The Posse has been a strong supporter of Daniel Vaughn, self pro-claimed BBQ Snob, champion blogger and new BBQ editor of Texas Monthly magazine.
Once, long before he got his new gig, we even discussed how an alliance of aggressive bloggers — him and us — might actually be able to displace the magazine he now works for as the bible of Texas barbecue.
So, this review is painful in the blogger brotherhood.
I expected his new book, The Prophets of Smoked Meat, to be a celebration of great Texas barbecue because there is plenty to cheer, including an ongoing BBQ renaissance in both Austin and Dallas.
But the main impression I came away with after reading the book is that it is largely about bad Texas barbecue. Page after page of bad barbecue. An accumulation that ultimately sets the overall tone.
On his blog, most of the joints he wrote about weren’t good. But a blog is read in short, periodic spurts. Impressions change day to day. A 372-page book is different.
Vaughn certainly exerted the effort. He covered more than 10,000 miles and ate at a couple hundred places.
But throughout the book, he lambasts, even pokes fun at, the underachieving. He describes “another mediocre meal,” bad brisket memories that rely on sauce, chewy and under seasoned brisket, “crusty and dry sausage and mushy brisket,” limp casing on sausage, “oily creosote” taste, tough and overly salty ribs, overcooked and dry and almost tasteless brisket.
From a section on El Paso joints:
“Both the beef and pork ribs were shoe-leather chewy, while the brisket was so horribly overcooked that it amounted to barely more than a salty mass, with the mouthfeel of a wet towel,” Vaughn writes. At another place, even the coffee was bad.
In many ways, this book about food is most unappetizing. That can’t be the impression he was after. Where were Vaughn’s editors?
On page 226, I even felt sorry for “Teresa,” the owner of Curly’s BBQ in Sierra Blanca, who had no idea that she was about to become a character in a book.
Vaughn describes her as “a surly, chain smoking woman” who took the food order from him and his photographer. He writes:
“Watchya doin?,” she asked us condescendingly between puffs. “Taking photos,” was my curt response. “Well, no shit.”
That small piece of dialogue is revealing for a couple of reasons.
First, from the way it’s presented, all run together, there’s no way to tell for sure who said the “no shit” line. It was probably Teresa. But in a sample of two people at my home, one of us thought it was Vaughn. It makes a difference.
Second, that brief conversation accounts for a large portion of all the direct quotations that Vaughn used from the people he encountered during his sojourns. An architect by training, he mainly quotes what people have written or said in other publications or books. Even when he sat down with Texas legend Vencil Mares at the Taylor Cafe, he used no direct quotes from Vencil, just Vaughn’s own musings about the conversation.
Direct quotes, used right, can help reveal the character of people and make them come alive. They can help propel a narrative, especially in the genre of road trip books. In many places, Vaughn’s book could have used some narrative help.
With all the bad barbecue that Vaughn documents in the state, the bottom line for Dallas readers is that they shouldn’t regret an hour or two wait in line at Pecan Lodge, one of Vaughn’s Top 5 joints in Texas.
Pecan Lodge, though, gets mentioned for a total of only about two pages. By contrast, The Salt Lick in Driftwood, a place that does its main cooking with gas, not wood, gets five.
Vaughn does include a one paragraph profile of Pecan Lodge owner/pitmaster Justin Fourton and his recipe for smoked Wagyu brisket. But it lists the ingredients for a “a good all-purpose rub,” not Fourton’s actual rub, which is called a “trade secret.”
In his “Pitmaster Profiles,” Vaughn also includes Tim Byres at Smoke in Dallas.
Smoke is a great restaurant. Byres is a great chef who cooks with wood fires. But Smoke is not a real Texas BBQ joint. My advice to anyone who goes there: order the scallops. They are terrific.
My advice on barbecue road trip books? Lolis Eric Elie’s Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country.
A couple of years ago in a review on his blog, Vaughn wrote that Smokestack Lightning “may be the single finest book written about barbecue.”
It still is.