December 10, 2014 / 4:13 PM / 3 years ago

Smoking out Texas is full-time job for first U.S. barbecue critic

Cody Johnson holds "The Trio", a three meat sandwich featuring jalapeno sausage, pulled pork and sliced brisket, at Stillwater Barbeque in Abilene, Texas, December 5, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Stone

BUFFALO GAP, Texas, (Reuters) - In Texas, with its long traditions when it comes to cooking meat, it seemed inevitable that an arbiter of barbecue like Daniel Vaughn would emerge. The question is why did it take so long?

Vaughn is the first full-time barbecue editor at a major publication in the United States. He was named to his post at Texas Monthly in March 2013, taking up a job that has sent him traveling across the state sampling barbecue, with pit stops at the doctor to check his cholesterol.

“I have got to get my greens wherever I can but they always seem to come loaded with sausage slices,” said Vaughn, 36, during a six-stop tour to the Abilene area where the calorie count ran to heart-clogging numbers.

Vaughn only takes a few bites at each stop but the total food up for sampling that day was jaw dropping: six orders of brisket, a half dozen sausages, 10 pork ribs, two orders of smoked chicken, a rib eye steak, a prime rib steak, fried catfish, a bowl of chili, a chopped beef sandwich, more than a dozen side orders and four desserts.

Oh, and green beans with sausage bits.

Barbecue had its origins as a humble food, but these days Texas barbecue joints range from sleek gourmet restaurants in major cities to hole in the wall joints on dust-strewn prairies. One of the most praised, Franklin Barbecue in Austin, is in an unpretentious building serving meat on butcher paper.

At first glance, Vaughn seems an unlikely candidate for what many consider one of the most-coveted jobs in Texas. First of all, he is from Ohio, a state not known for its barbecue. Second, he is a trained architect.

But Vaughn was also one of the premier barbecue bloggers before taking up his current job, and the author of a book called “The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue”. He uses the handle “BBQSnob” for his Twitter feed.

Matt Proctor (R) slices a rack of pork ribs as Cody Johnson (C) prepares side dishes for BBQ critic Daniel Vaughn at Stillwater Barbeque in Abilene, Texas, December 5, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Stone

“Barbecue is such a loaded word in Texas with so many people bringing their own meaning to it. It is so ingrained in the culture and always a subject to argue about,” he said.

Debate rages on whether Texas tradition calls for direct heat with flames or coals, or low and slow cooking with indirect heat and smoke. Questions abound on what cuts of meat are appropriate, if sauce should be banned, and if Texas ethics are violated by using a knife and fork when eating sliced brisket.

Slideshow (12 Images)

Vaughn takes about six whirlwind, regional trips a year, and also finds time out to stop by as many barbecue joints as possible, nearing 1,000 restaurants in his career.

On this trip, he is checking out a new place in Abilene with positive word of mouth called Stillwater Barbeque. Then he heads for one of the most famed steak restaurants in Texas - Perini Ranch in the tiny town of Buffalo Gap, population 463 before the dinner hour and up about 20 percent when the ranch is serving.

“When I saw him walking up, I was a bit nervous. He can make or break a business,” said Matt Proctor, the pit master and owner of Stillwater.

Along with those two main stops, Vaughn tries out three other barbecue joints and a place ranked in the magazine’s top 50, occasionally sampling a takeout plate off the trunk of his car to save time.

At Perini Ranch, awarded an American Classic by the influential James Beard Foundation, Vaughn and owner Tom Perini share thoughts on mesquite, brisket and chuck wagon cooking.

“My definition of barbecue has only expanded. The more that I explore the subject, the more the subject grows,” Vaughn said.

Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Jill Serjeant

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