How Texas BBQ Left the Backwoods for the Big City

This month the nominations for the New York based James Beard Foundation’s annual awards were announced. And a pitmaster was among the names that were otherwise a roll call of haute cuisine. Under the heading “Best Chef: Southwest” was the name Aaron Franklin—of Franklin Barbecue in Austin—who became the first barbecue-centric proprietor nominated as a chef.

By Daniel Vaughn March 19, 2015 8:36 am| ,

Barbecue’s reputation in the culinary world has turned a corner. This month the nominations for the New York based James Beard Foundation’s annual awards were announced. And a pitmaster was among the names that were otherwise a roll call of haute cuisine. Under the heading “Best Chef: Southwest” was the name Aaron Franklin—of Franklin Barbecue in Austin—who became the first barbecue-centric proprietor nominated as a chef.

The James Beard Foundation has honored barbecue before. Louie Mueller Barbecue was recognized in the America’s Classics category*, which was added in 1998 as a way to recognize an “informal and moderately priced” restaurant “with timeless appeal, beloved in its region for quality food that reflects the character of its community.” It’s a huge honor to be recognized by the foundation in any category, But the James Beard awards are the Oscars of the restaurant industry. Getting an America’s Classics award is like a lifetime achievement award. Aaron Franklin was basically nominated as best actor, which is why this recognition is so groundbreaking

It means Barbecue is no longer viewed as backwoods sustenance served from rickety shacks or a provincial convenience food for hungry folks on the go. Barbecue is now both cool and coveted. A decent barbecue option is considered de rigueur for any major city in America, and not just in the South. Words like “humble” and “charming” (and, a bit more derogatory, “unsophisticated”) are no longer part of the critics’ lexicon when crafting prose about smoked meats.

In 1990, North Carolina author Clyde Edgerton wrote and performed a song called “Quiche Woman in a Barbeque Town” which does double duty at making fun of a New Yorker who moved to the south and of the town where she landed. Here’s the chorus:

She’s a quiche woman in a barbeque town
There’s trucks and ticks and tobacco all around
She was Vassar cum laude several years ago
The adjustment…will be slow.

Trucks, ticks, and tobacco (along with a segregated public pool in the second chorus) were what defined a generic barbecue town to the writer, and many others at the time. Now, barbecue is the toast of cities like Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York.
Barbecue is also pretty big in Houston, which shouldn’t be too big of a surprise. After Killen’s Barbecue in Pearland opened last year, the restaurant critic for the Houston Chronicle, Alison Cook, named it the third best restaurant – of any type – in the city. Alan Richman of GQ magazine called it one of his “Most Oustanding Restaurants” in the country, calling Killen’s beef short rib “the Mona Lisa of meat.”

Word from the diners at Franklin Barbecue have confirmed that Franklin hasn’t yet started donning a chef’s toque while manning the counter. When I asked him what he was doing when he heard the news of his historic nomination, he replied matter-of-factly “I was welding out in Bastrop. I’m working on a sausage cooker.” I’d bet none of the other chefs on the list could say the same. It seems they’re a long way off from considering tablecloths at Franklin Barbecue, and the preferred cutlery will always be your hands.

Excerpted from Vaughn’s Texas Monthly post.