Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Primo Snark: Fear & Loathing In South Carolina

Like one of Ivan Pavlov's dogs, salivating at the ring of a bell, this blogger slobbers at the sight of snark. Yesterday's post about snarky buzzwords primed the blogger for Matt Taibbi's over-the-top report on the Dumbo Follies. Taibbi evokes Rolling Stone's Hunter S. Thompson's fear and loathing mantra from the South Carolina battleground. Of course, since South Carolina, the Dumbo circus has moved on to Florida and the smart money is on Romboid to kick Newtron's a$$. This blogger doesn't have a salivating dog in this fight and it matters not to him as to the wiener in the Florida Dumbo primary. If this is (fair & balanced) testiness, so be it.

[x RS]
The Odd Couple: Romney Vs. Gingrich
By Matt Taibbi

Tag Cloud of the following article

created at TagCrowd.com
(Click to embiggen)

They may be shit for choosing a good candidate for the presidency, but say this for the Republican primaries: They're fast turning into the most luridly entertaining political spectacle of our time. In an inherently conservative, bottomlessly moneyed, scrupulously stage-managed electoral system designed to preclude chance or weirdness from playing any part in determining our political future, the unthinkable is happening: real drama. This isn't part of some clever but inscrutable master plan, put on by the hidden hands who run this country, to fool or distract the masses. This is an unscripted fuck-up of heroic dimensions, radiating downward from the highest levels of our society, playing out in real time for all of us to watch. Our oligarchy has thrown a rod.

If you're not a conservative voter with a dog in this fight, watching Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and whoever else is running for the GOP nomination this week try to hold on to front-runner status has been great slapstick, like watching a cruel experiment involving baboons, laughing gas and a forklift. No matter how many times you ring the bell, those poor animals are never going to figure out how to move that pallet of bananas – yet they keep trying, taking the sorry show from one state to the next, over and over, as if something is going to change.

The latest ape to fall off the heavy machinery is Romney, who in a single week before the South Carolina primary went from near-certain nominee to national punch line, in genuine peril of becoming one of America's all-time electoral catastrophes. The overwhelming expectation was that Romney would roll into South Carolina, kneel on the ball a few times, and run out the clock on the party's yearlong display of manic instability. Heading into South Carolina, he'd raised $32 million; none of his competitors appeared to have enough cash to keep the lights on for more than a few more weeks, let alone a whole campaign. This experienced national politician, who had run a superbly organized campaign for president in 2008, a man whose very trademark is inoffensiveness and caution, and who for the year has appeared dedicated to saying nothing in public more controversial than "God bless America," needed to hang on for only 10 or 11 more days after his decisive win in New Hampshire without completely wetting himself on television, and the nomination was his.

But he couldn't do it. Less than a week after New Hampshire, Romney committed a series of gaffes that revealed his crucial character flaw: He's a hypernervous control freak who flips out if you try digging around below the paper-thin veneer of his schlock patriotic presentation. The robotic Mormon financier looks like a walking OCD diagnosis, a trim coil of tightly wound energy with perfect coif and tie, seemingly living in permanent terror of a single hair falling out of place. For this type of anal-retentive personality, the messy chaos of South Carolina was a phobic horror. Faced with actual opposition, he lost his grip on everything. At a time when a quarter of the population has zero or negative net worth, when outrage against the financial elite is at an all-time high on both sides of the political aisle, Romney, it turns out, is so weirdly tone-deaf about his status as a one-percenter and bloodsucking corporate raider that any question in that direction sends his eyes pinwheeling. As his electably boring-mannequin act began to crumble, his carefully concealed true self – a deluded gazillionaire nitwit – was suddenly thrust naked onstage for all of America to gape at.

First he made the mistake, in explaining his income as a private-equity vampire, of insisting that the money he receives each year in speaking fees is "not very much." Romney's idea of "not very much" turns out to be $374,327.62 – a microscopic portion of his total earnings, but still a number that all by itself put him in the one percent. Then, in the crucial debate in Charleston on January 19th, he seemed to go into a mental tailspin. With both the debate and the primary slipping away from him, Romney reached into his bag of clichés for an "I'm not from Washington, I'm an outsider like you" speech. Only he ballsed it up: "If we want people who spent their life and their career, most of their career in Washington," he said, indicating his opponents, "we have three people on the stage who've..."

But as Romney looked to his left, he spotted long-practicing doctor Ron Paul. "Well, I take that back," he fumbled. "We got a doctor down here who spent most of his time in the, in the surgical suite."

The surgical suite? But wait, Paul was an obstetrician! "Well, not surgery," Romney corrected himself. "The birthing suite."

Then, as he looked pleadingly at CNN moderator John King, it was Dan Rather time. Dead fucking air. Romney's candidacy was literally dying in front of his eyes. He realized that he had forgotten King's original question, which was about why he had called Gingrich an "unreliable leader."

"Now, you asked me an entirely different question," he said to King. "What's..."

The crowd laughed as Romney looked around to the other candidates for help. Gingrich, who despite an utter lack of self-control is a cunning old crook with a keen instinct for combat, moved quickly to drive the knife in. "Beats me. I don't know," he said. "Where are we at, John?" The crowd roared.

Romney was never the same after that moment. The next day, in that very building, I watched as the level of panic in his campaign finally boiled over into violence. Throughout the race, Romney has been targeted by protesters from Occupy Wall Street, who have made it their mission to screw up his rope-line photo ops. In New Hampshire just a week before, Romney had tried to do the campaign-cliché thing and kiss a baby – only to have protesters shout at him, repeatedly, "Are you going to fire the baby? Are you going to fire the baby? Are you going to fire the baby?"

Romney typically has not responded to these provocations. But on the day of the Charleston debate, in a small nearby suburb, a protester asked Romney, "What will you do to support the 99 percent, seeing as how you're part of the one percent?"

At that perfectly reasonable question, Romney lost his cool and spun around awkwardly, arms in and head forward, like a bobbing harbor buoy, to face the protester. "Let me tell you something," he fumed. "America is a great nation because we're a united nation. And those who try to divide the nation, as you are trying to do here and as our president is doing, are hurting this country seriously."

The next day, after Romney took that beating in the Charleston debate, there was another rally at the same convention center. As if in response to his plunging poll numbers, Romney amped up the showmanship and the clich´-flogging, driving his tricked-out campaign bus into the building and adding a desperately bizarre patriotic singspiel component to his stump speech. "I love this country. I love this country," he said. "I love its beauty. I love its people. I love the hymns of our nation." And then he started reciting the lyrics to "America the Beautiful."

"'O beautiful, for spacious skies,'" he said. "'For amber waves of grain.'"

It was the Mormon-underwear version of Bill Murray's "Star Wars, Nothing but Star Wars" routine. All politicians engage in public fakery to some degree, but Romney's plastic-man act is so forced and grotesque, it's actually painful to watch. In this case, the crowd – a small contingent of clean-cut Romney volunteers herded into a convention hall halved in size by a curtain – tittered politely as Romney labored through his hymnal and an assortment of lounge-singer throwaways ("This is a great state – what wonderful people"). When the speech mercifully ended, Romney plunged into the crowd – and that's when the trouble began

I was maybe 10 feet away from him when a pair of Occupy protester-tormenters tried to ask him something. Suddenly, the space around the candidate erupted in commotion. A female police officer roared past me, dragging a young female protester named Adrianna Varedi by the neck. It was such an outstanding chokehold that Varedi's face had already turned purple. The cops rushed her to the exit and, in a moment reminiscent of the scene in Casino in which a gambler's head is used to bash open the exit door, Varedi and another protester were roughly tossed outside.

"I was just trying to ask him a question," Varedi said afterward.

Romney suffers from the same problem afflicting the likes of Lloyd Blankfein and Jamie Dimon: He's been living for so long with the delusion that the way he makes his money is fair and honest, he's started to believe not only that he deserves his wealth, but the converse – that the poor deserve to be poor. He's incapable of sympathizing with people who can't pay their bills, because their condition is tied too closely in his mind with the question of how he made his enormous fortune: If you ask Romney to imagine what life is like for someone who's broke, what he hears is you accusing him of making that happen. (In Romneyspeak, you've "attacked capitalism.") In short, he's a narcissist. They're all narcissists, these colossal Wall Street types – they have to be, because the way they make their money makes moral sense only if you're viewing things from the top of the heap. Asking them to step outside that comfort zone, into the world where the rest of us live, is an unthinkable outrage. It's hard to be likable when you can't even temporarily look at things from the bottom up, which is why it was no surprise that Romney flopped among voters in South Carolina who describe themselves as "falling behind" financially; they chose Newt by a margin of almost two to one.

In contrast, even some of the most rabid anti-Republican protesters express a begrudging admiration for Romney's surging foil, Gingrich, who throughout the campaign has demonstrated that he not only doesn't mind yapping with haters and detractors but actually seems to enjoy it. "His security people are pulling him away from us, not the other way around," says Michael Premo, an Occupy protester who riled Romney at a rope line earlier that week.

If Romney is a scripted automaton who could make it through a year's worth of marital coitus without one spontaneous utterance, Gingrich is his exact opposite – taken prisoner in war, Newt would be blabbing state secrets without torture within minutes, and minutes after that would be calling his guards idiots who lack his nuanced grasp of European history, and minutes after that would be lying to two of his captors about an affair he had with the third. In short, Newt versus Romney played out in South Carolina like a classic comic clash of pure psychological archetypes: oral versus anal, chaos versus order, Oscar versus Felix, with Felix throwing a snit and Oscar charging to a wild, messy victory.

