A Canadian journalist interviewed me recently for a piece on “real American barbecue” (versus what Canadians call “barbecue” and we here in the South call by the correct term, “grilling”). He was shocked to learn that in the Carolinas, where I live, people don’t wait in line for hours to eat barbecue, and that restaurants almost never sell out of meat before closing time.
“That’s just down in Texas,” I told him. “People wouldn’t stand for it here.”
It confirmed something that’s long worried me: that the recent trendiness of Texas-style barbecue is warping the way the American barbecue tradition is perceived not only internationally, but also right here at home.
Texas' influence surged over the course of last decade, driven by a flood of media attention. The arrival of Texas-inspired joints in New York City—most notably Hill Country, which opened in 2007 and recreated a Lockhart-style meat market in the heart of Manhattan—put the Lone Star style front and center in the country’s media capital. The celebrity of Austin brisket-master Aaron Franklin, who burst onto the national scene in 2010, only strengthened the association.
Partisans down in Texas haven’t been shy in their evangelism, either. In 2013, Texas Monthly hired Daniel Vaughn as the country’s first full-time barbecue editor. Shortly thereafter, the magazine brashly declared brisket to be “The Mount Everest of Barbecue” and the top 50 barbecue joints in Texas to also be the Top 50 in the world.
The barbecue boom was on. Food trucks popped up on street corners across the country, with pitmasters churning out brisket and hot links on custom wood-fired smokers. Classically trained chefs hung up their saucepans to open barbecue joints, making pilgrimages down to Texas to crib techniques and styles. They introduced a new generation of diners to traditional barbecue, and the offering tended to be Texas’s “Holy Trinity” of smoked brisket, sausage, and ribs—cementing in impressionable minds that this is what “real” barbecue is.
It’s time to set the record straight—and not because there’s anything wrong with the way Texans cook barbecue. (I have never been known to turn down a big pile of brisket on brown butcher paper.) The problem is that the Central Texas style is just one of America’s many vibrant and diverse barbecue traditions, and its tenets and strictures shouldn't define the entire field.
Here are five "rules" that may apply down in Texas, but should be taken with a grain of salt (and perhaps a little black pepper, too) when sampling barbecue everywhere else.