‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’
Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll
Texas Monthly’s latest “50 Best BBQ Joints” issue excludes Vera’s, in Brownsville. Though some carping about particular inclusions or exclusions is inevitable, cutting Vera’s has drawn more pointed questions because of Daniel Vaughn’s participation in the list. Texas Monthly named Vaughn its “Barbecue Editor” a couple of months ago, garnering national media attention. But in his The Prophets of Smoked Meat, released little over a week ago, Daniel Vaughn named Vera’s as one of the five best barbecue joints in Texas. It seems natural that the top 5 picks by Texas Monthly’s Barbecue Editor would be a subset of the top 50 list issued by Texas Monthly. Nonetheless, Texas Monthly omitted Vera’s.
Yesterday, Texas Monthly restaurant reviewer and Executive Editor Patricia Sharpe offered her explanation for excluding Vera’s. As she puts it, “It boils down to this: barbacoa isn’t barbecue, or at least not the type of barbecue we were judging for the magazine.” Sharpe seems unaware that barbacoa is the Spanish word for barbecue, making her statement that “barbacoa isn’t barbecue” a plain contradiction.
She elides this synonymy earlier in the item when she writes, “The sign out front of Vera’s in Brownsville says it all: ‘Barbacoa en Pozo con Leña de Mezquite,’ which roughly translates to ‘barbacoa in a hole with mesquite wood.’” Leaving aside the tone-deaf offering of a “rough translation” from Spanish in a state with a Hispanic population pushing 40%, Sharpe—whether out of ignorance or in deliberate furtherance of her desire to exclude Vera’s—leaves barbacoa untranslated and renders pozo as “hole,” instead of the more contextually appropriate “pit.” Perhaps “pit barbecue with mesquite wood” would sound too much like, you know, barbecue.
Sharpe’s mistranslation of Vera’s sign is even more remarkable, since the sign is bilingual. The English name of the restaurant on the sign, as accurately repeated several times in Vaughn’s book, is Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que.
Perhaps sensing the obtuseness of her “barbacoa is not barbecue” rationale, Sharpe tosses out a couple of other flimsy excuses. The first is simply arbitrary: “The Top 50 BBQ list is mainly about brisket, ribs, and sausage.” There you have it. If you do great barbecue with cabrito, shoulder clod, pork butt, chicken, pork chops, prime rib, or beef cheek—all of which are well-established in Texas barbecue traditions—it’s not enough to make the cut, even if the level of consistency and quality are “worth planning a trip around” (which is the meaning Vaughn attaches to the 5-star rating he awarded Vera’s on Full Custom Gospel BBQ). Barbecue means just what Sharpe chooses it to mean—neither more nor less.
With her second justification, Sharpe digs herself into a deeper pozo when she opines, “At Vera’s….smoke is involved, but mainly because it seeps in. With ordinary barbecue, smoke is the whole point.” That statement showcases a staggering ignorance of barbecue history—a failure to recognize that in older barbecue traditions both outside of Texas (e.g., eastern North Carolina whole hog barbecue) and within (e.g., ranch and community barbecues using covered underground pits), smoke is not the whole point, but is largely beside the point. As one writer on Texas barbecue observed, in connection with a massive underground covered-pit barbecue that has been held in Dalhart annually since 1937, “Some people from the older generations argue that true barbecue should not taste of smoke.” As the ultimate reductio ad absurdum, Sharpe’s cramped and historically uninformed standard for what constitutes “ordinary barbecue” would preclude Walter Jetton from consideration for Texas Monthly’s list.
Unless Daniel Vaughn recently received a sharp blow to the head, it’s unlikely he was behind Vera’s exclusion. In an item cross-posted by Texas Monthly last year, Vaughn wrote that, “It might not be the kind of Texas barbecue that you’re used to, but this sort of smoked meat has been around far longer than the smoked brisket that I love so much. It is Texas’s real native barbecue, and Vera’s is a Texas historical treasure.” In The Prophets of Smoked Meat, Vaughn describes four major styles of Texas barbecue, with one being the “South Texas Style” characterized by whole cow heads and mesquite coals. Yet, despite the published opinions of leading writers on Texas barbecue—Robb Walsh, Lolis Eric Elie, Vaughn, et al.—Patricia Sharpe doesn’t consider this barbecue.
It boils down to this: Texas Monthly has built a rhetorical border fence around “Texas barbecue.” This isn’t a new phenomenon, but is one worth calling out. As Mario Montaño wrote over twenty years ago, “For members of the dominant culture, barbacoa de cabeza serves to identify a particular group of Mexicans residing in the South Texas border region…. It sheds light on the extent to which the acceptance and rejection of food categories are conditioned by race and class relations” (“Barbacoa de Cabeza Among South Texas Mexicans: A Research Note”).
Vera’s Backyard Bar-B-Que doesn’t need plaudits from a glossy magazine based in the whitest major city in Texas. Whether on Sharpe’s list or off it, Mando Vera will quietly do what his father did before him from Vera’s opening nearly 60 years ago. But readers of Texas Monthly would be better served by editors focused on finding—not redefining—great Texas barbecue.
“On my honor, I will try to be very nice and to do what I am supposed to do and try not to get in time out, otherwise the fun will end.”
— “Atún” entry in Larousse Diccionario Enciclopédico de la Gastronomía Mexicana, by Ricardo Muñoz Zurita
Mentaiko, nagaimo, nori
Tempura: pumpkin, gobo, fluke/uni roll
Natto, karashi, ramp soba
Green tea crepe roulade, Azuki