As late as five days before the South Carolina primary, Gingrich was still trailing Romney by double digits in the state. His comeback began at the debate in Myrtle Beach, when he had an instantly viral exchange with African-American Fox commentator Juan Williams in which he triumphantly defended the idea that 11-year-olds should get jobs and that black people prefer food stamps to honest employment. The crowd was howling for blood, literally booing Mexico when Williams mentioned that Romney's father had been born there and then, in a moment that one had to see to believe, loudly booing the Golden Rule when Ron Paul sensibly suggested that we "don't do to other nations what we don't want to have them do to us."

You could almost see the light go on in Newt's head. He alone understood that during the primary season, one doesn't worry about how some vacillating Ohio independent might perceive one's rhetoric next fall: One carves up the bloodiest bits of red meat and hurls them at the immediate audience, and one does so with joy and a gleam in the eye. "Andrew Jackson had a pretty clear-cut idea about America's enemies: Kill them," Newt said. The debate, remember, took place in the Carolinas, not far from where Jackson's Trail of Tears genocide began, making Newt's remark almost comically offensive. But hey, the Cherokee vote is not a large one, for obvious reasons. The surviving, non-Indian audience cheered wildly.

At the debate in Charleston a few days later, when Gingrich launched into his lengthy tirade in defense of serial adultery, the crowd once again roared with delight. By then, Newt had settled on his winning formula: batter Romney over his personal finances, then get in Romney's face as often as possible, highlighting his "genuineness" in contrast with Romney's seemingly constitutional inability to give a straight answer about anything. A last-minute campaign event laid bare this dynamic. By a curious accident, both Romney and Gingrich had scheduled 10:45 a.m. campaign stops on primary day at a roadside restaurant called Tommy's Ham House in Greenville. The mix-up led to much speculation about a "Ham House showdown," and by 10 that morning the place was teeming with placard-waving supporters from both campaigns, in addition to what appeared to be all 10 million members of America's political media. But the "showdown" never happened, thanks to a classically reptilian cop-out by Romney: Despite his campaign's insistence that it intended to stick to its schedule, Romney showed up 45 minutes early, darted through the restaurant shaking hands Speedy Gonzales-style, and was back in his campaign bus 20 minutes before Gingrich even arrived.

When Newt finally showed up, his supporters greeted him like a Roman emperor back from a slaughter of the Gauls. As he strode into the Ham House, his supporters mocked Romney by erupting in clucking chicken noises. Newt, I'm quite sure, was never happier than he was at that moment in the driving rain and slop of Greenville on primary day. Looking like a king peacock or the mockumentary version of Joaquin Phoenix, gorgeously obese and enthralled with the wonder of himself, Newt plunged through the Ham House crowd, stood on a beer cooler and crowed, "I have a question. Where's Mitt?"

"He left!" someone in the crowd shouted. "He ran!"

Newt grinned ear to ear. "I thought maybe we'd have a little debate here this morning," he said. "I'm kind of confused!"

The crowd cheered again, and Newt settled down to his usual stump speech, about how he was the only choice to stop moderate Romneyism on the right and Saul Alinsky radicalism on the left. The crowd ate him up; everywhere you looked, you found people insisting they were smitten by the "real" Gingrich, as opposed to Romney, who South Carolinians increasingly believed was a closet liberal only pretending to be a heartless conservative.

"When you're being shaped and handled to sound like something you're not, you're going to sound plastic," said Colette Koester, a financial adviser who came out to the Ham House. "Newt's a real person. He's committed to what he says."

The election-night festivities of the two leading candidates were a predictable study in extremes. Romney's event, at the South Carolina fairgrounds, was a morgue. The floor was half-empty, and the campaign barred some of the press from entering, feeding different excuses to different reporters (I was told I needed to RSVP; others were told there was no room in the hall). In the tomblike expanse of the press filing room, you had to pay three bucks for a drink, and all they had was soda.

Across town, meanwhile, half of South Carolina appeared to be packed into a Hilton ballroom that began to stink noticeably of sweat and booze long before Newt showed up. Bodies were stacked together like sardines, and the crowd slobbered over visiting dignitaries like Mrs. South Carolina, a busty blond hottie who seemed to symbolize the earnest possibilities of open marriage. "It's like free admission to Wrestlemania," chirped one attendee.

When Newt finally arrived, he plunged into a booming victory speech that used the same tired, redbaiting clichés trotted out by every candidate in the race. (Some, in fact, were the same clichés Romney used, the only difference being that Romney described Obama as taking his inspiration from Europe, while Gingrich also pointed the finger at San Francisco.)

Most ludicrously, Gingrich – virtually his whole adult life a confirmed Beltway parasite, as voracious a consumer of lobbyist money as has ever been seen in modern America, a man who in the past decade took more than 1.5 million consulting dollars from Freddie Mac alone – asserted that his victory was a triumph against the Washington insider. "So many people," he said, "feel that the elites in Washington and New York have no understanding, no care, no concern, no reliability, and in fact do not represent them at all."

The crowd roared, and Gingrich, in a thrilling demonstration of sheer balls, moved on to insist that he'd won the race not just because he was a peerlessly brilliant television presence, but because – get this – he represented good values. "It's not that I'm a good debater," he said, "it's that I articulate the deepest-felt values of the American people."

This, of course, was the final irony: that South Carolina – a nest of upright country church folk proud of their exacting morals and broad distrust of buggery, stem cells and Hollywood relativism – had chosen as its values champion Newt Gingrich, a man who has been unfaithful not just to two wives but also two religions (raised Lutheran, he is currently Catholic by way of Southern Baptist). We've all heard the various sordid stories from Newt's past – the divorce papers reportedly thrust in the lap of his hospitalized first wife, the alleged multiple affairs, the unpaid tax liens, the 84 separate allegations of congressional ethics violations, one of which landed him a $300,000 fine. This is a man whose campaign is being fueled almost entirely by gambling money contributed by Sheldon Adelson, a Vegas casino magnate and hardcore Zionist who handed Gingrich two $5 million checks – two of the biggest political contributions in American history. (Newt, in return, has dismissed the Palestinians as an "invented" people, remarks that Adelson reportedly approved.) There is a distinct odor of corrupt indulgence around Gingrich that may not bother sinners like you and me – but sure as hell ought to bother Southern evangelicals, who a decade and a half ago wore us all out wailing about the nearly identical personal failings of one William Jefferson Clinton, another flabby, smooth-talking hedonist who, in the pulpits of America's megachurches, was whispered to be the earthly vessel of Satan himself.

But evangelicals accounted for two-thirds of the South Carolina vote, and Newt cleaned up with them, beating Romney – a man whose genitalia has never even been rumored to be somewhere it shouldn't – by a margin of more than two to one. Even odder was the fact that this hilarious fraud was being perpetrated on behalf of a man who was consigned to the historical footnotes well over a decade ago. After all this time, it ends up being Newt Gingrich? Really? How can a guy who was kicked off the B list in the Nineties be the headline act in 2012? It's like finding out that Eric Roberts has been picked to MC the Oscars. In an era of popular revolts on both the right and left, it is sobering to think that the American power structure is so desperate, so bankrupt of fresh deceptions, that it is now forced to recycle the dregs of the dregs in its attempts to pacify the public.

The two other contenders in the race each had good reasons to be shocked by the sudden emergence of Gingrich as the standard-bearer for Republican values. Former senator Rick Santorum earned a place in American pop culture as the nation's leading pious, finger-wagging bore, the Anita Bryant of his time – he was famous for comparing homosexuality to bestiality, for opposing not only abortion but contraception, for calling it "radical feminism" when a mother worked outside the home. Yet for all his creepiness, Santorum at times has come across as the sanest, most human of the candidates, adopting the exact "Jesus, what a couple of disgusting assholes!" look that any of us would have if forced to stand on a stage next to Romney and Gingrich. Genuinely religious, with a genuinely working-class background, Santorum nonetheless was beaten senseless in the South Carolina polls, receiving fewer than half as many votes from evangelicals as the philandering Gingrich.

Then there was Ron Paul, whose unaccountable predicament was on display in the Ham House madness. As Newt stood in the packed restaurant, gloating over Romney's cowardice, a small contingent of Paul supporters crouched in the rain at a Hardee's parking lot across the street, seething over the latest slight to their candidate's dignity. "The machine would rather have Huey or Dewey or Louie or whatever," sighed Ted Christian, watching the media blitz at the Ham House.

During the past two election cycles, Paul supporters have literally been forced to party-crash other candidates' events in order to get their message out. In this case, Christian and his friend Michael Toppeta decided to blitz the "Ham House showdown" by showing off a pair of spiffy "Ron Paul 2012" campaign vans – one featuring a professional paint-and-stencil job, the other a pleasingly Mystery Machine-esque vehicle done up with $3 worth of finger paint from Michaels.

"It's a fiscally responsible design job," Christian proudly declared.

"I just wanted to show that we can do a professional job like that," Toppeta added, regarding the more high-end van. "That we're not just a bunch of hippies or whatever."

Both actually and metaphorically, the Paul campaign is forever being consigned to the parking lot outside the main event, despite the fact that Paul is the only Republican candidate with consistent, insoluble support across the country. Polls also show that Paul tends to fare much better against Obama than any candidate besides Romney: A recent CNN poll showed him in a dead heat with Obama in a one-on-one contest. Yet everywhere he goes, Paul is hounded by reporters asking him which of the other mannequins he's eventually going to throw his support to. The grown-ups in the party establishment and their lackeys in the press simply refuse to take Paul seriously, which is part of the reason Paul is so extraordinarily attractive to young people (in both Iowa and New Hampshire, he scored almost half of the under-30 vote).

But the Republican Party is not dominated by 22-year-old college students reading The Fountainhead for the first time and finally understanding what it is they've always hated about their ex-hippie parents. No, the party is dominated by middle-aged white suburbanites who hate Mexico, John King and the Golden Rule and are willing to flock to anyone who'll serve up the Fox News culture war in big portions and without shame or hesitation. Romney might have memorized a few I-hate-Obama sound bites, but voters simply don't believe him. Gingrich alone offers GOP voters the emotional payoff they want out of an election – an impassioned fight against the conspiracy, played out in thrillingly contrary three-hour debates on health care with the liberal Satan. Gingrich lives for confrontation: He was born for this sort of insurgent primary politics.

