"I thought you'd be fatter."
It's a common outburst when people first meet me at a barbecue event, book signing, or one of the hundred-plus barbecue joints I visit in a year traveling across Texas and beyond.
"How are you not..." a pause to size me up, "...400 pounds?"
This line of inquiry appears to be an unavoidable hazard of the job. Since Texas Monthly named me the nation's first and only full-time barbecue editor in March 2013, my health has been a topic of international discussion. When The New York Times reported on the news of my hiring, it asked Jake Silverstein, Texas Monthly's then–editor in chief, about plans for my fitness program. A few months later, a live spot with an Australian morning show ended with the female host's exclaiming, "Oh, your poor colon!" They went to commercial before I could thank her for her consideration.
Weird as it is to say, I understand the morbid fascination. My job requires that I travel from one end of the state to the other eating smoked brisket, pork ribs, sausage, and beef ribs. Of course my diet is going to raise eyebrows. Including those of my doctor. During one of my semiannual visits to see him, when my blood work showed an elevated cholesterol level, he gave me a scrip for statins and a helpful catalog of high-cholesterol foods to avoid. First on the list? Beef brisket. Second? Pork ribs. When I told him about my job, he just said, "Maybe you could eat a little less brisket." I promised to focus more on smoked chicken, but the pledge was as empty as the calories in my next order of banana pudding.
All jokes aside, I do understand the long-term perils of my new profession. I've taken those statins religiously for several years, and I'm doing my part to keep the antacid companies in business. My wife, to her credit, has been supportive of my decision to change careers (albeit a bit less enthusiastic than she was when I was made an associate at the Dallas architecture firm I worked with for six years). But to anyone who asks if I'm worried about an early grave, I just say I've pre-humously donated my body to barbecue.
MY INTEREST IN barbecue started casually enough 13 years ago, when I moved to Texas from Ohio, with irregular though much-savored dinners at local barbecue joints. But the fixation began in earnest in 2006. Using Texas Monthly's 2003 list of the top 50 barbecue joints as a guide, my friend Sam Watkins and I set out on a central Texas and Hill Country adventure, stopping at 16 barbecue places in three days. On Saturday morning, Aug. 19, 2006, a bite of peppery smoked brisket at Louie Mueller Barbecue, in Taylor, changed my life. From that point forward, barbecue was a personal obsession.
It took almost two years before I started to write seriously about the cuisine. Inspired by Tex Smith, the founder of one of the first websites dedicated to reviewing barbecue joints, I launched my own review blog, Full Custom. On July 31, 2008, I wrote my first post: a single paragraph on Rick's Smoke House Barbeque, in Garland. (I've since learned that "carcinogenic" isn't a positive adjective for describing flavor.)
The prose was pretty awful, but the timing was impeccable. The zeitgeist of Texas barbecue was in its infancy but growing fast. Barbecue hounds treasured their grease-stained copies of the Texas Monthly top-50 lists from 1997, 2003, and 2008. Then the landscape of barbecue in Texas — or really in this country — changed forever. On Dec. 2, 2009, Aaron and Stacy Franklin opened their trailer at Interstate 35 and Concordia Avenue in Austin. On a drizzly afternoon a month later, I met two fellow barbecue bloggers for our first slice of fatty brisket from Franklin Barbecue. It was barbecue nirvana equaled only by the fare that day back at Louie Mueller. Since then, the restaurant has become the most well-known barbecue joint in the country.
Emboldened by brisket, I sent an unsolicited email a few days later to Texas Monthly's food editor, Patricia Sharpe, pleading for a spot on the tasting team for the next barbecue issue, to be published in 2013. After a few meetings and a bit of cajoling, my dream was more than fulfilled: I signed a contract with Texas Monthly that not only landed me a spot on the tasting team but eventually led to my job as a full-time barbecue editor.
I READ AN interview recently with Ohsaki-san, Tokyo's most well-respected ramen critic, who described his ramen-eating habits. "There are two types of ramen junkies: the repeater and the collector. I'm a collector — I try to eat as many different bowls as I can." That's me, too. Trying a new joint that turns out to be mediocre is more rewarding than having another meal at one of Texas's best. If all I wanted was to eat 'cue for pleasure, I'd stop in at Dallas' Pecan Lodge, just a few miles from my house. But I'd rather save the stomach space for finding the next hidden gem.
When I plan a trip, I map it out so I can visit as many restaurants, trailers, and food stands as I can feasibly cram into a day. That strategy causes things to quickly balloon, as they did one week this past July, when I hit 23 places. That's excessive, even by my standards, but it was Texas Barbecue Week. Here are my notes on what occurred over just two of those days:
JULY 15, 2014
7:30 a.m. Wake up to get my son and daughter ready for the day. I'm a little groggy because I turned in my weekly column to my editor at 1:20 a.m.
