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Texas-style barbecue, meat smoked over indirect heat for many hours, until achingly tender and bursting with flavor, is perhaps the most American of foods. Meat is smoked all over the world, but American barbecue is typified by coating cuts of meat with a dry rub, a combination of spices that may be as simple as salt and pepper but may also include “yellow mustard, brown sugar, honey, garlic powder,” cumin, cayenne, and other components, and cooking the meat slowly over wood smoke, imbuing the flavor of the wood deeply into the meat, which develops a crust, or bark, and remains moist and tender inside.
It is often accompanied by tangy barbecue sauce, with a base of molasses or vinegar or ketchup, but true aficionados steer clear of the sauce and focus on the meat. Brisket, sausages, and beef and pork ribs form the holy trinity of barbecue. It is rarely served “fancy,” with the best places favoring a plate of butcher paper and eating with your hands. Great barbecue is just about as good as it gets, and there is one man who knows more about Texas barbecue than anyone on the planet. Meet Daniel Vaughn, an architect from Ohio who, after the success of an amateur blog about Texas barbecue, became the world’s first dedicated barbecue editor, a full-time post he now holds at Texas Monthly magazine. He has just released his first book, The Prophets of Smoked Meat, a travelogue through road trips to taste barbecue joints around Texas.
The book has drawn interest not only for its own merits, but because it is the first book published by a new imprint of Ecco Books run by celebrity chef, writer, and host of “No Reservations,” Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain is now a major industry, thanks to his popular TV series, in which he explores local cuisine around the world, as well as his best-selling books, Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw. Bourdain’s new imprint will feature food-related books, and Vaughn’s work is the first out of the box. It is easy to see why the (justifiably) meat-obsessed Bourdain would love it. The Prophets of Smoked Meat: a Journey through Texas Barbecue is divided into chapters that follow Vaughn and his friends on targeted road trips to explore regional Texas barbecue. On his blog, “Full Custom Gospel BBQ,” Vaughn has reviewed over 300 Texas eateries.
He fell for barbecue as a new resident of Dallas, where he had moved to work as an architect. He took three days off, chose sixteen barbecue joints to try, to see what all the fuss over Texas barbecue was about—by the end of the road trip, he was hooked. His rating system comes with a generous helping of humor: it runs from no stars (“skipping dinner is a better option”) to six stars (“reconsider your honeymoon destination”). Prophets of Smoked Meat follows Vaughn’s tasting trips, from Central Texas BBQ, with the famous destination of Lockhart, Texas (outside of Austin) the best-known of his many stops.
The book is beautiful to look at and hold, with rich photographs by Nicholas McWhirter and some fun graphics, like a map of Texas with 202 barbecue joints listed and mapped by the wood with which they smoke (hickory, pecan, oak, or the popular mesquite). There’s a nice section at the back with profiles of “pitmasters,” as barbecue cooks are affectionately known, which includes some biographical data, a nice portrait photograph, and a selected recipe. These are not the sort of recipes you’re likely to try at home, although you could, if you have the possibility of a smoker, a smoke pit, or one of the free-standing barbecue grills that allows for offset (indirect) smoking.
Despite thoroughly enjoying the book (and loving the barbecue), there were some elements that I missed. The book quickly grew repetitive, with very short descriptions of restaurants (a paragraph or two) before moving on to the next, and the same foods being ordered at each place, with little variation. There’s a bit of an “and then…and then” quality to each journey, making this book easier to pick up one chapter at a time and enjoy, rather than reading all the way through. There is also very little of the personal. The best travel books are actually memoirs, offering insight into the author, in the guise of a quest to a destination. There is not much we learn about Vaughn, who seems like an interesting guy. Sometimes we glimpse something that could have been more developed—for instance, at the end of one chapter, Vaughn includes a short note that a friend, who accompanied him on one of the documented road trips, passed away just as Vaughn was writing the chapter about their trip together. It’s a quick look behind the curtain of privacy and, fair enough, the author prefers it to remain private. But it is also a rare moment of personal exposure, a view inside Vaughn’s self (not just his tastes in smoked meat), and the book wants more of that.
These picky points may be down to Vaughn specializing in short blog entries, and openly stating how difficult he found it to write to book length. It is also, understandably, tough to write inventively about 202 restaurants at which you ate pretty much the same dish. It’s hard enough for food critics to describe their eating experiences in different ways when every night they eat a different cuisine. Imagine how tricky it is to keep things interesting when every restaurant is featuring smoked brisket and ribs, with only subtle variations. Vaughn’s book is a beautiful bible of Texas barbecue, a great inspiration to reproduce the road trips he outlines. As an expat living in Europe, far from any American barbecue, this made me nostalgic…and hungry.