The only problem is, he's a bloviating, egomaniacal hog clinging to a third marriage who suffers from incurable diarrhea of the mouth and, according to polls, is one of the most intensely disliked politicians in America, making him an utterly absurd choice for the general election. If Gingrich ends up winning the nomination, Obama will essentially be running against the political version of Gilbert Gottfried or raw garlic – strong tastes that some like quite a lot, but many more can't stand to even be near. If that happens, every Democratic flack from Leon Panetta to Obama himself will have to wear restraints to keep from publicly crying out in joy.

All of which makes the goofball theater surrounding the GOP primaries seem even crazier. With a weak economy and a vulnerable president in the White House, the Republican Party had a real chance to reseize power, if it could only have grasped the gravity of the situation and put forward a plausible candidate. And a plausible candidate would have been better for everyone, not just Republicans, because the nation will suffer when Obama cruises to victory next fall on a sea of open-marriage jokes, instead of having to face a cogent argument against useless bailouts, endless wars and economic mismanagement.

But the GOP chose to snub any semblance of substance, floating one candidate after another – from Donald Trump and Michele Bachmann to Herman Cain and Rick Perry – who could not hold on to the lead for more than a few hours before tripping and falling into the machinery. It now appears that whoever winds up winning the Republican nomination will be a reform-hating friend of the one percent who will happily gobble whatever hundreds of millions of dollars Wall Street has left over to donate to the GOP, after it's finished lavishing its election-year tribute on Barack Obama. The best we can hope for, it appears, is some truly high-quality reality-show drama. The campaign is a circus like we've never seen before. We may get worse candidates, but at least we're getting a better show. Ω

[As Rolling Stone’s chief political reporter, Matt Taibbi's predecessors include the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and P.J. O'Rourke. Taibbi has written Spanking the Donkey: On the Campaign Trail with the Democrats (2005); Smells Like Dead Elephants: Dispatches from a Rotting Empire (2007); The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics & Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire (2008); and Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History (2010). Taibbi graduated from Bard College in 1991.]

Copyright © 2012 Rolling Stone

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2012 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Monday, January 30, 2012

This Blog Is Written By A Member Of The Bloggerati — Really?

Today, Yoda provides a lesson in snark. This blogger would not have a personality if snark was stripped from his vocabulary. Really!?! If this is (fair & balanced) facile verbosity, so be it.

PS: Today's second post o'the day is a mascara (makeup) post because the blog went dark yesterday when the blogger discovered that the post he had prepared yesterday and was about to send to Blogger contained an article from a blog post back in June 2011. Duh?

[x CHE/Lingua Franca]
Really!?!: The Story Of A Buzzword
By Ben Yagoda

Tag Cloud of the following article

created at TagCrowd.com
(Click to embiggen)

*Mitt Romney’s PAC is airing a commercial in which Newt Gingrich is heard defending his employment by Freddie Mac: “And I offered my advice. And my advice as a historian.” To which both the offscreen narrator and some onscreen text reply: “Historian? Really?”

*In a recent New Yorker profile, "Portlandia" star Carrie Brownstein mocks a Portlander who complains that a grocery store sells fresh pasta from Seattle, rather than something more local. “Really?” Brownstein says. “You don’t have a bigger battle?”

*After the Academy Award nominations were announced last week, the San Francisco Chronicle ran this headline: “’Hugo’? 11 Oscar Nominations? Really?”

Well, you don’t need any more proof that the snarky Really? is as viral as chicken pox in a day-care center. You’ve probably heard it a few times in just the last couple of days—especially if you watch Jon Stewart, who is a major user bordering on abuser. Nor is Really?’s attraction limited to the literati, the glitterati, or any other kind of -ati: It’s the kind of thing you can try out yourself at home. My wife is quite partial to it, and I have been known to partake on occasion myself.

I have the impression that the term—and its cousin, with which it sometimes goes out in tandem, Seriously?—has achieved such awesome penetration only in the last several months, but its march, in any case, began almost precisely five years ago. In January 2007, "Saturday Night Live" broadcast a segment called “Really !?! With Seth and Amy” in which the “weekend update hosts,” Seth Myers and Amy Poehler, examined some idiotic action or statement in the news and, with a tone (as an UrbanDictionary.com definer puts), of “irony, disbelief, and condescension,” ask, “Really?” (Myers continued the feature alone when Poehler left the show, and it still pops up from time to time.)

In the first one, they riffed on the news that quarterback Michael Vick (this was before he got into trouble for dogfighting) had been arrested for marijuana possession.

Amy: And you got caught at the Miami Airport. Really? And you didn’t think they would check for drugs at the Miami Airport. Really?

My extensive research (and by that I mean a Facebook exchange with my friend Toddy Torrance) suggests that Seriously? came on board via the character Meredith Grey on "Grey’s Anatomy." Meredith definitely favors the word, as in this exchange with Derek (“McDreamy”) Shepherd:

MEREDITH: What did I say?
DEREK: Seriously.
MEREDITH: Seriously.
DEREK: Seriously.

Why did this bit of sarcasm catch on so strong, so fast, and so across the board? Language sometimes or maybe usually evolves in an evolutionary manner, and Really? has quite the fit look to it. For one thing, it’s got such a dramatic quality: Even on the page, one senses it being delivered with raised eyebrows and lowered chin. (Interestingly, I imagine the speaker’s voice as being either markedly high or low in pitch.)

It filled a need, too. Before, all we had was Are you kidding me? or You cannot be serious (the McEnroe variation), or the awkward Let me get this straight, or maybe Get outta here. Of course, WTF? (that’s the typed form; the spoken one is unprintable) is quite popular, but it’s more wide-ranging, containing sincere befuddlement in addition to snark. And the final part of the answer is that we are, indeed, living in an age of folly and of snark, which has found its ideal word. Really. Ω

[Ben Yagoda (B.A. Yale, M.A. University of Pennsylvania) is the author of Memoir: A History (2009), About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made (2000), and Will Rogers: A Biography (1993) and the coeditor of The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism (1997). He has contributed articles, essays, and reviews to more than fifty national publications, including Esquire, the New York Times Magazine, and the New York Times Book Review. Yagoda has been a Lingua Franca blogger at the Chronicle since August 2011.) He is a professor of journalism and literary non-fiction in the Department of English at the University of Delaware.]

Copyright © 2012 The Chronicle of Higher Education

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2012 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Newtron Unmasked!!!

Today, Tom Tomorrow reveals the real Newtron — a reptilian alien who eats human brains. If this is a (fair & balanced) sci-fi fantasy, so be it.

[x This Modern World]
State Of The Primary
By Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

(Click to embiggen — H/T to Daily Kos) Ω

Tom Tomorrow/Dan Perkins

[Dan Perkins is an editorial cartoonist better known by the pen name "Tom Tomorrow". His weekly comic strip, "This Modern World," which comments on current events from a strong liberal perspective, appears regularly in approximately 150 papers across the U.S., as well as on Daily Kos. The strip debuted in 1990 in SF Weekly.

Perkins, a long time resident of Brooklyn, New York, currently lives in Connecticut. He received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism in both 1998 and 2002.

When he is not working on projects related to his comic strip, Perkins writes a daily political weblog, also entitled "This Modern World," which he began in December 2001.]

Copyright © 2012 Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2012 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Newtron: A Combination Of Hermann Göring (Physique) & Joseph Goebbels (Oratory)

Today, Eags slices & dices Newtron and the result isn't very appetizing. May the Dumbo loons get what they want: Dumbo presidential nominee Newtron. This fool has more baggage than Louis Vuitton. Actually, Newtron's conversion to the faith was misguided. He's not a Roman Catholic, he's is believer in Big Love, LDS-style. The Dumbo Dream Team would pair Mittens, who sprang from the loins of his polygynist LDS ancestors, and Newtron who has committed his adult life to polyamory. While Newtron may not believe in Sharia law, he certainly lusts after a harem. If this is (fair & balanced) political priapism, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
Deconstructing A Demagogue
By Timothy Egan

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When not holding forth from his favorite table at L’Auberge Chez François, nestled among the manor houses of lobbyist-thick Great Falls, VA, Dr. Newton L. Gingrich likes to lecture people about food stamps and how out-of-touch the elites are with real America.

Gingrich, as he showed in a gasping effort in Thursday night’s debate in Florida, is a demagogue distilled, like a French sauce, to the purest essence of the word’s meaning. He has no shame. He thinks the rules do not apply to him. And he turns questions about his odious personal behavior into mock outrage over the audacity of the questioner.

After inventing, and then perfecting, the modern politics of personal destruction, Gingrich has decided now to bank on the dark fears of the worst element of the Republican base to seize the nomination — using skills refined over four decades.

Deconstructed, Gingrich is a thing to behold. Let’s go have a look, as my friend the travel guide Rick Steves likes to say:

  • The Blueprint. Back in 1994, while plotting his takeover of the House, Gingrich circulated a memo on how to use words as a weapon. It was called “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.” Republicans were advised to use certain words in describing opponents — sick, pathetic, lie, decay, failure, destroy. That was the year, of course, when Gingrich showed there was no floor to his descent into a dignity-free zone, equating Democratic Party values with the drowning of two young children by their mother, Susan Smith, in South Carolina.

    Today, if you listen carefully to any Gingrich takedown, you’ll usually hear words from the control memo.

    He even used them, as former Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams wrote in National Review Online this week, in going after President Reagan, calling him “pathetically incompetent,” as Abrams reported. And he compared Reagan’s meeting with the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Neville Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich.”

