I don’t mean to pour charcoal lighter on the fire, but Gary is indisputably correct about gas versus wood: No one who cooks with gas belongs on a list of Texas’ best barbecue joints, any more than grape Nehi belongs on a wine list. (And the offense isn't pardoned just because the gas cook throws on, as Marshall Cooper puts it, "a couple of sticks of wood for perfume.")
Texas Monthly, more than most, ought to realize this. Indeed, in the introduction to the magazine’s last Top 50 issue (published in June 2008), the editors described their vaunted list thusly:Our quintessential, quinquennial review of the fifty best barbecue joints in Texas, with special attention paid to the top five (one of which you’ve probably never heard of), the cherished components of the classic barbecue meal, and the pits in which our meats are smoked, seared, or (Lord help us!) gassed. (Emphasis added.)
Patricia Sharpe, Monthly’s superb food writer, wrote that the 2008 list differed from the 2003 list in at least one important way:[T]he biggest change over the past five years is that the gas-burning commercial smoker is gaining ground. …To give the devil his due, this contraption has brought acceptable barbecue to areas where it hardly existed, like the Rio Grande Valley. The danger is that it will replace traditional pit-smoking, as fewer and fewer people are willing to get up at three in the morning to sustain this labor-intensive craft. The smoker has also enabled giant, mediocre chains … to proliferate like houseflies. With so many children cutting their teeth on institutional barbecue, one fears for the future.All of which leads one to ask: If the thought of cooking with gas instead of wood makes you gasp, “Lord help us!”, if the nicest thing you can say about gas is that it’s made “acceptable” barbecue more widely available, if there’s a danger that it will drive true wood-smoking into a small corner of the barbecue world, if it’s to blame for the success of “giant, mediocre chains,” and if it threatens to produce a generation of Texans who know nothing but “institutional barbecue” – then why can’t you people find 50 top joints in the Great State of Texas that cook brisket the way God meant it to be cooked: With wood?
Photos by Chris Wilkins & David Woo