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Texas barbecue has seen a mix of mainstays and changes over the past 50 years

 Smoked brisket at Franklin Barbecue in Austin.
Ilana Panich-Linsman
Smoked brisket at Franklin Barbecue in Austin.

Texas Monthly editor Daniel Vaughn dives into barbecue’s role in the state for the magazine’s 50th anniversary issue.

Texas Monthly is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and there have been a lot of firsts in that time, including the hiring of the first barbecue editor of any national publication in the nation.

In preparing a story on the role of barbecue in Texas, that editor, Daniel Vaughn, discovered the first mention of barbecue in Texas Monthly in its third issue – which tells you something about the significance of this comestible in the story of the Lone Star State.

Vaughn joined the Standard to reflect on how Texas barbecue has changed over the past five decades. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Texas Monthly has covered a lot of ground in 50 years, and I was surprised to read in your latest story that legendary pitmaster Louie Mueller was in that third issue. Tell us a little bit more about that. 

Daniel Vaughn: Yeah, that’s right. You know, we’ve got our top 50 barbecue issue, which everybody knows about these days. But back then, we didn’t call it the top 50, but that was our first roundup of the best barbecue in Texas. And Louie Mueller was in there, and we were talking about the pitmaster Fred Fountaine, who used to run the pits back there in Taylor.

This says something about the dominance of brisket and barbecue more generally speaking here in Texas, seems to me. 

Yeah, it does – and the fact that places like that are still around; we talked about Kreuz Market back then as well. You know, these places were beloved then and 50 years later still are. What I was writing about specifically, though, is that the funny thing was, back then a lot of these places weren’t known so much for their brisket as they were for other beef cuts like shoulder clod, which, you know, thinking about that today is kind of mind-boggling.

Well, how did brisket make its ascent?

Well, you know, it really started with beef being cut down into individual cuts at the processing plants. Before that you’d get beef in half carcasses, and many of these old meat market-style barbecue joints, that’s the way they got their beef. And so whatever wasn’t selling is what ended up on the pit. But once they started getting broken down and could order beef straight from the plant in boxes and in individual cuts, then brisket became really the favorable cut for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is how inexpensive it was and basically how much time it took to get it tender anyway.

I’m surprised to hear how inexpensive it was. And I guess if you’re a pitmaster, you’re going to want to focus on, you know, not just what’s most affordable but what your customers tell you tastes the best. 

Yeah, that’s right. And, you know, at Kreuz Market, really up until relatively recently, the customers preferred shoulder clod to brisket. I actually got a memento from Roy Perez, the pitmaster there at Kreuz Market – he had a calendar where he kept track of every cut that he cooked from day to day so he could reflect back on the following year to see what they had done the year before. And in 1999, which was the first year in their new building there in Lockhart, he was cooking far more shoulder clods than he was briskets. And, just to think back, you know, some 24 years ago, that shoulder clod was that much more popular than brisket.

It is kind of mind-boggling when you think, we’re only talking 50 years here – I mean, that’s another way to look at; it hasn’t been that long. And yet it seems like forever that you’ve had sort of different layers of brisket in the sense that, you know, there’s prime brisket and there’s … I don’t want to call it inferior brisket, but it ain’t prime. 

Well, and the idea that prime brisket had more worth than any other kind is even more recent. You know, I talked to some beef suppliers who said that, really before the 2013 top 50 for Texas Monthly, where we called out Franklin Barbecue’s prime brisket – and at that time they were the No. 1 barbecue joint – they said that the request for prime brisket really shot up. But until then, nobody was really willing to pay any extra for a prime grade of brisket. And these days, you know, our latest top 10 that came out, in our 2021 issue, eight of those places were using prime brisket. So it’s certainly made a change just in a short amount of time.

Can I ask, is this just a marketing thing, or is there really something to prime brisket? And can you taste the difference?

You can taste the difference, yes. But where it’s more apparent is in the lean side of the brisket, where that marbling is really what provides that extra moisture and juiciness. And, you know, with the prime brisket, with the higher grades of brisket, it is more apparent and it is more present in those and therefore does make a juicier brisket, especially on the lean side.

Does shoulder clod still have its fans? 

Shoulder clod does have its fans. But like I said, you know, when Roy was keeping track of it in ’99, they were doing 100 shoulder clods to 15 briskets. And he said on a recent weekend he was doing 70 briskets to 20 shoulder clods. And Kreuz Market is one of the places known for still serving shoulder clod; there’s almost nowhere else to get it outside of Lockhart these days. And so it has really fallen out of favor.

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Casey Cheek