  • The Method. Even a third-grader arguing with another kid over the merits of Mike and Ikes versus Skittles knows better than to play the Hitler card. But Gingrich, the historian who never learns, does it time and again. Thus Democrats, he said last year, are trying to impose “a secular, socialist machine as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany.”

    He has compared the moderate Muslims trying to erect a mosque and social center near Manhattan’s ground zero to Nazis, and made the same swipe at gays. People who love members of the same sex, he said, were trying to force “a gay and secular fascism” on everyone else.

  • Deny the Obvious. Gingrich is the rare politician who can dissemble without a hint of physical change, defying Mark Twain’s maxim that man is the only animal that blushes — or needs to. He’s also skilled at attacking the very things he practices. In the South Carolina debate last week, when Gingrich went ballistic over a question on an ex-wife’s claim that he wanted an open marriage, he said he had offered ABC numerous witnesses to rebut the charge. In fact, his campaign admitted this week, there were no such witnesses — only character rebuttals by children from a previous marriage.

    His claim that he was paid at least $1.6 million by the mortgage backer Freddie Mac for work as a “historian” was a laughable fiction. This week, those contracts were released, and show no mention of historian duties; it was old-fashioned influence peddling.

    He got caught by Mitt Romney Thursday in a classic political move. After Gingrich blasted Romney for investments that contributed to the housing crisis, Romney turned around and asked him if he had some of those same kinds of investments. Um, yes, Gingrich admitted, he did.

  • Go for the Hatred. It was Gingrich, even before Donald Trump, who tried to define the president as someone who is not American — “Kenyan, anti-colonial.” And there he was earlier this week, pumped by a big audience in Sarasota, Fla., reflecting back at him these projected fears. When he said he wanted to send President Obama back to Chicago, the crowd took up a chant of “Kenya! Kenya!”

Calling Obama “the best food stamp president ever” is a clear play on racial fears. In the crash of the last year of George W. Bush’s administration, food stamp use surged, but Gingrich would never associate a white Texan president with dependency.

A favorite target is the press. He’s snapped at debate moderators from Maria Bartiromo of CNBC, Chris Wallace of Fox and the preternaturally fair John King of CNN for asking relevant questions. It was a tired and predictable ploy when he tried it on Wolf Blitzer Thursday — he tried to deflect a question on his attacks by calling it a “nonsense question” — and Blitzer didn’t back down. But the outrage is selective and always calculated.

So, Gingrich was the picture of passive redemption when the Christian Broadcasting Network asked him, twice over the last year, about his many wives. In one case, Gingrich said he cheated because he loved his country so much. This week, he said his infidelities made him “more normal than somebody who walks around seeming perfect.” But he never flipped out at the Christian questioner, as he did at King, calling the CNN reporter’s query “close to despicable.” (Another favorite word.)

The general public can read this particular character X-ray, given that Gingrich’s unfavorable rating is off the charts, higher than any other major politician’s. And so could his former Republican colleagues in the House; witness the paucity of endorsements from those who served with him.

But he has a vocal constituency, weaned on the half-truths of conservative media. It makes perfect sense, then, that Gingrich this week demanded that crowds at future debates be allowed to cackle, whoop and whistle at his talk-radio-tested punch lines.

Let’s grant him his wish, and allow audiences to vent at will, as they did Thursday night in Florida. This kind of noise — from Republican debate crowds who have booed an American soldier serving overseas, cheered for the death of the uninsured and hissed at the Golden Rule — is a demagogue’s soundtrack. Ω

[Timothy Egan writes "Outposts," a column at the NY Fishwrap online. Egan — winner of both a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as a member of a team of reporters who wrote the series "How Race Is Lived in America" and a National Book Award (The Worst Hard Time in 2006) — graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Whitman College in 2000 for his environmental writings. Egan's most recent book is The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (2009).]

Copyright © 2012 The New York Times Company

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2012 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Friday, January 27, 2012

Words To Live By: "Remain Calm, Feed The Fire, & Quit Liftin' The Lid!"

The number of posts to this blog about Texas barbecue/BBQ/'Cue is almost like the number of stars in the sky. Most recently on December, 13, 2011, this blogger shared his experience at a pair of BBQ-joints in Austin. And this blogger posted -six- seven [as of January 29, 2012] (count 'em) earlier smoked-articles to this blog as well:

Saturday, June 07, 2008 — Don't Call Me Ishmael (Or Late For Dinner); Call Me Blogger al-Hajj?
Tuesday, June 10, 2008 — Thanks, Kelso! As If Things Weren't Tough Enough Already In Lexington!
Saturday, June 14, 2008 — On June 14, 2008, I Became Blogger al-Hajj
Friday, July 25, 2008 — Texas Bar-B-Q Al-Hajj Continued: After Mecca, Try Medina (aka Hamilton, TX)
Thursday, December 18, 2008 — Texas' #1 Barbecue Joint Revisited (By The New Yorker?)
Monday, April 27, 2009 — My Favorite Butcher Was A Real Cutup!
Sunday, June 26, 2011 — The Hajj Goes On!

So, here comes TM's Katy Vine pickin' at the brisket. The only thing that this blogger can add is that the royalty of 'cue in Lockhart, TX is the Kreuz family. That name is pronounced "Krites" (rhymes with "lights"). While standing at line at the JMueller BBQ trailer in South Austin, this blogger opined to someone else in the line that the best 'cue to be had in Texas was in Taylor, TX at Louie Mueller BBQ. The unwitting (and non-German-speaking) blogger pronounced the surname as "Mew-ler" and a woman's voice from the order window of the trailer said, "It's pronounced 'Miller' " and this blogger stood corrected as Louie Muller's granddaughter, LeAnn Mueller, offered this blogger a pronunciation lesson. LeAnn Mueller explained that she had taken leave from (photography?) work in California to come back to Austin to help her brother. John. If this is (fair & balanced) orthoepy, so be it.

PS: Katy Vine refers to the custom at Louie Mueller Barbecue to place a small piece of the meat ordered (brisket or sausage or whatever) on the customer's butcher-paper-covered tray as an "appetizer." No way — among Texas pitmasters that small offering is a taster, never an "appetizer."

[x TM]
Of Meat And Men
By Katy Vine

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They were the first. At nine o’clock on a cool Friday morning last fall, three young men sat on the ground outside Franklin Barbecue, in Austin, though the restaurant wouldn’t open for another two hours. “If I’m not waiting here, I’m waiting at home,” explained Marcus Kellis. In front of him sat Jonathan Nguyen, a poet studying for his MFA at Texas State University. At the head of what would soon be a line of several hundred people was Chris Margrave. He wore a John Deere cap and was casually reading a copy of Ulysses, with only 545 pages to go.

None of the men knew one another, yet they had come to regard the shared experience of salivating anticipation as part of the trip to Franklin’s, a ritual almost as important as the reward itself: the smoky, silky brisket; the ribs with the perfect combination of sweetness and heft; and the robust sausage made, according to the master’s recipe, with just a small amount of beef heart. The wait gave them time to talk about barbecue with the other enthusiasts—a crew drawn, on any given day, from all over the state, all around the country, and even overseas—and they often ended up eating with total strangers, exchanging emails and promising to send postprandial commentaries and photographs.

The line, explained the men, had become an entity unto itself. “The restaurant is closed, so the line is separate,” Kellis said. “The line has its own mores, its own ethics.” There were some, Margrave added, who did not appreciate its connective powers. He had heard of people, for example, who advertised their services as Franklin Barbecue placeholders on Craigslist, requesting their payment in brisket. (“If you got paid in money,” a barbecue aficionado later told me, “you’d just be a barbecue gigolo.”) In other cases, Margrave said, “I have seen people holding a place in the line for a Suburban with about ten people in it who will pile out to take one spot.” He pitied them. “They are missing out on the experience,” he said.

By 10:58, the line had grown to about 250 people. From the front door of the low-slung, turquoise-and-white concrete-block building on East Eleventh Street, it snaked down a wheelchair ramp and around the back of the parking lot. Suddenly, Aaron Franklin emerged from somewhere behind the building. A 34-year-old of medium build with black hair, he was wearing his usual attire: a white Hanes V-neck T-shirt and cutoff dress slacks. A murmur arose as he made his way around the string of customers. “That’s the proprietor,” Kellis whispered. The “line manager,” a restaurant employee tasked with ascertaining the exact place in line at which the meat would run out, came outside and began taking preorders from the hopefuls, warning those standing beyond a certain point that they could be wasting their time. Two minutes later, Aaron went inside and swung open the front door. “Let’s get this party started,” he announced. A sign on the door read “Sold Out.”

Fanatical enthusiasm is not unusual for devotees of Texas barbecue, who are known to be demanding, well informed, and capable of consuming very large piles of meat. By the seventies, this loose assembly of eaters had reached an agreement as to the most outstanding joints, a small and accepted canon: Kreuz Market, in Lockhart; Louie Mueller Barbecue, in Taylor; and City Market, in Luling. Enthusiasts traveled to these Central Texas outposts as if to sites of pilgrimage, waiting for that moment in a smoke-filled pit room when the most tender brisket in the world would be sliced before their eyes.

In the decades since, there have been slight adjustments to the canon. People flocked to Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que, in Llano, and then began talking about Cooper’s Pit Bar-B-Q, in Mason. In 1999 the heirs of Kreuz Market split, leading to two restaurants—one at a new site with the original name (Kreuz Market) and one with a new name at the original site (Smitty’s Market)—half a mile apart from each other, both reverently attended. Almost a decade later, a little shack in Lexington called Snow’s BBQ flared into the spotlight and quickly developed a following of its own (a process helped along by this magazine’s naming of Snow’s as the state’s best barbecue restaurant in 2008). These new barbecue joints had managed to crack the smoked ceiling and join the uppermost tier, a rare occurrence.

