Wednesday, June 11, 2014

When the smoke clears: the ever-changing landscape of Texas barbecue

It's easy to get swept up in the whirlwind of attention being focused on Texas barbecue these days. Something that's been going on for generations in The Lone Star State is buzzed about as the latest food trend in New York. It feels as if overnight the battle over who could most creatively make use of an immersion circulator has shifted to who can smoke a brisket for longer and render fat best. I won't say this change is a bad thing, but it can be perplexing coming to terms with a new battle within the barbecue world.

The biggest personal conflict I've faced as someone who has come to love Texas barbecue and the sense of pride and ritual that comes with the craft is this: should it matter if some of the up-and-coming joints' biggest motivations aren't simply continuing tradition? Is it such a sin against our state's culinary calling card that grabbing a slice of the media attention is part of why some of these places do what they do? It surely doesn't decrease the quality of the smoked meat they produce, but there is something soul satisfyingly genuine about sitting inside a place like Snow's in the tiny town of Lexington on a Saturday morning, knowing the barbecue you're enjoying was made by a small group of dedicated individuals who started honing their skills long before the days of Twitter handles dedicated to posting aerial photos of long barbecue lines. Does it mean their brisket is better prepared than the latest hotshot in Austin? Of course not. But there is a respect of food history that is palpable when you walk through the hallowed smokehouse of Louie Mueller BBQ in Taylor that just can't be duplicated, no matter how weathered the newest place's carefully sourced tables and chairs may be fabricated to appear.

Part of me wants to scream "Hypocrite!" at myself for even thinking these things. I am admittedly not a seasoned veteran of the Texas barbecue ways. But that history is what spurred on this passion for me. Do I frequent and enjoy the food from the newer places just as much as the so called "old school" joints? I do. I do this in search of great barbecue. What I don't need, though, is for the places themselves to proclaim their own greatness. To me, the best barbecue places never had to tell the world they were the best - or maybe they just didn't have the platform in the days before social media. But something tells me Bobby Mueller would not have had much use for a smart phone, and I definitely won't be holding my breath waiting for Vencil Mares to Instagram his latest fatty end cut. I suppose that's the age we're in now. So many of the newest pitmasters (a word the older generation of cookers would scoff at) embrace the traditional techniques, but certainly don't shy away from and often seek out the limelight that has been bestowed upon the barbecue world these days.

Many will say this is the Franklin-ization of Texas barbecue. They're not wrong. While I don't think this was Aaron Franklin's goal when he began selling his fare on the side of a highway in Austin some five years ago, he's certainly been no stranger to the camera. When Killen's BBQ began, Ronnie Killen made it no secret his goal was to overtake Franklin. It appears this is a goal of many new joints that have opened in Texas and across the country the last couple of years. In a way, it saddens me. Texas barbecue to me began as preservation and evolved into tradition and a sense of community. I hope that has not been lost in the celebrity status attainable these days when smoke is properly applied to meat. The popular Fed Man Walking blog posted his personal Top 10 BBQ places in Austin list yesterday. Is it a good thing that none of the top ten places are even five years old?

That's not to say there aren't plenty of bbq aficionados both young and old still in it for the love of the process. Adrian Handsborough certainly had no Chase commercial aspirations when he opened Virgie's Bar-B-Que. From all accounts his was a labor of love and way to honor his mother who taught him how to cook. There are countless others that may never get a visit from a "BBQ Posse" or earn a four star review from a well-respected food critic. So many keepers of this great tradition simply get up every night, stoke the fire, apply the rubs and tend their pits through dawn while they wait to serve their customers. Those customers may not line up hours before the doors open, and they may not sell out of meat in a couple hours. But they will get up the next night, and the process will repeat.

This was not meant to be a referendum on the new age of Texas barbecue, but I am conflicted on my own feelings of its evolution. I want the quality to continue to rise, but hope what has always been great about this style of cooking is not lost in the wave of attention crashing down on it. After all, it's just smoke, meat and patience, right?

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