8:30 a.m. Drop the kids off at day care and head south on I-35.
11:30 a.m. Arrive in Austin. First stop: Micklethwait Craft Meats, where I order beef-cheek tacos, a few slices of house-made kielbasa, and one slice of too-tempting-to-ignore brisket I spy on the blocks. They also give me a new lemon-bar dessert they just started serving. I can't possibly eat all three tacos, so I give one to the trio ogling my plate at an adjacent table. The other I wrap up for my editor, Andrea, whom I'm meeting for a second lunch.
12:15 p.m. Pick up Andrea and drive over to Lamberts as part of my research for a midterm report card on the 2013 top-50 list. I order us two combo plates as well as the fried pie and the banana pudding, two desserts endemic to barbecue menus, an aspect of the culture that I plan to write about in the next few months. I debate adding the boar ribs, but they're not smoked. Second lunch is over.
1:30 p.m. Return my very full editor (she made the rookie mistake of eating too much) to the office and head out to Schmidt Family Barbecue, in Bee Cave, for a meal I'll later review on TMBBQ.com. The brisket is good, so I eat it all. That'll cost me later.
2:30 p.m. Before going back to the Texas Monthly office, I stop in at Terry Black's Barbecue to bring a little 'cue back to my colleagues. Being the brisket fairy is a perk of the job.
4:30 p.m. Go to a local pub called the Crown & Anchor to film a segment with Aaron Franklin for his new barbecue show on PBS. It's happy hour, so we drink a beer and talk about the history of brisket.
5:55 p.m. Arrive at a Texas Monthly dinner event at Franklin Barbecue — it's a full house. It's the best barbecue in the world, but I'm already full, so I keep it to a few bites each of beef rib, brisket, and prime rib.
10:15 p.m. Drive to Lockhart and check into the Best Western — a motel I've stayed at many times. Prep for an interview scheduled for the next day with Nina Sells, the owner of Smitty's Market.
2:15 a.m. Transcribe and upload an interview with the owners of Hutchins BBQ, in McKinney, to TMBBQ.com. Turn in.
4 a.m. Wake up with terrible heartburn. Chew on a Gaviscon, drink some water, and go back to bed.
The author (left) with Anthony Bourdain at a Barnes & Noble book launch.
JULY 16, 2014
9 a.m. Arrive at Smitty's and meet with Nina. There's no coffee, so I caffeinate with an RC Cola while we do the interview.
10:30 a.m. They have a combo plate on the menu at Smitty's, a Barbecue Week special, so I order a brisket, rib, and sausage plate. And add an order of rare (just the way I like it) prime rib.
11 a.m. Arrive at Kreuz Market, just up the road, and order the same meal I've just eaten at Smitty's, which I'll review as part of my midterm roundup.
Noon Mad Jack's BBQ Shack is the newest barbecue joint in Lockhart. Stop in for a meal on my way out of town.
1 p.m. Pull into Zimmerhanzel's BBQ, in Smithville, as part of my goal to interview every pitmaster featured in the top 50. Bert Bunte isn't much of a talker, so after 15 minutes, I wrap it up and order a sampling of meats to go.
2:15 p.m. Interview the Prause family, who own a 110-plus-year-old meat market and barbecue joint in La Grange. I'm almost thankful that they're sold out of barbecue.
5 p.m. Stop at HiWay 77 Café, in Rosebud, for two pieces of chocolate cake to go, a peace offering to the family, as I'll be late to dinner.
7:15 p.m. After 565 miles and nine barbecue joints in two days, arrive home, bathe the kids, put them to bed, and pack their lunches.
10 p.m. Sit down to write a weekly barbecue news roundup for the site.
1:30 a.m. Complete my post and go to bed.
PEOPLE ROMANTICIZE THE notion of being a food critic, but the challenges of covering a state as vast as Texas and a cuisine as niche as barbecue are something I wasn't really aware of until I entered this world. Overnight trips keep me away from my wife and kids. Spending the morning and afternoon driving and eating means keeping late hours so I can meet daily deadlines. Mainlining coffee to jump-start my day only adds to the dehydration brought on by consuming vast quantities of salty meat. After a couple of carnivorous days, painful white bumps form on my tongue. I crave broccoli — not salad, always broccoli — when I get back home.
But my cholesterol has never been above 200 since I've been the barbecue editor. As for my weight, that battle is harder to win. It hovers around 10 pounds heavier than when I started the job. I've always been a big guy, but that's the difference between an XL and an XXL.
Despite this small blow to my vanity, it's hard to argue with the thousands who have told me that I have their dream job. I know I'm a lucky guy, and I don't take it for granted, which is why being health-conscious is something I strive to do. Believe me, I'll go to the grave — hopefully much later rather than sooner — knowing that I do, in fact, have the greatest job in the world.
Excerpted from an article in the September 2014 issue of Texas Monthly. Reprinted with permission.