Photograph by Nicholas McWhirter
Last summer I met Daniel Vaughn, author of The Prophets of Smoked Barbecue (just published on May 14) and Texas Monthly’s new barbecue editor (coolest job title ever). A mutual friend in Dallas, where Vaughn lives, introduced us via email. I already knew about his Full Custom Gospel BBQ, the obsession-fueled blog he’d written on all things Texas barbecue since 2008. Vaughn, who until a couple months ago also held a full-time job as an architect, was coming to Atlanta for a project. Should we get together to power through some of the metro area’s barbecue? Oh, hell yeah.
It was clear from our heaping plates at Decatur’s Community Q BBQ, which we both plowed into with abandon despite it being the first of the evening’s multiple stops, that we were kindred chowhounds. Except, not really. Because, see, I only go on sustained jags where I gorge on barbecue for work: I ate through nearly sixty Georgia joints in 2009 for a cover package and, more recently, hit forty-plus pit stops across three states for this month’s issue. Then, I go cold turkey (sometimes literally, if I eat meat at all), avoiding pork or beef for a few weeks to detox.
For Vaughn, there is no downtime. The man is a fearless, ceaseless juggernaut of barbecue consumption. For Prophets, Vaughn and photographer Nicholas McWhirter spent thirty-five days on the road, covering 10,343 miles, to hit 186 barbecue joints. Of course, not all the smoked meat they encountered deserved praise, and aside from being a literary immersion course in every aspect of Texas barbecue, part of what makes Prophets a compelling read is that Vaughn sets up these places with a sense of discovery. At the mention of every new barbecue joint, the reader is wondering: Will this next place be a breakthrough find? Or is it a flop where the meat is overcooked, undercooked, or (most egregiously) warmed in a microwave?
The book research pulled double-duty: It also served as the basis for the list of the 50 Best BBQ Joints in Texas, on the cover of Texas Monthly’s June issue. (FYI: Texas Monthly and Atlanta magazine are owned by the same company, Emmis Communications.) The intro to the list, produced by TM every five years, goes as far to say that since Texas has no peers when it comes to barbecue, the roll call documents the fifty greatest barbecue restaurants in the world.
Having been back to Austin recently, I do concede that a place like Franklin’s transcends anything we have here in Georgia. But would it be true that every place on the Texas list topples our best barbecue efforts? I can’t cede that point. And when I ask Vaughn—who’s been upholding the list in radio, TV, blog, and print interviews nonstop over the last couple weeks—what his favorites are in Atlanta, he admits, “I think places like Heirloom Market BBQ, Grand Champion BBQ, and Fox Bros. BBQ [where Vaughn had a sold-out dinner celebrating his book last night] would get some consideration for the top 50. They’re not just slinging around brisket because they want menus with lots of different meat options.”
The juggernaut continues. Just yesterday, Vaughn had mentioned that he’d be stopping by Heirloom Market for lunch. But then I check Twitter around 2 p.m. and saw that after Heirloom, Vaughn drove all the way up to Flowery Branch to check out the Texas-style brisket at Moonie’s (which he liked better than the dryish ribs). He never stops. I haven’t seen him yet this trip, but we’re both headed to the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival today. If I can’t find him in the crowd, I’ll just hang out at the barbecue tasting trail in the tents. He’ll show up sooner than later.