Sunday, July 29, 2012


"We start cooking on weekdays between four and four thirty a.m., and Saturday it's about an hour or two earlier." 

- Bobby Mueller, Louie Mueller Barbecue, Taylor, Texas.

The unexplainable allure of an open, roaring fire. It pulls you in and engulfs you, the smoke penetrating every pore be it skin, hair or fabric. The flames sensually licking and caressing the wooden logs and coals, seducing you to come in closer. The fire singing to you, the crackling sounds surprising yet comforting, awakening your primal urges; assaulting all your senses.

Fire, heat, life, cooking, searing meat. Fernandez-Armesto puts it best: “culture began when the raw got cooked” and “the campfire becomes a place of communion when people eat around it” (p.5). There’s something primal and elementary about fire that links us all to our very beginnings as a civilisation.

I link fire to food, specifically meat. My Greekness ensures I'm all over meat, it's an essential part of our diet - for our family anyway. Both my grandfathers and my father were shepherds, amongst other things. Animal rearing runs deep in my history, deep in my blood.

One of my earliest food memory, better yet life lesson, was where meat came from. I saw goats, sheep, pigs and cows being bred, born, grown and well...eventually chopped, cooked and served on our table. We knew what their purpose was: food, livelihood and at their core, survival.

Then there was that summer I spent in South America, specifically in Uruguay and Argentina. This was meat heaven, beef central. The cuts of meat available in just the supermarket alone in Montevideo were unreal. I have vivid memories of beach barbecues, beer and spreads of meat on meat. Buenos Aires took it up a notch with open fire pits taking up the front of restaurants, the hanging sausages and rotating whole carcasses, crispy yet melting, falling off the bone, luring in the customers off the street. Blood sausage, assado, big fat juicy steaks and then some. Sweet baby Jesus, it was tasty.

Wait. It gets better. 

For those non-vegetarians at least. If you're a vegetarian, you should have stopped reading ages ago, in fact you should have never started reading this in the first place (what were you thinking?).

Texas barbecue is where it’s now at. I don’t believe its comparable to any other type of barbecue, it’s a very different beast, in a league of its own and it’s my new obsession which totally trumps any other type of barbecue I’ve tried to date.

I arrived in Austin Texas in May 2012 not expecting anything. I’d only heard a handful of things about the capital of Texas: live music, food trucks and barbecue. Out of my month long trip in the States, Austin was the one place I didn’t research, plan or agonise over. I guess you can say it was the one place I was actually a traveler (not a tourist) where I let the experience guide me. I woke up in the mornings not knowing what the day had in store for me.

As soon as I got in, I dumped my luggage and hit the pavement by foot in the dry, searing 35°C heat. I’d done a quick search on various social media sites for a top notch barbecue joint close to where I was staying in South Austin. JMueller’s Barbecue was only a couple of blocks away and for being open barely six months, had awesome reviews. 

I arrived at the cleared block of land, a car park really, to find a handful of wooden picnic tables and chairs set up with a make-shift fabric shade cloth hanging above them, flapping in the wind whenever an occasional breeze decided to appear. 

Then there were two trailers: the one dishing out the food with the cash register and the other being the massive portable smoker on wheels. 

I reviewed the handwritten daily menu on the piece of butchers paper stuck to the side of the trailer. The sold out cuts were indicated so with a black marker line running through them. I placed my order and snagged a seat: beef short ribs with a side of potato salad and a soda. The barbecue sauce came standard. I unwrapped the butchers paper parcel and felt like it was Christmas. I picked up the beef short rib and examined it…fatty, good fatty with just the right amount of meat. I took a deep whiff…smokey. This was going to taste good. I ripped into it and never looked back. The warm, gooey, salty, smokey fat and meat melding together to make one of the most perfect tasting bite of food I’ve ever had. This was something I’d never tried before in my life and I was quite sure at that moment I never would again.

John Mueller was tending to the fire himself, pit master supreme. He stepped out of the trailer and wiped the sweat from his forehead on the back of his hand. I approach him after I finished my meal, thanked him and asked what his technique is. “Hot and fast” he says, “six to nine hours for the beef brisket, but you know, it could take less, it could take more, you just know when the meat is ready...not to sound like a smart ass, but I cook it for as long as it needs”. He thanks me for stopping by and buying his product. I feel like hugging the man for changing my life, but simply farewell him and walk away, knowing I’d be back again before my time was up in Austin.

Three days later I go past JMueller’s again, this time by car. I have to get me some more of that good stuff. By this stage I’ve viewed multiple YouTube videos about (Texas) barbecue and visited two other legendary central Texas barbecue joints: Franklin Barbecue in the center of Austin and The Salt Lick in Driftwood (approx. 30 miles out from the center of Austin). I’m becoming quite the aficionado.

I still remember the face of that particular customer so vividly, a lady with dark brown curly hair and dark eyes, elbow deep in JMueller’s brisket, shaking her head at me emphatically, indicating he’d sold out for the day. The car carrying me, slowly rolling past her. I had to look at the trailer to see the handwritten “SOLD OUT” sign for confirmation. My heart sunk. Then I felt deep disappointment followed by an unexplainable fury. I was leaving Austin in three days and JMueller wasn’t going to be open again until after I left. I missed my chance and I didn’t know when the next time would be that I’d get another taste of those beef short ribs again…
In the spring 2012 issue of Lucky Peach, David Chang argues the majority of the food industry no longer values neither mastery nor craft. Young guns are graduating culinary school expecting to become chef within two years without truly understanding their work or paying their dues. It’s become about ego, money and homogenisation. Commercial kitchens are becoming totally automated, corporation-ised. Each employee is a cog in a big wheel, never understanding or learning the multidisciplinary skills to see the whole wheel, let alone the cart (the big picture).

Since I got back from Texas I’ve been immersing myself in Texas barbecue lore. In my investigation I’ve discovered some interesting things:
  • Not all barbecue is created equal; and
  • Times are changing. Until the last couple of years, truly great, traditional Texas barbecue seemed to appear only in rural areas. Now there’s two great pit masters operating within miles of each other in the Texas capital of Austin.
There's a breed of dedicated fanatics out there that simply do it for the love, they dedicate their whole lives to the mastery of their craft and (hopefully) pass on their knowledge and expertise from one generation to the next. I found some of these masters in Texas. It was refreshing that in such a highly homogenised country like America, I was able to discover a pocket of authentic and distinct culture steeped in rich history.

This is a blog dedicated to the love of Texas barbecue. It’s an investigation and a tribute to the history, origins and culture surrounding it and the reasons behind its constant evolution.

Rip open that butcher's paper, breathe in the smoke, tuck into your choice of meat and enjoy!