Then an amazing thing happened. In 2009 a trailer appeared on the side of Interstate 35 in Austin and began producing a brisket that nobody could believe. Word spread on social media sites, blogs, and message boards. Everything about this joint was unlikely. To begin with, truly great Texas barbecue traditionally appears only in rural areas. This place was about two miles from the Capitol, behind a coffee-roasting shop on the frontage road. And the owner did not look like a traditional pitmaster. He was young, with trim sideburns and black-rimmed glasses. His trailer was painted a modish aqua color, and though his meats were served on traditional butcher paper, he offered a sauce spiked with espresso. The barbecue world was skeptical. Surely this was just another trendy Austin development—a fun place to go before a football game perhaps, but nothing to challenge the established order.

Yet word of the pitmaster’s mystical accomplishments continued to spread, and the skepticism was quickly overcome. The line began to grow, and increasingly people who knew what they were talking about were proclaiming the youngster’s meat to be as good as the old masters’ and maybe (heresy!) better. It was as if a high school freshman had walked on at Cowboys training camp and, by the start of the season, replaced Tony Romo. In time, the non-Texas media picked up the story, and excited reviews began to appear around the country, leading to more visitors and a longer line. In the history of barbecue—a tradition in which cooks take years to establish the quality of their product and their customer base—a meteoric rise like this was unheard of.

For fans, the mystery was as delicious as the meat. Where did this barbecue savant come from? How had he perfected the highly complex art of smoking in such a short amount of time? Aaron Franklin’s past was scoured for clues, and among the most often cited was that he had previously worked for John Mueller, a descendant of the legendary Mueller barbecue clan of Taylor. John had operated a well-regarded joint on Austin’s East Side from 2001 to 2006 before flaming out, plagued by personal demons and money troubles. At which point Aaron had purchased his pit. Perhaps, the barbecue cognoscenti mused, there was something in that pit. (Full disclosure: I’ve known Aaron for several years, and we have a handful of mutual friends. Also, John catered my wedding rehearsal dinner.)

Throughout the first half of 2010, as the buzz built around Franklin Barbecue, John remained a ghostly presence, a name on the lips of traditionalists waiting in line by I-35 (“Well, you know, he’s got John Mueller’s pit back there”). He’d been an irascible presence in his old joint, and after it shut down, stories had proliferated. According to one, he had run off to Mexico. Another had it that he’d been shot and was recuperating. A third claimed that he’d succumbed to cancer and died. Then rumors began to fly that John was returning to claim his crown as the best in town. A Twitter account for @JMuellerBBQ appeared, with a tweet in May 2011 declaring, “This is happening.” When it finally did, in October, a large crowd was waiting in the rain in front of John’s new joint, a small trailer in South Austin. The first customer in line, who arrived an hour and a half early, had already been to Snow’s and Franklin’s that morning and had brought along some leftovers for a head-to-head comparison. All the meat was sold out within two hours.

For hundreds of years, barbecue or something like it has been produced all over Texas according to a variety of methods, from Mexican barbacoa to the sauce-heavy, pork-friendly style inherited from the Deep South. But what most people in the state consider the quintessential form was created in Central Texas meat markets and grocery stores owned by German and Czech immigrants. During the 1800’s, these pioneers made their way into settlements that formed a belt from Galveston and Houston to Kerrville and Hondo, bringing with them a style of meat-smoking from the old country that involved salt, pepper, meat, and wood. Whatever fresh meat they couldn’t sell, they would smoke and sell as “barbecue.” (The term likely originated as a Caribbean word, “barbacoa,” and made its way onto American plantations via slave ships; according to Houston food writer Robb Walsh, blacks were then hired to run Texas meat-market pits during cotton-
harvest season.) As demand grew, the markets evolved into barbecue joints, though the style of service didn’t change much. The meat was still sliced in front of the customer in line and served on butcher paper. Sauce generally wasn’t offered. “Sides” consisted of a tomato, an onion, a slice of cheese, an avocado, or some crackers.

The small railroad town of Taylor is located smack-dab in this barbecue country, and it was here that a stout young man from Illinois named Louie Mueller moved in 1936. Louie was an entrepreneur with a square jaw and a strong work ethic. He’d been hired to manage the city’s first Safeway, and by 1946 he had done well enough to open the Louie Mueller Complete Food Store. Like all good grocery outfits, he supplied fresh meat, but not having refrigeration, he hired two locals to slow-cook leftovers in the alleyway. One day they quit, and Louie was in a fix. He had no time or desire to cook the meat himself; he was a businessman. Looking around, he quickly promoted one of his stock boys, a man named Fred Fountaine.

Fred was another Texas transplant, a Canadian by way of Rhode Island who had moved on doctor’s orders to get out of the cold. With no cooking experience, he found himself staring at the setup the previous employees had arranged. No directions were given to him. (Historically, it turns out, few directions have been given to any pitmaster.) But he fiddled with the pit, the meat, and the fire, and in time Fred’s food became so popular that the barbecue operation outgrew the grocery store. In 1959 Louie moved the outfit across the street to a former gymnasium—a cavernous red-brick building where Louie Mueller Barbecue remains to this day—and in 1974 his son, Bobby, who had developed a reputation around town for his artistry as a butcher at the grocery store, took over, eventually developing his own barbecue style and working alongside Fred until Fred’s retirement, in 1987.

In the belief that barbecue was a family affair, Bobby’s three children, Wayne, John, and LeAnn, were put to work cleaning the restaurant when they were so small they had to walk around the edges of the tables to effectively wipe off the grease. Gradually, John worked his way up. He learned, at age ten, to dish out beans and potato salad. At fourteen, he was cutting brisket and portioning it out to customers, never neglecting to pass out little sampler nuggets while they waited. He also learned to make his father’s sausage, a beef concoction with a crackling natural casing, using a hand-crank machine dating back to the early 1900’s. By high school, he was preparing the day’s potato salad each morning, chopping the celery and eggs and mixing the batches in large plastic tubs. After studying kinesiology at Texas Tech University (his parents insisted that all their children receive a college education), he immediately returned to work in the kitchen.

But it wasn’t until 1993, when John was 25, that his father finally let him tend the massive indoor pit. This was the highest honor in the business. It required dedication, intense focus, and an almost preternatural intuition for how the meat was cooking. Teaching only by example, Bobby demonstrated how to smoke the meat with post oak wood in the rectangular white-brick pit with hinged metal tops. John learned to rub the meat with salt and coarse pepper to create a thick bark on the briskets’ exterior. His father told him he needn’t worry about temperature gauges; there were none. “Calm down,” his dad would tell him. “Feed your fire and quit liftin’ the lid.”

Growing up, John did everything his father instructed. He never broke curfew and didn’t drink. He played football and track, as his dad had. Like his siblings, he called Bobby “sir” and kissed him on the cheek anytime he said goodbye. He knew what he wanted to do with his life from the time he was a little kid in work boots and a red apron: he wanted to be just like his dad and barbecue at Louie Mueller’s.

Bobby had incredibly high standards. Good barbecue was not enough. It had to be amazing barbecue, especially the brisket. This cut had only grown popular in the sixties, but it had quickly become the sine qua non of any high-quality Central Texas joint. (Fred told a newspaper that he introduced it after a customer scribbled, “Fred, this is high-priced bone!” on a serving paper. “We switched to brisket,” Fred told the reporter, “and tripled our business.”) The meat and the perfectly rendered melt-in-your-mouth fat had to provide a real woodsmoke flavor that expanded into the eater’s sinuses, sending a tingling, relaxing warmth through the body. A slice, held up from one end and tapped with a spoon, had to fall apart. Once disassembled, it had to be soft enough to be eaten easily by even the young or the toothless. Every single brisket at Louie Mueller’s was required to meet these criteria, and now, on Bobby’s days off, the responsibility for maintaining the quality fell to John. “He burned up some briskets,” recalls his sister, LeAnn. (LeAnn is a photographer who has worked for Texas Monthly.) “But that’s just the nature of the beast. After a while, it was as good as my dad’s.”

In 1996 John incorporated with his father. He felt that he had achieved the ideal life. He took pride in his work and considered his father his best friend. When John got married, in 1991, he made Bobby his best man, and when the first of John’s three sons was born, he and his wife named him Robert Louis Mueller II. Every night, after working for fifteen hours, from three in the morning to six in the evening, John would head to his dad’s house for a beer. On Sundays—their only day off—the pair would meet at the restaurant, where the dark teal walls are stained with a smoky patina. They’d sit down at one of the square wood tables and eat crackers, sausage, and cheese. On most of these Sundays they’d just nod and say “Good morning.” Then they’d pass the hours in silence, reading the newspaper while two big box fans rumbled overhead and a sunbeam reflection swept its way across the dark wood floor.

But around 1999, for reasons John still can’t quite explain, some defiant part of him began to emerge, some rebellion he’d never expressed before. He had spent most of his life striving for approval, and now he felt a teenage-like urge to revolt. His marriage, which had been unraveling, ended in divorce, and a few months later, John started dating an employee. One weekend, he drove to San Antonio with her and got married. He knew that not inviting his family—or even telling them beforehand—was hurtful, but he did it anyway. “Congratulations,” Bobby mumbled to his son the following Monday. “Thank you,” John muttered back.

He’d never done anything to challenge his family before. It felt strange, and every day as he walked into work, he was acutely aware of the wedge he was driving between his kin and himself. He could hear it in the way they’d ask the simplest questions—they didn’t trust him anymore—and his defensiveness increased. Over time, the tension grew unbearable. “You know, I was asinine and arrogant,” John now says. “It was me against the world.” In January 2000 he sold his portion of the business back to the family and quit. (His brother, Wayne, would eventually return from a Houston ad agency and take over in 2008.) On John’s last day of work, Bobby was standing at the prep table as John headed toward the back door.

