Silverstein is the editor of Texas Monthly magazine. He started his career as a reporter for the Big Bend Sentinel in Marfa, a small town in far West Texas, joined Texas Monthly as a senior editor in 2006 and was named the magazine’s editor in 2008.
In a decidedly un-Texan rapid-fire patter, Silverstein rhapsodizes about the Lone Star State’s cultural and political history, its traditions, and even “the belligerence we have.”
Note the “we.” Silverstein, you might say, has drunk the Big Red.
This Thursday, Sept. 22, from 6 to 8 p.m., Silverstein will discuss Texas politics and Texas barbecue at Hill Country Barbecue and Market in Penn Quarter. He’s in town to promote the magazine’s recently launched barbecue-finder app (currently available only on the iPhone, but slated for Droid later this fall) and the sold-out second annual Texas Monthly Barbecue Festival on Oct. 30 in Austin, which will feature more than 20 of the state’s best barbecue restaurants.
Silverstein presides over a magazine that chronicles the sweeping changes in Texas. Barbecue is part of those changes. Gas ovens and pulled pork have made inroads into a state where wood-only and beef (especially brisket) have long ruled. Smoke Signals caught up with Silverstein to ask about the state of Texas barbecue. Edited excerpts follow:
Smoke Signals: What can you tell me about the meaning of barbecue to Texas?
Jake Silverstein: In some ways, it means everything. It is such an emblematic food. You have many cuisines, but none have quite the same primal quality of barbecue.
People expect to eat with their hands, to eat on butcher paper, to have this food experience that is not like any other restaurant experience that you would ever have.
That down-home experience makes barbecue very important to Texas.
There are barbecue traditions all over America, especially the South. But it is one more way in which Texas is different. Its barbecue reflects the different historical strands here: the frontier, the South, the Mexican influence.
SS: Gas has come to Texas. Several of the barbecue joints in the latest Texas Monthly Top 50 used gas. Will there be real pitmen left in Texas in 10 years?
JS: When the June 2008 issue came out [the most recent Top 50 ranking], there was a lot of internal debate about whether we were all going to burn in hell, or maybe smoke in hell would be more accurate, for including places that use gas.
We had to give the devil his due, and where there was not a great barbecue tradition, and the food was good, we felt [gas] had to be included.
Since 2008, I’ve seen a lot of places that have opened that don’t use gas. A lot of places are staunch traditionalists. In Dallas, Lockhart Smokehouse uses just wood. Two or three years ago when we did our last round-up, Franklin [Barbecue, in Austin, which uses all-wood pits] was not open. Lockhart Smokehouse was not open.
We have seen a renaissance of traditional smoking.
SS:: You don’t see pulled pork in Texas very often, but it is on the menu at Franklin in Austin, a place widely considered to be traditional. Is Texas barbecue becoming more ecumenical?
JS: We’re growing faster than anywhere in the country and it’s inevitable that other traditions are going to come to Texas. I’d say that if the worst we have to suffer is that people like Aaron Franklin turn out great pulled pork, we’re OK.
SS: Two political candidates are from Texas, Rick Perry and Ron Paul. What can you tell me about their barbecue cred?
JS: Rick Perry served barbecue at his inaugurations and I don’t doubt he would do the same if were to make it to the White House. Ron Paul, I don’t know.
Politics and barbecue makes for a fun issue. I would like to blow the whistle on the atrocious barbecue at the cafeteria at the state Capitol. It’s like pot roast. I shudder to think what people from out of town must think when they taste it.
SS: Did you have a Texas barbecue epiphany?
JS: Yeah. Definitely. Because the barbecue in Marfa is fairly non-existent — the best cuisine out there is the chile verde and the Mexican traditions — my barbecue epiphany didn’t happen till I got to central Texas and specifically Kreuz and Smitty’s [both in Lockart].
People come here [to Austin] to come to Aaron’s [Franklin Barbecue], and I think it’s phenomenal what he has done, but to really get it I think you have to go to one of the institutions and feel the history in the walls and the smoke on the menu board and the big families. And, of course, the food.
Barbecue in Texas is not just food. It is a distilled form of culture.