There are rare moments in life that make you stop. When the texts, twitter feeds and emails fall silent, and you experience a moment of pure clarity.
It is in these moments that everything falls into place, and the world, just for that second, makes perfect sense. For some, these moments come at an altar, atop a mountain, in a delivery room. For me, it was in front of a sheet of butcher’s paper and three pounds of brisket at Franklin.
To someone who once thought mesquite was French for mosquito, the Texan brisket is a smoke-veiled enigma.
To anyone living outside Texas, my borderline-religious epiphany may seem an exaggeration. Here in Austin, nestled in the heart of Texas Hill Country, barbeque reaches sacred status. As an Australian and recent Austin transplant, I was baffled by the hallowed place barbeque holds in Texan hearts. At the mention of brisket, I’ve seen eyes mist over and lips quiver. I’ve listened, bemused, to heated arguments over Austin’s best barbeque. Sauce or no sauce? Lean or fatty brisket? Pork ribs or beef? Dry rub or wet? For an Australian whose idea of barbeque was grilled hot dogs and pasta salad, it was another language.
To someone who once thought mesquite was French for mosquito, the Texan brisket is a smoke-veiled enigma. The fastidious, ritualistic method of preparing the cut is informed by rich family histories, each recipe producing subtly varied results. Each also claims they’re the best. Judging by the line at 9 on a Wednesday morning, Franklin’s recipe seems to be standing the test of time.
No matter how good the food was, the idea of a three-hour wait in 100-degree heat left me puzzled; who has time to wait in line for 3 hours? Still, Franklin seemed to be a necessary pilgrimage, and I braved the line with my friends Grace, Nick and Lara – other Australian-Austin transplants. For a city nestled in the heart of Texas, Austin seems to have more Australians than Australia, so here we were: wandering pilgrims in search of enlightenment.
The day was off to a promising start: the line seemed manageable, we’d secured ourselves a spot in the shade, we had snacks. Three hours later, our spirits were wavering. Seeing those ahead triumphantly brandishing heaped plates of brisket, sausages and ribs gave us a much-needed energy boost, yet we were still unconvinced the wait would be worth it. “What’s going on with that bread?” Lara asked, unconvinced. “It just looks like cheap sliced Costco bread. Did we wait three hours just to get sliced bread?” Trying to allay her fears, I assured her that I vaguely recalled reading somewhere that the better the barbeque, the cheaper the bread. Still, I, too, was beginning to have my doubts as we shuffled inside.
Any reservations I may have had were forgotten as soon as the door opened and the rich smell of smoking meats wafted over us. The subtly complex yet robust aromas of slowly smoking pork ribs, turkey breast, spiced sausage and steaming, fatty brisket intermingled, creating the olfactory equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster: a hybrid combination of animals and smells that deliciously defied all laws of nature. So wrong, yet so right.
We were inside, but not yet there; the line promised to take its time, and these sweet smells teased us as the minutes ticked by. After three and a half hours, my companion’s polite conversation had eventually devolved into an increasingly ridiculous game of ‘would you rather,’ so I passed on my turn (what would you rather have: fingers for legs, or legs for fingers?) to reflect on the barbeque religion.
To me, it seems that barbeque isn’t just a way of preparing meat, but a symbol of Texan pride. The best cuts of Texas-grown cattle, smoked with Texas-grown trees in huge pits… it all harks back to the frontier days when sitting around a fire roasting your own meat was the reward after long day’s work. The notion of smoking huge slabs of meat also stirs something primal in us all: I watched the other customers hunched over the piles of meat on their plates, eyeing off the hungry stares of those still in line. It was a look of ownership, an ancient warning: don’t touch my meat. The prehistoric instincts were awakened in us all, brought out by the smell of smoking meats. It was symbolic of victory, the most basic achievement: killing for survival.
Four hours later, like tired pilgrims stumbling through the desert, so too did we finally stumble up to the BBQ altar: Franklin’s cutting block. We watched, mystified, as the brisket jiggled on the board, animated with a life of its own. “It’s like jelly!” Lara exclaimed. The meat quivered and glistened in anticipation, and we all fell silent as the first soft slices fell away under the knife. The knife glided through the buttery meat without effort, the brisket already falling away under the practiced hands of a pitmaster. It’s a reverential moment, and our group stared silently, giving it the respect it deserved. It’s beautifully artisanal, watching your brisket get individually sliced to order in front of your own eyes by one person. There’s no huge chain of workers here. Just one guy who loves what he does, slicing the meat just how you like it. Slice, jiggle, squish, slap, flip, slice — it’s a sequence I could watch on an infinite loop.
We watched, mystified, as the brisket jiggled on the board, animated with a life of its own. “It’s like jelly!”
Finally seated, we clustered around the glistening pile of meat with shining eyes. The sight of the brisket looked so soft, I couldn’t help but reach in and pull it apart with my fingers. Feeling that tender meat collapse in my hands was every bit as satisfying as it looked. Yet no matter how good it looked, it didn’t compare to how it tasted. They say good things come to those who wait. Unknown to me, I’d been waiting 21 years for this moment; in the end, a few more hours didn’t hurt. As the first slice melted away on my tongue, the four-hour wait was instantly forgotten – classes were skipped, appointments re-scheduled, shifts missed. The meat was rich and soft as butter, deeply smoky and juicier than anything I’d had before. It was with chagrin that I realized all barbeque I’d have in the future was probably ruined for me forever. It may be good, but would it ever be this good? Any previous reservations about the white bread were forgotten: we used ours as napkins to wipe away the meat sweats during our meal. “Bread: nature’s sponge!” we exclaimed. I don’t think that’s the traditionally intended use, but faux pas and being foreign go hand in hand, so we decided it was fine.
“Holy flaming hell that’s good!” Grace exclaimed with probably the most Australian response anyone could have given. (People who meet Australians abroad often say we act like parodies of ourselves – the truth is, sometimes stereotypes aren’t far off the mark. In times of stress, or joy, or extreme emotion, even the worldliest Australians will let their colors shine.) Grace stared solemnly at her plate: “If this brisket went to jail, I’d wait for it,” she declared. I was inclined to agree.
20 minutes later, we were a defeated still life, listlessly staring at our crumpled, greasy plates in silence, contemplating what we’d just done. We sat like this for a long time, until basic social expectations dictated we couldn’t sleep under the tables and so, had to leave. We waddled home, food comas setting in fast. On the way, I saw a man biking down Guadalupe wearing nothing but a black g-string and a smile.
I wasn’t sure if the barbeque was speaking to me, or if my food-drunk mind was seeing things, but then I remembered I was in Austin, not Australia, and it all made perfect sense.
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– Written by Angela Castles