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Aaron Franklin's 'Franklin Barbecue' Is a Master Class in Perfectionist Technique

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Seven and a half pages. That's how long the recipe for brisket runs in Franklin Barbecue, Aaron Franklin's cookbook published by Ten Speed, out this week. It's twelve pages if you include instructional pictures, fourteen if you count the luscious shots of the finished product that bracket the recipe, all tender meat and glistening fat, sparks of sunlight throwing themselves off the brick-black bark like fireworks, like waves on the ocean, like stars in the night sky. And that's not counting the six pages, in a later chapter, that tell you how to slice and serve the brisket once it's cooked.

As brisket recipes go, Franklin's is rigorous, conversational, even empowering — the length is daunting, sure, but it's intimidating only in the meticulousness of its detail. It's obvious even to a non-cook that if you follow this recipe to the letter, you'll end up with a dazzling piece of beef.

Aaron Franklin, proprietor of Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, is the king of barbecue. The meat that comes out of his smokers is generally understood to be, undisputedly, the best there is. Given that, it's no surprise that his brisket recipe is lengthy. But it's also, at its core, pretty much the same as every other smoked brisket recipe out there: trim the brisket, put on the slather and the rub, put it in the smoker, leave it alone for a while, wrap it up and put it back in the smoker, leave it alone for a while longer, take it out.

But no, sorry, wait — I've made a mistake. Franklin's brisket recipe isn't seven and a half pages long, it's not fourteen or even twenty. It's two hundred and thirteen pages. That's the whole book, intro to index, which to be fair includes a few things that are very much not recipes for Texas-style smoked brisket (like, for example, a recipe for Texas-style smoked beef ribs). But still, somehow, all of that is brisket. The entire book, in its heart, is brisket.

I was expecting to have to say that to understand Franklin Barbecue, you first need to understand Texas barbecue. But you don't, actually — not least because this book, more than most other scholarly or writerly explorations of the cuisine, explains both the history and concept of barbecue with grace and economy.

Franklin Barbecue, more than most other explorations of the cuisine, explains both the history and concept of barbecue with grace and economy

Central Texas-style barbecue (usually beef, sometimes pork, always smoked) evolved as a spandrel of the region's late nineteenth-century Czech- and German-style meat markets, where whole cows were broken down and sold. The least desirable cuts — briskets and ribs, mostly, tough and lean — tended not to sell, so the markets set up side businesses smoking them over hard wood for hours, and selling the meltingly tender end product by the pound, wrapped up in butcher paper, to eat right there. Much of the barbecue belt that circles Austin is made up of joints that are direct descendants of these meat markets, with spinoffs and offshoots mapping a convoluted tree of family spats and skirmishes. In barbecue, lineage matters.

Or does it? Aaron Franklin came a little bit out of nowhere in 2009, opening Franklin Barbecue with his wife, Stacy, after just a couple of years of backyard brisket cooks and a stint working for barbecue royalty at John Mueller Meat Co. (Though Franklin is quick to note that his time cutting onions and running the register wasn't anything remotely approaching an apprenticeship). Within two years he had Bon Appétit declaring his barbecue the best in the country; not long after that came an arguably harder-won victory: Texas Monthly handed him the crown for best in Texas.

Franklin wasn't born into barbecue, but he's obsessive about his smokers, religious about his fire, uncompromising about the quality of the meat he sources. It probably doesn't hurt that he's young, smart, good-looking, and has that combo of geek-cool glasses and a hair-trigger grin that makes you want to stand around with him cracking cold Lone Stars and kicking dirt. A cookbook deal was inevitable.

Franklin's rise to national prominence was synchronous with the rise of Central Texas barbecue itself. America is having a brisket moment: restaurants are springing up thousands of miles away from Texas where diners can pay by the pound for long-smoked meat served on a butcher paper-lined plastic tray, Shiner Bock longnecks on special. Franklin and barbecue grew in fame together, reinforced one another. You couldn't tell a story about barbecue without mentioning Franklin. You couldn't tell a story about Franklin without getting everyone really interested in trying barbecue.

