Central Texas is the barbecue capital of the world. This shouldn’t be controversial, but in the barbecue world, them’s fightin’ words. Texas barbecue is not like the stuff you find in Kansas or the Carolinas — it’s all about meat and smoke and that’s it. Those sticky ribs from the chain barbeque place? Not Texan. We do serve sauce on the side, but it’s an accompaniment, not a crutch for dry meat.
We have other food controversies here, like our firm belief that chili should never, under any circumstances, contain beans, but barbecue is a sort of religion. We pride ourselves on the simplicity of salt, pepper, fire, and meat, but it is far from simple.
I’ve taken a break from the writers on Masterclass and started watching Aaron Franklin talk about smoking meat. Franklin has a world famous restaurant in Austin, Texas, where I have waited in line for hours but never sampled his food. The building is nothing special on the outside, with a rustic looking deck and painted wood siding, but you’ll know you’re in the right place by the line of people waiting in lawn chairs stretching around the building and down the street.
Once, for my husband’s birthday, I got up early and arrived to wait in line at about seven-thirty in the morning for meat that wouldn’t be ready until lunch. Closer to serving time, staff members came out and asked us what we’d like to order, starting from the first person in line (Lord knows what time they arrived). The staff was doing meat math, knowing what they had to offer, and how much would be left by the time they were able to serve me. The person ten people ahead of me in line was told he was the cutoff, and no one behind him would be able to get any food. I abandoned my post after another hopeful thirty minutes, where I prayed everyone between The Cutoff and me would bail and there would be one slice of brisket left to take home, but alas, I left empty-handed.
The thing about barbecue is once you’re out, you’re out. They’ve got hundreds of raw briskets back there, but each one takes between twelve and sixteen hours to smoke, so you can’t just whip up another one when demand is high. That’s one of the things that makes it so desirable — it’s somewhat scarce. The good stuff is scarce, at least.
We act like we’re all about simplicity, but Aaron Franklin’s chapter on trimming brisket is thirty-four minutes long. Just trimming. And he talks about fire like it’s got personality and quirks, rather than dry logs and sparks. Beef is king in Texas, but he also smokes pork shoulder and ribs, about which he is nearly as obsessive.
So many of the professionals I’ve watched on Masterclass have this in common — they are meticulous. Franklin said the first brisket he smoked was awful, but every time after that he took notes about temperatures and cook time and the quality of the smoke he was getting from each piece of wood he split himself, and now he makes the best brisket in the world. He says he can pick up a piece of wood and know how fast it will catch, how long it will burn, what the smoke will look and taste like, and how it will affect the temperature in the smoker. This is not your dad’s backyard barbeque hobby.
The writers on Masterclass talk a lot about rejection. It happens to everyone, and you just need to keep trying. Keep editing, or keep producing new manuscripts until you get good enough to catch someone’s attention. I’ve watched several classes from writers whose work I dislike, and more I’ve never read before at all, and they have very similar outlooks, but different ways of arriving at their careers. Most did something else first, and in many cases it informed their writing, like David Baldacci who was a lawyer first and now writes legal thrillers, and James Patterson who started in advertising and took some creative control over his cover art, making it grabby and flashy so you pick up his work in the airport book shop.
The thing I like about Baldacci, having read zero of his books, is that he sold his first successful book for a huge amount of money and kept working as a lawyer for another year just in case it was all a big mistake and he’d never sell another book. It wasn’t the first thing he wrote, though. He wrote screenplays that were rejected and he just kept plugging along, which is pretty admirable when you’re also working at a law firm and have a family at home. I like that he was humble about his success and realized how fragile it was, hanging on to his day job in case it was all just a dream.
Judy Blume was very compelling as a stay at home mom who started writing in her limited free time and I identified with her story, but I have no interest in writing books for children. Everything I do in my real life is for children, and I genuinely dislike all their TV shows (except Kipo on Netflix), KidzBop music, and nonsense books, so I prefer to write for adults. But the themes remain — rejection is a part of being a writer and you just need to keep trying. Sometimes it breaks your heart, like when she tried to write something a little different and her longtime publishers rejected it, but it’s a part of life.
Neil Gaiman says you’ve got a million bad stories in your pen that you have to get out before you write something good, and I think that’s probably true. Aaron Franklin had a hundred bad briskets in his smoker before he opened a restaurant. Thomas Keller has three chapters on the perfect sous vide method, which is somewhere between fast and hot and slow and warm. How many portions of short rib did he wreck before he got that right?
It’s tempting, especially when it comes to people in creative fields, to assume these folks were just born with their talent. That may be true to a certain extent, and you assume Christina Aguilera came out of the womb with good pitch, but what they really have is the drive to get something exactly right, and meticulous attention to detail. I think a lot of people would devote themselves to the pursuit of perfection if they had the opportunity, but make that kind of time is challenging.
Some of these goals are a major financial investment, like ruining hundreds of pounds of brisket before you get it right, and most people can’t put all their money into a beefy gamble like that. The thing that sets the professionals on Masterclass apart is relentless focus. They all found a way to make it work, trying over and over again until they found success. If you assume the greats in any field were born with their gifts, it can be tempting to give up after your first failure, which stands as proof that you were not born with natural knife skills or an educated palate. Massimo Bottura says you can educate even the dullest palate over time, and it was a huge relief to hear Salman Rushdie say he wrote the beginning of one of his books three different times before it worked for the story.
There are always people who say they sat down and wrote the novel of the year from start to finish in one go, or songwriters who wrote chart-toppers in five minutes on the back of a napkin, but it’s hugely comforting to know that most people who are successful have had to work with their God-given gifts to get published or be awarded Michelin stars. It’s not necessarily the gift of cooking meat to the perfect doneness that you’re born with, it’s the obsession with perfection that delivers your gifts to the world.