“John, you don’t have to do this,” Bobby said.

“Yeah,” John replied. “I do.”

John told himself that he would not work with meat. It was not part of the new John Mueller. He scoured the classifieds and soon got a job selling for Alliant Foodservice, then he and his wife moved to Georgetown. He tried to settle into this new life he had created for himself, but it was an awkward fit; even though he had broken away from his family, he couldn’t shake his devotion to barbecue. So when a potential business partner told John of a property across the interstate from the University of Texas football stadium, he hardly needed coaxing.

In 2001 he moved to Austin and opened up a place called John Muellers B-B-Q. It wasn’t the cathedral that Louie Mueller Barbecue was, but it had potential. To add about forty years of ambience to the building, which had been a soul food restaurant with pink walls, John painted the interior dark green and the floor black. Then he ripped out the ceiling to expose the timber above, paid $1,500 for a pit he found by the side of the road in Bastrop, set up his stations, and waited for business.

The place was not initially a raging success. Only twenty customers would stop by in the course of an entire day. One Saturday, John and his brother-in-law were so bored they found time to play football in the parking lot during operating hours. Eventually, however, word spread that John’s brisket was moist and tender and smoky, and that the meat of the forearm-size beef ribs fell right off the bone. By Christmas 2001, the weekday lunch line was running about forty deep with UT football players, businessmen, state workers, and college kids. John limited his meat supply each day to ensure nothing would go to waste, and on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays he was so busy he began running out of food. Soon John was back to a pattern he knew well. He woke up at three-thirty to light the fires and pat the briskets with salt and pepper. He made the sides. He ran automatically through the routine he’d lived every day at Louie Mueller Barbecue. And as he did, he thought about his dad, forty miles away, who was probably tending his fires too.

Business was good enough that by 2004, John had five employees working for him. Among them was an energetic, friendly guy named Aaron Franklin, who had moved from College Station to Austin in 1996 at age eighteen. John did not conduct an extensive interview process. Aaron had visited the restaurant repeatedly, and one day, when he asked for a job, John simply told him, “You’re hired.” He put Aaron to work chopping onions.

It wasn’t an unfamiliar task. Like John, Aaron had grown up around Texas barbecue. But unlike John, whose heritage lay in the smoky halls of the rarified greats, Aaron had been raised in the kind of simple mom-and-pop joint common to most small and medium-sized towns in Texas. Ben’s Bar-Be-Que, in Bryan, was already an established spot when Aaron’s parents bought it, and the former owner gave his father, who had a background in restaurants, a few tips on how to cook the meat. Aaron, for his part, cut lemons and onions starting at age twelve. While some kids might have balked at the mundane routine, Aaron loved it. He tried to talk his folks into homeschooling him so he could hang out at the restaurant more often, where he would sit in a chair next to the indoor brick pit, poking at the wood as the embers glowed. He liked the old concrete floors and the stalactites of ash that hung from the ceiling over the pit. His mom, who worked the tables and cash register, and his dad, who cut the meat, hustled during the lunch rush, but the rest of the time they moseyed along at a leisurely pace, chatting with customers. It was bliss for Aaron.

Unfortunately, his parents found it less idyllic. His dad worked from five in the morning to six at night Monday through Saturday, and his mother worked almost as much. The hours were brutal, and three years after opening, they were forced to sell the restaurant when it proved too much work for two adults and one enthusiastic preteen.

But the short time that his family had owned a barbecue restaurant left Aaron with an idealized image of the business, and for years he dreamed of doing it himself. He would open a place all his own, he thought—one with a pit, not a gas or electric smoker. He imagined lazy afternoons playing dominoes with customers while the comforting smell of burning post oak filled the air. As he got older, he began to take this fantasy more seriously. He conducted research all over Central Texas, traveling at least once a month to some out-of-the-way spot for his typical order: a two-meat plate composed of half a pound of moist brisket and ribs, with a side of potato salad (plus sausage if it was made in-house and the end cut off the lean side of a brisket when available). It was on one of these trips, in 2002, that he experienced a kind of epiphany at Louie Mueller Barbecue. As he bit into the brisket sample that all patrons receive while their meat is being cut, he was overcome with emotion. “I think I might have cried a little bit,” Aaron remembers. “I maybe squeezed out a tear.” He went back to Austin and applied at every barbecue joint he could find that used a real pit, but nobody would hire him. Finally, he ended up at John Mueller’s.

At the time, it was rapidly becoming clear that John was rising in the ranks of the state’s barbecue giants. Some people even told him his food was better than his father’s—flattery that infuriated him. “I knew the food wasn’t as good as Dad’s,” he says. “No way.” He still revered his father. The two hadn’t spoken for eight months after John had moved to Austin. When Bobby finally visited the new restaurant, John was a bundle of nerves. “I walked him through and showed him the pit, the rooms, the stuff on the walls,” he says. “I was nervous. He was pretty quiet.” The rift haunted him. When his dad finally ate a meal and complimented the food, John couldn’t shake the feeling that his solo work wasn’t legitimate. Deep inside he wanted approval, but even when Bobby responded to developments at the restaurant in his typical way—“Well, that sounds good”—John was convinced he didn’t measure up.

So John did what many before him have done to deal with disappointment: he started drinking whiskey. He began working irregular hours, ignoring his usual three-thirty alarm clock for an hour or two before lighting the fire in the pit. Sometimes he left work during the lunch rush so he could watch Dr. Phil with a drink in his hand. His relationship with his wife became tumultuous, and eventually the couple divorced. He also began struggling financially, and by 2005, he was so broke he’d have to drive to Fiesta Mart with the previous day’s till money to buy meat, potatoes, and little bags of cabbage for each day’s operations. He could not afford to take a day off. “We had to keep open every day just to keep the thing flowing,” he says. “If I closed one day, I wasn’t ever going to open again.”

As the quality of his meat became erratic and John grew increasingly cantankerous, his reputation suffered. Some people 
began referring to him as “the barbecue Nazi.” When customers complained about the great distance they’d traveled to find him sold out, he wouldn’t explain or apologize but rather reply, “Everybody has to come from somewhere.” Such was his notoriety that film director Robert Rodriguez even studied John for a dyspeptic character he planned for his 2007 movie Grindhouse. John sneered at customers, and his demeanor wasn’t always that much friendlier toward the staff. John remembers one particular exchange when Aaron told him, “You know, my parents used to have a barbecue place in Bryan.”

“They used to?” John responded. He understood family pride and was well aware of the dagger he was about to throw. “You mean they’re closed?”

“Yeah,” Aaron said.

“Well, why’d you tell me about it then?” he snarled.

In January 2006 John was preparing side dishes around eight-thirty in the morning when the building’s two new owners, who had bought the place from John’s business partner, walked into the restaurant. “We have something to tell you,” they said sourly. John braced himself. He had until the following Saturday to move everything out.

“By then I knew what was happening,” he says in retrospect. “I knew it was going away. I just couldn’t take it. I wanted success, but for some reason, I didn’t want the success there. I wanted to go home.”

He stayed in his house for a week or two until the electric company shut his lights off for nonpayment. When he was down to his last dollar, he did the only thing he could think of: he went back to live with his parents. They did not reprimand him. “Not one time,” John says.

But John didn’t stay in Taylor long. Desperate for work, he accepted a management job at Sirloin Stockade. The steak franchise asked him to go to Amarillo, to work with a sister operation called Montana Mike’s. John welcomed the opportunity to get away. Feeling he was a disgrace to his profession and his family, John Mueller left town pledging never to barbecue again.

Left in the wake of John's departure from Austin was Aaron Franklin, who quit when he suspected he might not be getting any more paychecks. For a while, he worked part-time at a coffee shop and picked up handyman jobs. But the whole time he was driven by an unspoken goal, one that felt almost impossible. “Everything I did was working toward a barbecue place,” he says. For years he had been toying around with a New Braunfels–brand smoker that fit two small briskets, and in early 2003 he had called his dad, assuming he could share some expertise. “Hey, Dad, how do I cook a brisket?” he asked, but the man was at a loss for instructions. “Just cook it till it’s done,” he replied. Aaron searched the Internet for “how to cook a brisket,” but the directions, and the brisket that resulted from his first attempts, were terrible.

The ideal, he knew, was to create the barbecue of the Central Texas canon, but his cooking was erratic and his efforts experimental. Even after he became confident enough to barbecue for large groups in his backyard, the number of variables weighing on an outdoor pit was undeniable. “Consistency is absolutely the hardest thing. The weather fluctuates, the wood fluctuates,” Aaron says. “If it’s pouring down rain, it’s hard to keep a fire going, or it takes forever to cook because there’s too much moisture in the air.” Austin building codes made the cost of an indoor pit prohibitive. But a good outdoor pit with natural convection ran thousands of dollars. He scoured eBay and Craigslist, formulating ways to fix up a giant smoker. He considered unorthodox structures, “even an old bathtub,” he says. Used refrigerators weren’t out of the question.

Right as Aaron was contemplating his next move, he received a call from the owners of the John Muellers B-B-Q building. When John left town, the proprietors told him, he hadn’t just left a void in the barbecue landscape—he had also left his pit. Now they were desperate to sell the 1,400-pound behemoth that was sitting in the property’s backyard. In pristine condition, it would have cost a few grand. It was a solid workhorse, after all, with a seasoned interior. “The guy called and said, ‘I have this pit,’ ” Aaron remembers. “I was like, ‘Heck yeah, I want it!’ ” Aaron, who had just been paid the day before for a house project, offered $1,000. “It was a ton of money for me,” he says.