Two things are essential to the Aaron Franklin/Texas barbecue symbiotic pop culture explosion. The first of these is the internet, which — as has been extensively chronicled elsewhere — has had a fairly sizable impact on pretty much everything. Meaningfully for the purposes of Texas barbecue (not to mention Nashville hot chicken, Cincinnati chili, etc.), it's enabled foods that had once been intimate and regional — foods that required you to come to them, that had unique roots in the history and geography and demography of a place — to suddenly be, if not directly experienced, then at least known about by anyone, anywhere. Which is to say: everyone, everywhere.

Franklin may have been anointed the king of barbecue in printed ink, but the true legend of his mastery was written in pixels. Blog posts and Instagram shots were published and shared and re-shared, reaching millions of people who might never make it down to Austin, might never get out of bed at sunrise to stand in line for five hours, might never bite into a smoke-kissed beef rib so tender the meat seemed to airily float off the bone. Thanks to the internet, millions of people knew what Central Texas barbecue was. They knew Aaron Franklin existed. They knew he made barbecue. And they knew his was unequivocally the best.

This is the second thing: Superlativity. It's rare, someone actually being the best at something, especially in the food world. Food is sensory and subjective. Some cooks are certainly more skilled than others, some are more creative, some are better self-promoters, some are better media flirts. But it's not apples to apples: one man's salmon tartare cornet is another man's pork belly bun is another man's black truffle explosion. "Best" is too limiting. It's too linear.

Thanks to the internet, millions of people knew what Central Texas barbecue was. They knew Aaron Franklin existed. They knew his barbecue was the best

But barbecue is different. "We pitmasters are more thermal engineers than we are cooks," writes Franklin, and that's where the truth of barbecue lies. Yes, Aaron Franklin buys a higher grade of meat than most of his competitors, but if that was all it took, the race would be even again in no time. And everyone's brisket recipes — six pages, twenty pages, a single hasty paragraph — are all pretty much the same. When everyone in your milieu is making the same cut of meat using the same method, when the playing field is, in a way that it is almost nowhere else, utterly level, and it all comes down to who has the most nuanced godlike command of the heat and the flames and the smoke — that's when "best" starts to means something.

These truly level playing fields show up occasionally in food, categories where the idea of an absolute best is readily swallowed. Aaron Franklin with barbecue. Jiro Ono with sushi. Antonio Starita with pizza. They make the same things that plenty of other people make extraordinarily well — a flawless rectangle of o-toro on a warm quenelle of seasoned rice, a springy pie topped with tomato, fior de latte, and basil — but somehow their technical skill is different, more instinctual, more precise. Somehow, in their hands, it's just better.

"Sushi and barbecue are more similar than they seem at first blush," Daniel Vaughn said to me recently. Vaughn is the barbecue critic for Texas Monthly, one of the anointers of Franklin's superlativity and a blurber of his book. A few weeks before, while waiting in line together at La Barbecue in Austin, it had come up that we'd separately been mulling over variations on this notion. "Both use very few ingredients," Vaughn elaborated. "Seasonings are minimal so creating flavor isn't an additive process of adding more stuff. Technique becomes paramount."

Vaughn pointed me to a line from Jiro Dreams of Sushi, the documentary that vaulted Ono to Franklin-esque levels of global fame: "The techniques we use are no big secret," says Ono's son and apprentice, Yoshikazu. "It really comes down to making an effort and repeating the same thing every day." In his cookbook, Franklin makes an almost identical point, saying of his smoker, the key to his technical success: "The trick is to use it over and over, every time taking note of its cooler and hotter zones, the way it cooks in different weather conditions, and always trying to get a sense of the way heat and smoke are flowing through there when the door is closed. The more you work with a smoker, the more you'll understand it."

