I count Texas Monthly's barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn as a friend, so I have no business reviewing his book, which goes on sale next month. But I don't think it violates any ethical standards to say what I like best about The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue.
Vaughn's tenacity and unfussy writing are admirable, of course. According to the book's back cover, he logged 10,000 Texan miles researching the dozens of featured barbecue joints, helpfully organized by regional styles. (Texas isn't all brisket and beef ribs: The state cherishes pork spareribs and steamed cow's heads too.) Yet what makes the book valuable to barbecue devotees, fellow Texas travelers and food writers everywhere is Vaughn's refreshing willingness to show his color when he's served charred meat with lousy sauce and cold onion rings.
If there's a barbecue purveyor that Vaughn can't stand, it's Dickey's, the Dallas-based behemoth which he routinely accuses of besmirching his beloved culinary tradition. But picking on the big guys is easy in the world of food blogging, which is where Vaughn toiled before he was discovered by D Magazine, the Dallas Morning News (uncredited), Anthony Bourdain and Texas Monthly. Talking smack about the handiwork of little old ladies who wake up early to bake pies according to their mommas' recipes and kindly black men who thank the Lord for blessing them with a pit is much, much harder.
To be clear: Vaughn is not a jerk. To the contrary, when folks talk about him behind his back, they usually use the phrase “nicest guy.” There's not a mean word in his book about the well-intentioned pitmasters responsible for the faulty food he finds (although he's quick to challenge a counterman who trims the tasty fat off his brisket.) But he's unforgiving in his descriptions of food which disappoints.
When Vaughn pulled up to a barbecue trailer in Jasper, the owner insisted on joining him for lunch. “I went from one meat to the next looking for something positive to say,” he writes. “The brisket was overcooked. It had the texture of roast beef...the ribs, which were the owner's favorite, were my least favorite. Their surface was gummy from a powdery rub that didn't have enough salt.”
How many other food writers could so deftly resist romanticizing a two-picnic table barbecue joint in rural east Texas? Most writers would surely get caught up in owner Michael Larkin's stories about splitting red oak logs on his property and making his own sausage links. Eating at Larkin's Bar-B-Que & Catering is the sort of experience that begs to be documented on Instagram, or recalled at a big city party where guests are trading stories about memorable smoked meat meals.
Vaughn, though, doesn't pull punches. He's not interested in sticking to the established backroads narrative, in which every eccentric is a genius and every slice of brisket is impossibly tender. He wants only to protect and celebrate the legacy of Texas barbecue, one of the nation's greatest homegrown cuisines. His impressive first book elegantly explains why.
The Prophets of Smoked Meat releases on May 14. And while you're marking up your calendar, draw a pair of longhorns on Nov. 3, the date of the first Texas Monthly BBQ Festival under Vaughn's supervision.