As he well knew, though, the pit was in bad shape. After he towed it to his house, he got to work cleaning out the grease that had practically turned into concrete inside the body. Crawling on his stomach, with safety goggles over his glasses, he mined his way through the pit, chipping away for two weeks with putty knives and other hand tools. He learned to weld so he could make some modifications to the firebox, smokestack, and doors, and when the adjustments were completed to his satisfaction, he rubbed the inside with a gallon of vegetable oil, filled the firebox with wood, and let the heat cure the new configuration like a chef would to temper a cast-iron skillet.

The crowd size for his backyard barbecues increased after word spread that he had acquired John Mueller’s pit. He could accommodate more brisket and had been refining his technique. “I think the first ‘aha’ moment I had was when I cooked a brisket way longer than I thought you needed to cook a brisket, and it finally got tender,” Aaron says. His friends took notice, and when the gatherings had grown to more than one hundred people, Aaron knew his time had come. He fixed up a dilapidated, $300 sixties-model trailer; set up shop in the parking lot behind a friend’s coffee-roasting operation; and in December 2009 placed a used marquee sign just off the frontage road of I-35. It read “Franklin BBQ Open.”

On the first day of business, temperatures dipped down to 47 degrees. A colleague and I, who had attended a few of Aaron’s backyard barbecues, had received an email from him telling us about his new spot. We parked just off the highway and approached the tiny white-and-aqua-colored trailer, made festive with a string of red, orange, and white lantern lights, and waved at Aaron, who was standing behind the trailer’s open sliding glass window. No one else was around.

He was gregarious and chatty, and as he talked, it became clear that he was a nervous wreck. He apologized for the quality of the meat and told us not to judge him, since he was still experimenting with meat providers and working out kinks in the smoker. He offered us lean and fatty brisket, ribs, sausage, pulled pork, the usual sides, and two types of sauce: a sweet blend and a special espresso concoction. We took a couple of two-meat plates of fatty brisket and ribs to go and drove back to the office, where we each took a bite of our food. Then, staring at each other in wonder, we began to laugh. The cut of marbled brisket fell apart under a beautiful exterior of peppery bark, and the smoke flavor permeated the whole thick slice. The pork ribs were tender and meaty. It was Aaron’s first day, and already he was serving some of the best brisket we’d ever had.

For the first few weeks, Franklin Barbecue was the city’s secret; the setting and the pitmaster were so unlike those of classic barbecue temples that it was almost inconceivable that the product could measure up. But customers told their friends, and before long, word had spread on Facebook, Twitter, Chowhound, Shaggy Bevo, Yelp, Urban­spoon, and blogs dedicated to barbecue. A rave review on the website Full Custom Gospel BBQ described how each slice had “a great crust, a beautiful smokering, and a nice morsel of buttery fat clinging to the meat.” (Daniel Vaughn, who writes the Full Custom Gospel BBQ blog, contributes to texasmonthly
.com.) A blog post on Man Up Texas BBQ declared, “I can say with zero hesitation that the brisket was quite possibly the best I’ve ever had.” The attention gave Aaron an immediate bump. (“From two to eight people,” he says, with a half smile, “so it was easy to tell.”) Soon, the wait at the trailer had grown to half an hour.

But as successful as his work was, Aaron considered this first run a simple stroke of good luck. To remain top-notch, he needed to master an infinite number of cooking variables. Some required the methodical approach of a scientist, such as the effect of barometric pressure on cooking. Other aspects were simply trial and error. He learned that when it was windy, for example, he needed to shut the pit’s firebox door. When it was cold, he needed to use more wood. When it was humid, he needed a hotter fire. Other intuitions could be gained only by daily experience. In time, he could pick up a piece of wood and know how it would burn. He could poke a piece of brisket and know when it was done.

Most important, perhaps, he learned about beef. He’d always wanted to use all-natural meat, for ethical reasons, but initially he couldn’t pay for it. When he finally saved enough to buy a few all-natural briskets and played around with them, he realized that they cooked better. The fat in typical hormone-fed cow meat didn’t render as well at high heat, and little chewy nodules sometimes remained around the edges like tiny bits of bubblegum; if he cooked the meat low and slow, too much fat remained behind. The twice-as-expensive all-natural brisket required a longer cooking time of eighteen hours, at a low heat (285 to 300 degrees) to prevent gamey flavors. The effort was greater. The profit was less. But the results made an already enthusiastic line go absolutely berserk.

By the spring, as newspapers began making note of the trailer, the line wrapped around the corner and continued down the access road. “That’s when I realized, whoa, I’m going to need another smoker,” Aaron says. By the end of the following winter, the wait was longer than an hour—even on the coldest day of the year. (I know. I stood in it.) Aaron was finally able to scrape enough money together so that he and his wife, Stacy—who had started working with him to keep up with demand—felt they could expand. “We were bursting at the seams,” he says. “We couldn’t handle more smokers on that property.”

They started looking at spaces around town, and when a barbecue joint went out of business nearby, Aaron leaped at the chance. When he closed the trailer and reopened on Eleventh Street in the spring of 2011, devotees who wanted to be the first in line slept on the ground overnight. Then, to add to the insanity, in July 2011 Bon Appétit declared, to its international audience of 6.6 million readers, that Franklin Barbecue served “the best BBQ in Texas, if not America.” The effect was immediate. “Business quadrupled overnight,” Aaron says. “We were not ready for that.” Aaron, a thirtysomething who had been operating for barely a year and a half and never advertised, had created a consistent two-hour wait five days a week, the likes of which had never been seen in any restaurant in Texas history.

While most of the success was due to Aaron’s God-given ability to smoke meat, he also had the good fortune to open during a boom in barbecue connoisseurship, a growing movement spurred by the nationwide emergence of the modern foodie. For those in the habit of fetishizing foodstuffs—other recent objects of fancy have included the cupcake and the macaron—Texas barbecue represented an incomparable thing of beauty. It was authentic, geographically unique, and exquisitely simple, yet inscrutably difficult to cook well. Aaron’s fans were not simply more enthusiastic than in years past, they were more knowledgeable. “It used to be a small group of people who were super-nerdy,” Aaron told me recently. “Now everybody’s a super-nerd.”

And these fans were connected: on Twitter, on Facebook, on Foursquare. The barbecue super-nerds took endless pictures of their food and sent the images into the blogosphere. They discussed cooking techniques both online and in line. They argued about sauce usage. They took road trips for barbecue, read barbecue blogs, and learned a specific vocabulary. Full Custom Gospel BBQ, for example, listed the importance of a brisket’s rendering (“the process of cooking fat until it literally melts into the meat”), smoke line (“red line around the outside edge of sliced brisket”), and sugar cookie (“fat that turns to a slightly sweet and crispy flavorful nugget”). The Southern BBQ Trail website churned out fascinating oral histories from legendary spots. Twitter accounts like @Quest4Que (“I love BBQ and have made it my goal to go to every BBQ joint in the country”) and 
@texasbbqposse (“We are a group of BBQ-loving Texans who are in search of the greatest smoked meats in the greatest state in the union”) narrated personal quests. A parody Twitter account even surfaced to entertain the increasing number of barbecue insiders: after a couple of Austin barbecue joints were ensnared in an undercover sting last July for using stolen meat (police named the action Operation Meat Locker), @ATXMeatBandits emerged pretending to be the suppliers of the pillaged food. Tweets included “HEB is too hot right now. Need to lie low for a while. Been hearing some good things about Randall’s . . .” and “Any cabrito fans? Just stole some goats in Brady, TX!!!”

By 2011, the same people who might have once complained about sold-out product and long lines had evolved in their understanding of the process. They had an appreciation for limited meat. They encouraged quality control over increased quantity. They gossiped about who was cutting corners and who was doing a thorough job. If a brisket was precooked 80 percent, wrapped in butcher paper, and thrown into a walk-in refrigerator to be finished on a busy day when the pit capacity was tight, these barbecue enthusiasts could taste that difference, and they’d crane their necks from their chairs in search of evidence of procedural sins.

Around the state, the fervor had encouraged others to try their own hand at quality barbecue. Whereas the legendary spots of yore had been primarily rural, now the widespread hunger for sublimely smoked meat, coupled with the boon of instantaneous buzz and feedback, made it possible for urban upstarts to enter the scene. Places like Pecan Lodge, Lockhart Smokehouse, and Off the Bone Barbecue, in Dallas; Gatlin’s Barbecue, in Houston; Smokeys Barbecue, in Fort Worth; and Two Bros. BBQ Market, in San Antonio, dotted the fertile landscape. Former Louie Mueller Barbecue pitmaster Lance Kirkpatrick—whom Bobby had hired soon after John left—opened Stiles Switch BBQ & Brew in Austin. It was fast becoming a golden age for Texas barbecue in the least traditional locations.

Meanwhile, the enthusiasts were feeding Aaron Franklin, and Franklin was feeding the enthusiasts, figuratively and literally. The line grew steadily longer, the frenzy grew bigger, and soon Aaron was struggling to keep up with the demand. Though he was working at the restaurant from 3:15 in the morning to 5:00 in the afternoon, then going home to tinker with new pit ideas, there were only so many hours in a day. He believed in quality control, but he didn’t want to sell out after serving just fifty or one hundred customers. Even after he hired a second pitmaster and built an additional smoker out of a five-
hundred-gallon propane tank, his supply was insufficient. Individual patrons were ordering twenty pounds of meat for wedding parties, bachelor parties, and anniversaries. How was he supposed to keep up?

In the line, the finite quantities meant the mood sometimes grew tense. Aaron found himself talking people down from thirty pounds of meat. When one guy in line said, “I’m gonna start buying meat and selling it in the parking lot,” another customer within earshot warned, “Man, we will beat the shit out of you if you do something like that.” Aaron explained later, “That’s the line! It’s like Mad Max out there.”