That kind of repetitive, intuitive communion with your tools isn't the sort of thing that's effectively conveyed in the format of a cookbook. But much in the same way that a barbecue spot isn't exactly a restaurant, and a pitmaster isn't exactly a chef, Franklin Barbecue isn't exactly a cookbook. There are only eleven recipes: the brisket, of course, plus instructions for making pork ribs, beef ribs, a turkey breast, four sauces, beans, potato salad, and a remarkably good cole slaw.

That's okay, though. Much like a book of Ono explaining nigiri, or Starita explaining a margherita pie, Franklin's recipes are meaningless without the man behind them. And so the bulk of his book is devoted to him explaining himself, in the good way: it's a book that unpacks his obsessions, his thought processes, his extraordinary focus on detail and technique. Most of the pages deal with anything but food; instead, they're filled with rough schematics for building your own smoker (Franklin prefers a MIG welder to a stick welder, you get better control), detailed rubrics for sourcing wood, and disquisitions — both philosophical and scientific — on the nature of fire.

And here's where Franklin proves to be the best in another way: he's a thrilling, funny, wickedly smart writer (this is probably the moment to mention that Franklin's co-author is the San Francisco wine and spirits critic Jordan Mackay), who can propel a reader through a lengthy section on the relative merits of chimney heights, even if she might not have access to a smoker in her New York apartment building.

I wondered if this book was going to have a place in my life even if I didn't become a convert to the lifestyle church of barbecue

This is, in fact, the real triumph of Franklin Barbecue. When I was gnawing on the bone of one of Franklin's beef ribs, after my momentary culinary swoon — after I had confirmed for myself that all the hype was, in fact, utterly justified — I wondered if this book was going to have a place in my life even if I didn't become a convert to the lifestyle church of barbecue. Nearly a hundred and fifty pages of extremely detailed essay on all the pre-brisket trappings of barbecue were enough to scare me away from attempting a cook myself. (Franklin gets my anxiety: "It seems somewhat artificial to divide the book into all of these chapters, as I have, since smoking meat is in many ways inseparable from choosing wood and tending a fire. People ask me what the secret to my success with brisket is, and I always tell them the same thing: attention to detail.")

I consoled myself with two of the recipes that don't require a smoker: his excellent cole slaw and a vibrant, just-spicy-enough vinegar barbecue sauce. More than that, though, I consoled myself with the book itself. I read and re-read it in a way most cookbooks don't allow; I was moved by the sheer joy of Franklin's words; his nerdy exuberance over the thermodynamics of heat convection, or the lignin content of wood; his endearing crankiness about pork casings; his deep love for cheap shovels.

Most of all, I was moved by Franklin's abiding belief that barbecue is for everyone. For those like me — people who don't have the space, or the wherewithal, or maybe just don't have the soul for a built-from-scratch smoker, people who face down the cheap, crappy option at Home Depot and wonder if it's worth it to try at all, knowing my best will never be as good as his worst — he knows exactly what to say. "You might not be able to achieve greatness," Franklin writes of that cheap smoker. "But you'll be able to learn, as I did."

Franklin Barbecue

by Aaron Franklin and Jordan Mackay

Ten Speed, April 2015

SKILL LEVEL: Advanced. If you're going to do it the Franklin way, you've got to commit.

WHO THIS BOOK IS FOR: Meat lovers, science fans, people fascinated by fire, barbecue obsessives, Texas exceptionalists.

WHO THIS BOOK IS NOT FOR: Vegans, people who like their cookbooks to have more than 11 recipes.

MORE RECIPES TO TRY: There are only 11 recipes. If you go to the trouble of building a smoker, you should probably try all of them.

BUY IT ON: Amazon, Barnes & Noble

Header photo: Helen Rosner
Interstitial photos: Shutterstock
Franklin Barbecue spreads courtesy of Ten Speed Press


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