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.