It's time for Oklahoma to take its place in the national barbecue conversation, and that begins here and now.
That's the conclusion I came to in the wake of a recent conversation with Daniel Vaughn, who recently was named Barbecue Editor for Texas Monthly.
Vaughn, 35, will be at Full Circle Bookstore, 1900 Northwest Expressway, at 3 p.m. Friday to sign copies of his new book, “The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue” (Ecco/Anthony Bourdain).
The visit to Oklahoma City will be a homecoming of sorts. Vaughn grew up in Ohio but attended college at Tulane in New Orleans, where he met Bishop McGuinness grad and Oklahoma City native Jennifer Semtner. The two married and moved to Dallas, where they started a family and Vaughn followed the profession he learned at Tulane, architecture.
When he wasn't designing buildings and structures, Vaughn kept a blog called Full Custom Gospel BBQ, where he waxed poetic about barbecue. Vaughn's posts are thoughtful and incisive without losing their faith for the church of barbecue. When a place doesn't live up to his standards, Vaughn doesn't use the opportunity to reach deep into the thesaurus for vitriolic verbiage. Instead, his disappointment is palpable. Because, for a barbecue disciple like Vaughn, he is truly disappointed when barbecue falls short of what he knows it can be.
His criteria is decidedly Texan, as the Holy Trinity begins with brisket.
“Beef in general really,” Vaughn said. “But brisket is certainly a signature of Texas barbecue. No one else really does it right.”
Even at a barbecue Mecca as ballyhooed as Oklahoma Joe's in Kansas City, Kan., the brisket is sliced far too thin, as anyone who has ever eaten brisket in Lockhart or Luling, Texas, can tell you. Kansas City's only proper treatment of brisket is in its burnt ends, which is derived from a portion of the brisket often trimmed and reserved for ground beef — the equivalent to an all-expenses trip to Gulag for cuts of beef — and turned into magical flavor nuggets that are crisp on the outside and pillow-soft on the inside.
Beef ribs are easy to find in Texas, too. I grew up in Austin in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and pork ribs were no more common than beef ribs in local wood-fired smokers.
Then there is the sausage. I'm as big a fan of pork, pork fat and all items directly related to the two, but I love beef sausage pulled from a walk-in smoker by hands coursing with German blood. There are few flavors more soul-soothing than those derived from frontier survival, and Texas beef sausage drips with it.
For me, it's always been a mystery why Texas barbecue has received fewer accolades than that from Kansas City, the Carolinas and the Deep South in the national conversation. But after talking with Vaughn and reading his book, it's clear to see the conversation has been steered on cable television.
Other than the nonprofit programming of public television, Food Network operated with a near free hand in food-based programming until Bravo unveiled “Top Chef” and the Travel Channel made stars of Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern. Because early barbecue programming championed those further east (surprise, surprise), barbecue from this part of the world was treated as a second-class citizen.
Vaughn might not be the first to take issue with the treatment of Texas barbecue, but he's certainly done it as loudly and with as much data to back him up as anyone. Most importantly, his timing was perfect. The barbecue hunter has hundreds of pelts posted on his blog, which as many bloggers have found has the same effect on literary agents as sugar does on flies. And he makes a strong case for the virtue of Texas barbecue. He rates joints on sliced brisket, pork ribs and sausage, but only if it's house-made. He rightly points out good barbecue has no need for sauce, but good sauce does have need for recognition.
Vaughn's family connection to Oklahoma has meant he's blogged substantially about local 'cue, though it's been December 2011 since he posted anything about an Oklahoma joint.
Vaughn, like so many I've spoken to, recognizes Oklahoma's geography plays havoc with its barbecue reputation.
“It's kind of stuck between Texas and Kansas City,” Vaughn said. “And the barbecue there is torn between the two.”
He's right, and I've heard the same thing said by chef Rick Bayless, whose parents ran the Hickory House in Oklahoma City for many years. Brisket is sliced thick like in Texas, and pork ribs are eerily similar to those served to the north. The aforementioned Kansas City barbecue icon Oklahoma Joe's is named for one of its founders, Joe Davidson, who has his own place in Tulsa.
However, the church of barbecue in Oklahoma doesn't boast the same enormity of congregation as other hotbeds.
The problematic nature of producing barbecue for profit is partly to blame.
