If you keep your ear to the food-world ground, you may have heard that Anthony Bourdain--chef, storyteller, tastemaker, traveler, and fearless eater of Parts Unknown--is launching a line of books. Aside from rumblings of a Mark Miller kickboxing memoir, he's mostly (no surprise) focused on food. His inaugural offering, The Prophets of Smoked Meat, comes from Daniel “Barbecue Snob” Vaughn of Full Custom Gospel BBQ blog fame. It's aptly billed as a "rollicking journey through the heart of Texas Barbecue." You'll find the occasional recipe, but it's much more of a guidebook and tribute to the holy men of Texas meat than a traditional cookbook. It's also on my list of May picks for the Best Books of the Month in Cookbooks, Food & Wine.
Here, Bourdain gets the low-down from Vaughn on all things BBQ. Enjoy. --Mari Malcolm
Bourdain: Why Texas BBQ? Why not NC or KC or Memphis?
Vaughn: There is only one state where the barbecue culture holds the brisket up to the highest regard, and that is Texas. The brisket is the hardest of the smoked meats to master and the hardest to do well consistently. In Texas we celebrate great brisket by not messing with it. If it's done right then you slice it pencil thick and slap it on a piece of butcher paper. It's naked, quivering and vulnerable, so it has to stand on its own.
Bourdain: Is enough ever enough BBQ for you?Vaughn: I recently took a road trip to North Carolina just for barbecue. On the first day we ate at seven different barbecue joints across the eastern side of the state and came back to Raleigh where we were staying. We were stuffed, but wanted some pie at Poole's Diner. At the counter there we learned from another diner that a place down the street did North Carolina pulled pork empanadas. It was midnight and we were beyond the uncomfortable point, but we paid our bill and immediately went to order barbecue empanadas for our real nightcap. The short answer: No, I don't get sick of barbecue, especially good barbecue.
Bourdain: Define "the cookie"; also, "pink ring."
Vaughn: The sugar cookie is the intersection of fat, salt, smoke and time at the corners of a brisket slice. When the fat starts to render and contracts it concentrates the flavors of the rub and the smoke and the fat nugget even tastes a little sweet like a buttery sugar cookie. The smoke ring is the pink line just beneath the crust of smoked meat. It doesn't taste like smoke, but it does show that the meat has been cooked at a low temperature for a long period of time with good air (smoke) flow across the meat while it cooks. When those all come together a smoke ring forms and chances are the meat will taste good and smoky.
Vaughn: I prefer the discovery of barbecue joints around the state and the country rather than eating bite after bite of faceless barbecue at a competition. Learning the stories of who is cooking your meat and how it ended up on your plate the way it did is part of the fun, and that connection isn't possible in the blind tasting setting of a competition. I'm also a bit of a purist, so simple seasoning with salt, pepper and smoke is what I prefer on my smoked meat. Loads of brown sugar and squeezable margarine that are common on the competition are no way to treat a defenseless brisket in my opinion.
Bourdain: What are some warning signs which definitely indicate imminent arrival of sub-optimal BBQ?
Vaughn: If you don't see a stick of wood around the property, there's really no need to get out of the car. Barbecue joint signs that include 'catfish' or 'salad bar' are also dubious, but I still try to go most anywhere that serves smoked meat.
Bourdain: Does anyone in NYC come close to "great" BBQ by Texas standards? Anywhere else up north?
Vaughn: I haven't eaten at a barbecue joint in New York that comes close to the greats in Texas, but I'm hopeful that something will come up in my search when I visit again in May. Smoque in Chicago is the furthest north that I've eaten great brisket.
Bourdain: Is wrapping brisket or ribs in foil EVER okay? Why not?
Vaughn: Foil is known as the "Texas crutch." Once the briskets are wrapped, it's hard for them to dry out because they steam inside the foil package. This might result in tender brisket, but it sacrifices a great crust and can easily lead to slightly smoky pot roast instead of well smoked brisket. It's hard to condone, but there are a few places out there that can still use it successfully. The best joints either don't wrap at all or wrap them in butcher paper.
Bourdain: Sauce or no sauce?
Vaughn: Good barbecue does not require sauce. Period.
Bourdain: When Australians refer to the “Barbie,” what the hell are they talking about?
Vaughn: I have no idea. I think I've only seen American actors with fake Australian accents refer to the "Barbie," but I think it has something to do with grilling, which isn't barbecue.
Bourdain: Which BBQ joint would you currently choose to die in?
Vaughn: Franklin Barbecue. When I die I want to be forever preserved in a brisket fat confit from Aaron Franklin's brisket.
Bourdain: What is the best beverage to enjoy with BBQ in an ideal situation?
Vaughn: I love beer, but I don't love it with barbecue. I'd rather have something sweet, so give me a Dr. Pepper or a half sweet, half unsweet iced tea.
Bourdain: What's the most egregious misconception about BBQ?
Vaughn: The most egregious misconception about barbecue is that every pitmaster has some sort of secret ingredient or sauce that makes their barbecue superlative. To a true pitmaster the rub is about as important as the brand of sandpaper is to a master wood carver. If you think knowing that "secret" will substitute for having the skill and experience of a master, then you're an idiot.