Is Texas-style pulled pork embarrassing?

“It’s just, you know, throw on a pork shoulder, overcook it, shred it up, and then basically make a snowball out of it and throw it on either a bun or on the tray.”

By Casey CheekAugust 1, 2023 10:29 am, ,

For folks who come to the Lone Star State from other parts of the South, they may be a little surprised when they first go to a Texas barbecue joint. Brisket reigns supreme where pulled pork might otherwise.

Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor of Texas Monthly, has come out and just said it: Texas-style pulled pork is embarrassing. He joined the Standard to make his case. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Daniel, you just came right out and said what I have never gone so far as to say: “pulled pork in Texas is embarrassing.” Why do you say that?

Daniel Vaughn: Well, I just had enough of it. It’s embarrassing compared to everything else that we put on our barbecue tray.

I mean, we do so much so well – whether it’s brisket or pork ribs, beef ribs – you know, there’s so much effort into getting this nice juicy slice or the perfect bark or just incredible flavor out of each bite.

And then in pulled pork, it’s just, you know, throw on a pork shoulder, overcook it, shred it up, and then basically make a snowball out of it and throw it on either a bun or on the tray. There’s just not much that goes into it.

There’s this pretty graphic here, the way that you write “the pale naked pork ball sits on the tray, envious of the glistening turkey ribs and brisket nearby. The pitmaster – armed with a squeeze bottle – cloaks it in a drizzle of sauce (seemingly out of pity) that drips down the sides and only accentuates the shape that doesn’t exist inside any animal.” Dude, that’s harsh. It doesn’t taste that bad. I mean, as someone who considers himself something of an aficionado of pulled pork, I think Texas-style pulled pork tastes okay. I mean, granted, maybe a little too much sauce. 

It doesn’t taste that bad. But, you know, I’ve had smoked brisket ice cream, and it doesn’t taste bad. That doesn’t mean it’s good. You know, I think we spend so much time… 

This isn’t ice cream, man. I mean, what are you getting at? Are you saying that Texas pitmasters don’t know how to do pulled pork right? They don’t really care about pull pork that much? Are you denigrating an entire cut of meat that’s used for pulled pork? What are you getting out of here?

Here’s what I’m saying: When given a bone-in pork butt, what most Texas barbecue joints use for their pulled pork, there are so many things you can do with it that are superior to just overcooking it, shredding it up – number one being the pork steak.

Pork steaks are just a thick cut from the pork shoulder and they are cooked, smoked, weather over direct heat, indirect heat. And, you know, you get three or four of them per pork butt, and they just have so much more surface area, so much more flavor. They’re usually served sliced – more similar to a brisket. And so you get that bite of bark along with the juicy interior of it.

It just feels more Texas. I mean, when you see Tootsie Tomanetz from Snow’s holding up that pork steak with the big barbecue fork from the pit, I mean, that looks like Texas barbecue. A gloved hand mushing a ball of pork onto a tray just doesn’t.

Fair enough. But there is something about pulled pork, I would argue, that kind of takes it beyond this sort of slice of pork that you’re describing. Does anyone get that pulled pork thing right in Texas that you’ve encountered?

Well, you know, of the places that I’ve gone that really just sort of pull chunks off of it – where you get more of a chunk rather than shredding it up – you know, one of those is the Bodacious Bar-B-Q in Hallsville. So there are many Bodacious Bar-BQs, they all do things a little differently.

Hallsville – Piney Woods of East Texas.

That is right.

A lot of those folks in East Texas know about that kind of Southeast pulled pork barbecue, I think. 

Well, yes, they do.

But I think still most of them – and talking with Gabriel Ritter, who runs that place – he said that still most people who come in there, they just want a pulled pork sandwich, right? They want it shredded. He even sent me a negative comment that he recently got from someone who was complaining that they got a big chunk of pork that looked burnt because it still had all that bark on it.

That’s what you’re looking for, right?

Yeah. That’s the bite that lets you know that this was from an animal and not from, like, I don’t know, some shredded tofu.

Well, why is the state of pulled pork in Texas what it is?

Because it’s cheap and you got to have it on your menu.

The price of brisket these days and beef ribs and even pork ribs, when you compare that to the value of pork butt – how cheaply you can get it, how easily it can be cooked – it’s hard to take it off the menu. Knowing that if people are going to order it and if they’re going to be, I guess, happy enough with the snowball of pork, then it’s hard to take it off the menu and you’re going to actually get something that’s profitable.

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