Kansas City is dotted with first-rate barbecue joints run by up-and-coming pitmasters as well joints that've attained icon status, including Arthur Bryant's and Gates. Texas is spearheaded by the Central Texas barbecue mafia and up-and-comers, including Aaron Franklin, of Austin, and Justin Fourton, of the Pecan Lodge in Dallas.
Vaughn was meeting with Pecan Lodge owner Justin Fourton when we spoke on the phone, so Vaughn put Justin on speaker so he could join the conversation. Fourton talked about the distinct challenges of owning and operating a barbecue restaurant.
“It's hard to do excellent barbecue in a standard restaurant model. To do the best barbecue in a restaurant environment, you have to be prepared for and accept that someone isn't going to be happy at the end of the day,” Fourton said. “Either the customer will be unhappy because we ran out of food or I'm going to be unhappy because we compromised our product.”
Fourton said slow-cooking barbecue with a wood fire is essential to producing high-quality barbecue, which requires a unique set of challenges in a restaurant environment.
“Historically, the best places to get barbecue in Texas are places where they be out of things when you get there, or they might not take credit cards,” Fourton said. “Our first two years of operation, ordering product was just like going to Vegas every day.”
Fourton said running a pit is expensive. Wood costs more to burn as fuel than gas, and having someone on duty to tend it every hour of the day is an expense no other kind of restaurant endures.
Fourton said in the early days of the Pecan Lodge, ordering meat was a gamble, but taking its lumps for a while has led to big returns. The Pecan Lodge recently was named second-best barbecue restaurant in Texas, by Vaughn, on the Top 50 list.
Hungry for more
And as Franklin and so many others have found out in Texas, running out of brisket or ribs isn't necessarily a bad thing. Franklin's in Austin has a set amount of barbecue to sell every day. When the line forms, the last person in line is informed as soon as possible. That exclusivity has worked as a natural marketing tool, which social media have helped amplify.
And that's been a boon to Texas barbecue restaurateurs.
“You can make good brisket or ribs in an oven,” Vaughn said. “It's just not barbecue. You can precook meat with one device and finish it in a smoker, and it'll turn out pretty good. But it's not barbecue.”
Oklahoma City pitmaster Russ Garrett, a man long ago anointed with the healing power of smoke and heat, says his local cohorts are doing their part to create a foundation of high-quality barbecue.
“We have some of the most decorated pitmasters in the country here in Oklahoma,” he said. “It's not a lack of know-how.”
Garrett was pitmaster for the ill-fated Coach's experiment. He produced the right barbecue, but it was in the wrong environment.
Garrett is a member of the Enduring Brands restaurant group, and you can currently find his barbecue during concerts at the Zoo Amphitheatre. He told me he eventually will have another restaurant concept.
“It's all about timing and finding the right fit,” Garrett said.
We'd like you to meet
Few people in the world are more celebrated or knowledgeable about 'cue than David Bouska, of Butcher Barbecue in Chandler. I met Bouska a couple of years ago to judge a tailgating event, and his message about barbecue was simple: It starts with quality ingredients.
It's no surprise Bouska feels that way, since he's spent the better part of his life as a butcher, thus the name.
Bouska has won numerous prizes since he started competing back in 2009, and he is appearing on the current season of Destination America's “Barbecue Pitmasters.”
Then there's Mike Davis, of Marietta, who has been pulling in blue ribbons and grand championships around the country since 1999 with his Lotta Bull BBQ team.
If you happen into Sperry at the right time, you might be lucky enough to commandeer some championship barbecue from Donny and Cindy Teel of Buffalo's BBQ Monday through Friday, from 11 a.m. till the food runs out. The Teels were named best of the year in 2006 and second in 2010 on top of bringing home numerous grand championships from around the country, including the American Royal and Jack Daniels events.
I could go on and on, but we'd run out of ink. So, my promise to Oklahoma and its pitmasters is that I'm coming to find you and introduce you to your home state and its barbecue enthusiasts.
And if you think the only reason I'd do such a thing is to get to eat lots of great barbecue, then all I've got to say to you is, “Mama didn't raise no dummies.”
While you're waiting for the introductions to commence, here's a rib recipe from Russ Garrett, “The Smokin' Okie.”
1 3- to 5-pound rack of spare ribs
1/2 cup to 1 cup rib rub (choose your favorite)