Our portions are large as well. Where the diminutive chopped pork sandwich is found across North Carolina, you'll find beef ribs the size of your forearm at joints like John Mueller Meat Co., la Barbecue, Pecan Lodge, and Louie Mueller Barbecue. If you think you'll find anything that compares in Kansas City or Memphis, fuggettaboutit!
Epi: How has your appreciation for good barbecue made you a better cook?
DV: So many home cooks focus on the good cuts like chops and steaks that are great cuts requiring little effort or time to make them taste great. Knowing that those 'lesser' tough and fatty cuts can be transformed into something magical with some time and effort makes you shop differently and more cheaply. I guess barbecue has taught me that patience can be rewarded.
Epi: If there's one tip or piece of advice you could give to home cooks as to how to produce better barbecue, what would it be?
DV: Throw away the meat thermometer. Every great pitmaster I've met tests the doneness of their meat by feel with a finger or a fork.
Epi: When you taste barbecue from elsewhere around the country, how does it compare? Better? Worse? Or really can't compare (apples to oranges)?
DV: It's apples to oranges. I prefer a silky beef rib or a well smoked piece of luscious fatty brisket to nearly any type of food, but a good slice of outside brown in North Carolina is about the closest thing you can get to fatty brisket in Texas that brings together the depth if seasoning, smoke, crunchy bark and melted fat.
Epi: Are there any restaurants outside of Texas that offer good Texas barbecue, and if so, which ones?
DV: I usually judge Texas style joints in and outside of Texas by their brisket. There are only a few that were great when I visited. Smoque BBQ in Chicago, 4 Rivers Smokehouse in Winter Park, Florida, and BrisketTown (then it was called BrisketLab) in Brooklyn.