Pros: Great writing and an in-depth study of the state of Texas Barbecue
Cons: not a book for the casual barbecue observer who will quickly bore of it's repetitive style and lack of recipes
First off, if you are looking for a barbecue cookbook, you can stop reading now. Head back to the search page and try again, because you will not find any real recipes here. "The Prophets of Smoked Meat" by Daniel Vaughn may not be a cookbook, but it is an excellent travelogue outlining his adventures, over the course of a year, exploring the barbecue joints of Texas. This may not be the "definitive" guide to barbecue in Texas but Mr. Vaughn and his various traveling companions did their best, racking up 35 days on the road, 10,343 miles driven, and 186 barbecue joints visited. For those of you not good at math that means they averaged eating at 5 places each day on the road, a major feat in and of itself as far as I'm concerned.
I have to admit, this book was a bit of a roller coaster ride for me. I started out liking the book, then about 30 pages in I got bored and was even trying to figure out how to write a review with only having read about 10% of the book, but I stuck with it and by about page 60 or so I found myself drawn back in and ended up really enjoying it. After a brief introductory chapter where Mr. Vaughn explains that he is not a native Texan and justifies what makes him qualified to write a book that explores the deep tradition of Texas barbecue, he gets into the heart of the book, exploring Texas for the best barbecue it has to offer. Twenty pages into this heart I was about ready to give up. Don't get me wrong, Daniel Vaughn is an excellent writer, but the book quickly becomes rather repetitive. They stop at a joint, they order-usually the same three meats, brisket, ribs and sausage-judge the barbecue good or bad and move on to the next joint and repeat. At first I quickly grew tried of this repetition, but after sticking it out for another 20-30 pages, I found myself drawn into the journey, often hoping that the next joint would be the diamond in the rough that Vaughn and his companions were looking for.
As I stated earlier, Mr. Vaughn is an excellent writer and his descriptions of the various parts of Texas he visited and the joints he frequented go a long way in keeping a reader engaged throughout this repetitive formula. And of course, there is just enough variety, in both the barbecue-the various styles and different meats offered-and in the various sides served along side it to keep a reader interested. In fact, I found myself hoping as much for the discovery of great banana pudding as I was hoping for a great new barbecue discovery.
Some may complain that Vaughn is too harsh in his judgment of the barbecue he comes across, and it's true, a lot of it doesn't meet his expectations, but he also often tries to find the positive in a place although there are a number of places that he dismisses outright. But I would expect that when you are on a quest to find the best barbecue in the state, especially a state like Texas where barbecue can be almost a religion to many people. He laments, and I tend to agree with him, that barbecue is losing its regional focus and is often now catering to the lowest common denominator of "fall-off-the-bone" ribs slathered in overly sweet, overly flavorful sauce that hides poorly smoked meats. He has high standards and he calls it like he sees it, and I appreciate that.
In the final short chapter, Daniel profiles some of his favorite pitmasters. It is here that he comes closest to offering up any type of recipes. Each pitmaster shares a recipe, more a guideline, for one of their favorite dishes. These "recipes" are short on details, some even completely omitting ingredients, and are really only intended as guidelines, to be read by those already quite familiar with the process of barbecuing.
While I came to really enjoy this book, by its nature and scope it can't linger too long on any one joint or pitmaster. Some places got more page time than others, but there were plenty of times that I wanted to find out more about the people running the places Vaughn visited. But, I understand that to have done that would have left the readers with a book not of 372 pages but one 3-4 times that size.
This book isn't for everyone. It certainly isn't for the novice barbecue enthusiast looking for recipes to teach them how to smoke meats. It isn't for the casual barbecue fan who will quickly bore of the repetitive nature of the book. But for us hardcore fans and enthusiasts this book offers up a great journey through the heart of Texas barbecue and offers up some great lessons about the craft we choose to immerse ourselves in.