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Monday, November 24, 2014         

NEW YORK TIMES


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A tireless connoisseur of Texas barbecue gets ready for the main course

By MANNY FERNANDEZ

POSTED:



By DALLAS » Daniel Vaughn stood at the counter at Lockhart Smokehouse here, ordering dinner. Lockhart serves smoked meat the way butchers serve raw meat — wrapped in a large rectangle of butcher paper — and its customers are encouraged to eat it the way cowboys used to, or maybe Neanderthals, without sauce, forks or even plates.

Vaughn, 35, gave polite but direct instructions to the man with the knife: a few slices and burnt ends of beef brisket, pork spareribs, jalapeno sausage, an end-cut pork chop, some of the clod (beef shoulder), three slices of smoked turkey. Before long, a $50 pile of Texas barbecue held together by sheets of butcher paper sat before him on the counter — he was ordering for himself and three others — and the cashier asked if he wanted any sides.

"No," he replied. "We got pork."

Vaughn had eaten barbecue for lunch and planned to eat barbecue for lunch the following day; he also planned to spend part of the weekend at the inaugural Houston Barbecue Festival.

Asked at the counter if he ever got tired of barbecue, Vaughn replied, without hesitation, "Not good barbecue."

He was wearing a pair of custom cowboy boots emblazoned with charts that show the various cuts of meat from a cow and a T-shirt reading "Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em," which had nothing to do with cigarettes. His Twitter handle is BBQsnob. His blog is Full Custom Gospel BBQ. Most important, he had just decided to take a sizable pay cut and quit his job as an architect at a respected Dallas firm to devote all of his time and gastrological energy to writing about Texas barbecue.

On Thursday, Vaughn became a walking milestone in the history of Texas barbecue when Texas Monthly announced that it had hired him to be its first barbecue editor, a position that exists at no other magazine in America. National barbecue experts said Vaughn would be the only full-time barbecue critic on the staff of a major newspaper or magazine. He will be part of Texas Monthly's ever-expanding barbecue franchise — the magazine has its own dedicated barbecue website, a barbecue finder app for cellphones and a once-every-five-years behemoth issue that lists the state's top 50 barbecue joints. It holds the annual BBQ Festival in Austin, which last year drew a crowd of 3,000.

"It speaks to the extraordinary explosion and interest in barbecue over the last five to eight years," said Jim Shahin, a freelance journalist and associate professor of magazine journalism at Syracuse University who also writes about barbecue and grilling for The Washington Post. "Even in Texas, where you already had a major barbecue culture, it has only grown. It's surprising that Texas Monthly hadn't done something like this years ago."

Shahin and other barbecue writers said Vaughn — a native of Ohio, resident of Dallas, husband of a woman who does not particularly care for barbecue and father of two toddlers — was the right man for the job. Vaughn estimates that, since he began keeping track in 2007, he has eaten at more than 600 barbecue joints in the country, with more than 500 of those being in Texas. In five days last week, he had eaten barbecue at six locations.

Barbecue experts, in Texas and outside, said the state was experiencing a kind of "golden age" of barbecue, as evidenced by Vaughn's new position. Some of the best places used to be out-of-the-way rural outposts, but now their artistry and time-consuming techniques can be found in Dallas, Austin and other cities. Restaurants in New York City and Washington have imported the Texas style to the East Coast, and national accolades are pouring in. In 2011, the magazine Bon Appetit declared Franklin Barbecue in Austin the best barbecue restaurant in America.

Vaughn had a kind of epiphany in 2006, five years after moving to the state, while on a three-day, 16-joint barbecue trip through Central Texas with a friend. One Saturday morning, they headed to Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor.

"We got there right as they opened," Vaughn recalled. "We had this pile of meat in front of us. I took a bite of the brisket. We were sitting across the picnic table from one another and we just looked at each other like, ‘Oh wow, this is what they've been talking about."'

That meal, and others after it, led him to start his barbecue blog in 2008. The blog led to assignments for D Magazine in Dallas and other publications, including Texas Monthly.

Vaughn's last day as an associate at Good Fulton & Farrell is Tuesday, and he starts his new job in April, a few weeks before the release of his book, "The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue." He spent six months exploring the state's barbecue spots and collecting pitmasters' recipes, eating at up to 10 restaurants a day and logging 10,000 miles.

Standing at a table at Lockhart, with his dinner scattered about the oily butcher paper and not a plate in sight, he pulled apart the brisket, which had been smoked for 14 to 16 hours. Lockhart opened in 2010 seeking to replicate Central Texas barbecue, using the same techniques, wood — post oak — and down-home style that is both anti-fork and anti-sauce.

"They leave some fat on," Vaughn said, brisket in hand. "If you go to East Texas, you're going to get basically just gray slices of brisket. The saddest thing you can see is for them to pull out a fresh new brisket, slap it down and it's got this nice jiggle to it. Then they'll take the back of the knife and scrape the fat off in one fell swoop and throw it away. They love the fat in Central Texas."

Both Vaughn and Jake Silverstein, the editor in chief of Texas Monthly, said they did not discuss any sort of fitness program as part of his new job.

"We have not discussed the health implications of being the Texas Monthly barbecue editor," Silverstein said. "He's figured out how to make the barbecue lifestyle compatible with staying above ground."

One of Vaughn's co-workers at the architecture firm wanted to plan a goodbye lunch for him and asked him where he wanted it. His answer: Kalachandji's, an Indian vegetarian restaurant. "I gotta eat my veggies," he said.






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