As you read this, Texas Monthly’s editor, Jake Silverstein, is moving the last few items out of his office. He has traded his view of the Texas Capital building for that of a Duane Reade and is moving to the New York Times Magazine. We’ll miss that guy.
And I personally owe him a great deal. As he departs Texas Monthly, nearly every article about his tenure at the helm of the National Magazine of Texas mentions what the media considers to be a pretty noteworthy bit: the man read the sweet tea leaves, knew the voracious appetite his readers had for smoked meats, and hired a Barbecue Editor.
Such focus on the importance of one culinary genre is rare at any magazine, and journalists around the country have surmised that he might be eyeing a bagel or pastrami editor in the Big Apple. Some even thought I might be interested in going along to cover the burgeoning barbecue scene in New York, but alas the best barbecue (and therefore job security) is here in Texas (although I have offered up a guest column on New York pastrami).
Barbecue’s importance has seen a resurgence in both Texas, and in Texas Monthly thanks to Jake. Which isn’t to give the short shrift to the editors of Texas Monthly who came before him. They most certainly took our state’s finest cuisine very, very, seriously. The third issue ever printed – April 1973 – under the watchful eye of founding editor Bill Broyles featured barbecue (and beans) on the cover. Griffin Smith Jr. compiled an extensive list of pits worth venturing out for. There were twenty in all (eight of which are still in business), and Lockhart and Taylor were considered the best destinations for barbecue in Texas. At least some things haven’t changed much in the last forty years, but only one from that original team of barbecue tasters is still with the magazine.
And that man is Paul Burka. As he wrote in that inaugural barbecue story for the magazine, on October 8, 1966 a couple friends gathered for their first taste of Kreuz Market barbecue. “It was a cold weekend. The first norther had blown in. Everyone was standing around the fire warming their hands,” remembers Paul Burka referring to the fire that fuels the pit at the old Kreuz Market [currently Smitty’s]. He had been led there by his friend Griffin Smith Jr. who had read about Lockhart in the Houston Chronicle. They were hooked after only a few bites, and it led them to join forces on more barbecue road trips. Their collective research is what spawned that first barbecue cover back in 1973.
“Broyles would have had the idea to put it on the cover,” Griffin Smith told me over a phone call. But it wasn’t nearly as calculated an assignment as the barbecue packages we produce are now. The way Griffin tells it, the story was about filling pages. Broyles told him “think of something to write about,” and he already had a good deal of barbecue research under his belt. And there ya have it. The first big TM barbecue story was born.
Joe Nick Patoski and Pat Sharpe were the driving force behind the next big barbecue splash in the magazine. In 1997 Texas Monthly produced its first Top 50 BBQ list, but the editor at the time, Greg Curtis, wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea. “He tolerated it,” remembered Patoski. Griffin Smith agreed. “Greg wasn’t really interested in barbecue at all.” Patoski credits Pat Sharpe with finally getting approval for that first Top 50 list. “Once Pat got on board, it could happen.” Sharpe also recalls the bias. “Barbecue was just part of the Texas landscape. It wasn’t cache.”
Once they got the green light, the team hit the road. “That first year, I think I might have racked about seven thousand miles on rent car odometers…doing seven or eight meals a day,” remembers Patoski fondly. Through the insights he gained on the road came the title article “Smokin’” where Patoski shared barbecue principles and observations that are still relevant today. After all the research, and after a 24-year hiatus, barbecue was back on the cover.
Barbecue joints visited in the search for the Top 50:
In 1997, the staff visited 245 places.
In 2003, that increased to 360.
In 2008, a slight downturn to 341.
In 2013, the numbered increased to 658.
In the interim, barbecue was not ignored completely. Burka exclaimed the finest sight in all of Texas to be the briskets at Louie Mueller Barbecue (1981), Alison Cook covered barbecue extensively in her Texas Food Manifesto (1983), and Joe Nick Patoski covered the Mikeska barbecue family (1986). All of these thoughtful pieces were a big improvement over the first mention of barbecue in Texas Monthly. A weekend road trip guide in the first ever issue directed readers to Kreuz Market. “The smell of burning cedar logs and beef cooking will immediately tell you you’re near the real stuff.” Cedar?
The success of the ’97 issue became the blueprint for the Top 50 list, which has been updated in 2003, 2008, and 2013. Barbecue culture has been continuously catalogued too, very memorably in 2012, when Katy Vine wrote a cover story (“Of Meat and Men”) about the rise of Austin pitmasters Aaron Franklin and John Mueller. The barbecue issues even survived the tenure of vegetarian editor, Evan Smith, who may not have participated in research, but enthusiastically championed his team of eating editors. One of Jake’s first issues, during the time that Evan was passing the baton to his successor, was the 2008 Top 50 list.
“I caught the bug,” is how Silverstein describes the feeling after a trek to Lockhart with Texas Monthly’s Mike Hall. They ate at Black’s, Chisholm Trail, Kreuz Market, and Smitty’s in a single day. “Opie’s [in Spicewood] was my first love, but that trip was a revelation.” Silverstein edited the 2008 Top 50 list, then Vine’s “Of Meat and Men” story in 2012. Between the positive impact of those issues and the overwhelming response to the Texas Monthly Barbecue Festival, Silverstein knew the profile of barbecue in Texas was on a steep rise. That’s when he hired me as the Barbecue Editor, and our names will now be irrevocably linked on the annals of magazine journalism.
Such has been the arc of Texas barbecue in Texas Monthly. It’s been a part of the magazine since the beginning, but sat as an afterthought until 1997. The Top 50 BBQ list that has become part of the magazine’s identity was born despite a reluctant editor, survived during the reign of a vegetarian, and finally found its champion in Jake Silverstein. We’re gonna miss him, but he’ll miss Texas barbecue more.
Links to all of the stories referenced:
1973, February: Pack Up, Weekend Wanderers
1981, September: Come and Get it
1983, December: The Texas Food Manifesto
1986, October: The Barbecue Brothers
1997, May: The Pit Parade (Top 50)
2003, May: Pit Stops (Top 50)
2008, June: BBQ 08 (Top 50)
2012, February: Of Meat and Men
2013, June: The Fifty Best Barbecue Joints in the World! (Top 50)