The mania sometimes puzzled him. He and Stacy, who had become the restaurant manager, tasked an employee with calculating the total preorder estimate every day and assessing where in line the various offerings would begin to run out. They believed the line would tolerate this effort, maybe even appreciate it, and they were right—in fact, after a while, this aspect of the line gained notoriety as part of the authentic barbecue experience. One day, when the line manager gave the final lucky customer a piece of butcher paper that read “Last Man Standing,” another customer paid her $20 for 
the souvenir.

One Monday last winter when he was closed for business, I sat with Aaron on the porch of the restaurant to talk, but our conversation was interrupted repeatedly as he apologized to hopeful passersby for being closed. “Oh my God, it’s so stressful,” he said, slurping an espresso to stay alert. “The pressure is immeasurable. I mean, I’ll look out the window and see the line down the parking lot, starting to go up the street. You know those people are going to wait three hours. You can’t serve them crappy or even something below—well, it’s got to be the best thing ever.”

Back in Amarillo, John Mueller was officially depressed. Beyond his co-workers at Montana Mike’s, his only acquaintances were the patrons of the Cactus Bar. His mood hadn’t lightened even five hundred miles from home. Once, when a district manager criticized him, John snapped, “You’d better shut up, or I’m gonna walk across that street and open up a barbecue and whip your butt every day in sales.” But if his past sometimes emboldened him, it was also the source of pain. “Aren’t you John Mueller?” the occasional customer would ask, recognizing him. “Yeah, that’s me,” he’d reply. He dreaded the inevitable follow-up question. What are you doing here?

John missed his boys, who were then nine, ten, and fourteen. And he wasn’t cut out to run a steakhouse, where the profit margins were totally different from those of a barbecue business. (When a steakhouse customer orders a prime rib, he receives the whole slice of meat; in barbecue, where meat is sold by weight and much of the fat gets lost in cooking and trimming, there is more waste and less profit.) By the end of 2006 he’d moved back to Taylor, but he soon found that living in his hometown again wasn’t easy either. Though people smiled to his face, he knew what they said behind his back: “That’s John, Bobby’s son who quit Louie Mueller’s and moved away.” With no job, he was so broke he couldn’t afford an apartment, and he was too embarrassed to beg his family for more favors. “I lived on the street for a little while, I slept on friends’ couches,” he remembers. “It was horrible.” Even when he was able to scrounge up the occasional catering job, he couldn’t save enough to get ahead. He didn’t think his luck could get any worse.

On September 6, 2008, he got a phone call from his mother. “Daddy’s dead,” she told him. John was so surprised he hung up on her. He called back, infuriated. “Why would you call me and tell me that?” he demanded. “You’re cruel.”

“I needed to tell you,” she said. John fell to his knees.

Robert Louis Mueller died in his sleep at age 69. His wife found him in bed. He had not been sick. The Austin American-Statesman obituary said that he had worked roughly 160,000 hours at the restaurant. That is what it took to be a legend, and the community and fans mourned his loss. Bobby had won the James Beard Foundation America’s Classics Award in 2006; everyone made sure to mention that. “He loved what he did,” John says, “and he was tenacious with it and took great pride in it.” John’s brother, Wayne, was quoted in the obituary saying, “In my estimation, he was the strongest man I ever knew.”

At the funeral, John was a mess. He was barely able to pull himself together to get to the funeral home chapel. His beard was only half-shaved, and he got drunk before the memorial service. “I was disgusted with myself,” he says, looking back. Probably to the annoyance of those around him, he could not quit laughing. The emotions were too overwhelming.

Now how would he ever show his dad that he was good enough? He was wearing an ankle monitor from two drunk-driving arrests he’d racked up. He was basically homeless. He’d had some bizarre desire to prove to himself that he was a failure, and here he was, bearing his ruin like a scar to anyone who cared to look in his direction. John thought often about his dad’s disappointment. “I think my dad and I have the same work ethic,” he says, “but my dad had great integrity. He would have never put himself in my situation.”

A few weeks after the service, John quit drinking whiskey. He also started working in earnest. He moved in with his old high school friend Debbie (now his wife), a straight-and-narrow hairdresser who saw his potential, and with her encouragement, he picked up more and more catering work. He began calling himself Shoeless Joe Jackson, a reference to the early-twentieth-century baseball player who was accused—some say wrongly—of throwing the 1919 World Series. John told a blogger that, like Jackson, he had been forced out of the game at the height of his powers. To cook the meat for the jobs he landed, he used a little pit that Debbie had in her backyard. “Every once in a while, people would call, and I couldn’t tell them I wasn’t in business,” he says. “If I had a spare forty bucks in my pocket, I’d buy a brisket and do the job, because I knew it would help me one day.”

When he was not working, John became obsessed with the Internet. (In December 2009 he started tweeting under the name @ShoelessJoeJaxn.) He saw that since he’d quit the business, people had become total barbecue snobs. They wrote about terminology he’d never encountered. “I don’t say ‘pitmaster,’ I say that I ‘cook,’ ” he says, shaking his head. “There are so many terms I’ve never heard of, I swear. I read them on the Internet. I don’t know what the ‘point’ or the ‘slab’ is; I just know there’s a lean end and a moist end. I just laugh at it. I read some of these articles, and they have all these little sayings, and I’m like, ‘God dang, where do y’all come up with this stuff?’ ”

That wasn’t all he noticed. He saw that others were wearing the crown that was once meant for him. People waited in line at Snow’s BBQ beginning at eight in the morning, and the line was increasing daily at Franklin Barbecue. He often reflected on his lost opportunities and burned bridges, as well as the pit he had once prized and mistreated. “I was happy for Aaron; he’s very nice,” John says. “But it was humiliating.”

Having seen how his former employee had created a storm, John wondered about his own relevance. If those in his old line hadn’t forgotten him, he thought, he could dovetail with the barbecue craze and try to make a comeback. This was a little scary—he considered that some disgruntled former customers might be waiting to pound him with baseball bats as soon as he opened—but it would be better than waking up at three-thirty every morning and realizing he had no place to go. On a whim, in late 2009, he began telling people that he was coming back. His phone started ringing off the hook.

Three months after the opening of John’s trailer, it is difficult to say whether his and Aaron’s competing businesses truly represent a barbecue rivalry. The two remain friendly. “It’s not like Aaron and I hate each other,” John says. “We like each other. We saw each other one day and talked for about twenty minutes. I said, ‘What are you going to do when all this starts?’ He said, ‘I’m not even thinking about it,’ because we knew what was about to happen, with the comparisons. The—what do you call it?—old lion against the new lion.”

The line is adjusting. One day this winter, some thirty customers stood patiently during the lunch hour at JMueller BBQ, a trailer in a dirt lot just south of Lady Bird Lake. An Asian man waiting in front of me introduced himself and mentioned that he’d shipped a smoker from Texas to China to see if the food could be replicated for a restaurant in his home country. A woman standing near him began professing her love for barbecue and her particular affection for John. “We were all fans of the old location,” she said. “Then he left us!” When she got to the trailer window, she received the last piece of brisket. “This is it!” she shouted to those of us close by. “The very end!” The Asian restaurateur offered some of his sample to a man standing near me, resulting in an awkward tug. “Shoot,” the man whispered to me. “I tried to get the whole thing, but he wouldn’t let it go.”

Over at Franklin Barbecue a few days later, I stood in front of a man who had been to the restaurant more than one hundred times and a newbie who had flown in from Los Angeles and knew nothing about Austin except Franklin Barbecue. “It was worth the trip,” the first-timer later told me. “Standing in line alone was worth the trip.” In the months to come, there would be chatter in the line about John’s and Aaron’s history; a few patrons might take sides. The pair’s stories would likely get discussed in the same way that people might tell a newcomer about the controversy over sauce usage or where they could find a brisket with a gold-standard sugar cookie. Customers would remark on the ball-busting hard work it took to enter the canon. And the personal obstacles, well, they’d dissect those too.

But early in the mornings, the line is nowhere to be seen. Aaron begins his day at 3:15. He makes an espresso, then heads to the smoker to check on the meat that another employee has been watching overnight. By 3:30 he’s lining up the ribs and poking at the fire, the sparks popping as the embers whir inside the box. Until the restaurant opens, he does maintenance projects, like fixing sinks or constructing shelves. (He has built two smokers, bringing the total at the restaurant to three: two are cylindrical, and one is a rectangular Kreuz-style pit. Another cylindrical pit is in progress, and when it is finished, he plans to build one identical to it to replace the rectangular model.) By 11:00, when the line is snaking to the back of the lot, he has already put in almost eight hours, and the most hectic part—serving the customers—hasn’t even begun.

A few miles across town, John runs through his routine too. He gets up at 2:45, walks down his dark driveway, and hops into his pickup. He drives along the empty highways from Taylor to his trailer, where he lights the fire, unlocks the trailer door, turns on the little fluorescent interior light, and starts rubbing the refrigerated briskets down with salt and pepper. For all the rhapsodizing on Twitter, the work of a barbecue master is a bleary-eyed grind well-known to all the cooks who have come before: Aaron’s dad, Bobby Mueller, Fred Fountaine, and, before them, all the nameless pioneers of the pit. While the enthusiasts are still asleep and the cicadas sing a chorus of white noise, John and Aaron and every other pitmaster in Texas are hard at work. John is making beans and potato salad in the same type of plastic tub he used for mixing when he was a kid. He puts the ribs on at 7:00, sets the sausage in at 9:30. Then, like his father told him, he tries to remain calm, feed his fire, and quit liftin’ the lid. Ω

[Katy Vine joined the staff of Texas Monthly in 1997 as an editorial assistant and became a staff writer and is now a senior editor of the magazine. She has written on a range of topics including the moon landing; bass fishing; a three-person family circus; chess prodigies; and a reclusive musician named Jandek (Sterling Richard Smith). Vine holds bachelor’s degrees in English literature and Classical Humanities from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she graduated with honors.]

Copyright © 2012 Emmis Publishing dba Texas Monthly

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2012 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves