Smoked meat, smoked herb, the Ron Swanson Effect, and writing
I had two instinctive reactions when I got the call that, yes, I was going to be Extra Crispy’s official Bacon Critic. The first was to do a bunch of fist pumping and some mild 1984-era Van Halen jump kicks in my living room, a burst of pure joy and unabashed victory dancing (which I’m very thankful no one captured on video, or my bacon would be cooked before I even started the job). The other was, nearly immediately afterwards, to take a deep breath and say to myself, Wait a second… how am I actually going to pull this off?
There were so many factors to consider. Practically speaking, covering the bacon beat—including writing features, pithy updates, news bits, traveling, and (the giant hog in the room) having to critique enough bacon to rightfully decide on the Best Bacon in America—comes with it not a few unique challenges. There was the writing to consider, of course, but also what all that bacon might just do to me. Hence, I decided to enlist a couple of seasoned pros in the world of what some might call niche criticism who know a thing or two about indulging and writing, namely Jake Browne, cannabis critic for the Denver Post, and Daniel Vaughn, the barbecue editor and editor for Texas Monthly.
With my cranium crammed with questions, I approached these fine examples of quality journalism about their jobs and experiences, and what advice they might offer a newly minted bacon critic.
Scott Gold: So, how did you wind up with this gig? Did you win a contest, too?
Daniel: No, I just kept eating BBQ. I had a blog for a long time, and Texas Monthly asked me to be part of their tasting team for the 2013 “Top 50 Barbecue” list, and of course I said yes. Several months later, I just decided to ask the editor if he’d ever thought of having someone on full time to write about barbecue. He was crazy enough to say “yeah!” The backstory was that they were actually already looking for a “barbeque editor” although they hadn’t really thought of that title at the time.
For the job, I’m both a critic and an editor, but I do more than review writing in the BBQ world. I write profiles, BBQ history, recipes, and so on. It’s pretty broad coverage.
Jake: If you ask most weed smokers in America, they'd say I won the lottery. Coincidentally, I submitted a bacon-themed resume to help me stand out from the hundreds of applicants, with a jab at turkey bacon tossed in there. I imagine that'll be the toughest part of your beat.
What’s your background, and how did it prepare you for a critic’s role of this (excellent) sort? Did you ever think your career would take you where you are today?
Daniel: I was an architect, and it did nothing to prepare me for this line of work, other than the need to write persuasively. And no, I never imagined, not even when I was writing a blog, that it would somehow turn into a full-time job.
Jake: I started off as a buyer for a dispensary back in 2010 when caregivers would come in off the street with duffel bags full of pot to look at and evaluate. I had to become an expert on the fly and spent a lot of time deleting my Google history after hours of cannabis-related searches. I'd also give my budtenders blind smell tests in the morning and couldn't risk looking like the rube that couldn't pass his own quiz. The idea that there would be a pot critic never crossed my mind; we were all focused on making it until the next harvest.
How long have you been covering this beat?
Daniel: Over three years now, in an official capacity with Texas Monthly, but I’ve been writing about barbecue since 2008. I think as an outsider from Ohio, the allure of barbecue was its pure “Texan-ness.” And also, it’s delicious. Seeking out barbecue helped me discover the state in a way that I never would have otherwise.
Jake: I started in December of 2014 with a column on Granddaddy Purps that relies heavily on a bag of Fritos Scoops to move the piece along. Needless to say, I try to revisit my old reviews sparingly.
What are the challenges unique to your role as a critic?
Daniel: There’s certainly the health implications of eating food that no one really considers good for you, and doing that in mass quantities. And remaining hungry for it, continuing to enjoy eating barbecue. It’s not a hobby anymore, and it’s not “fun” anymore, it’s my job. I certainly enjoy my job, but it’s still a job. It’s really all about discovery, and the possibility that the next place I go to is going to be great. It always keeps me going. Going to places like Evie Mae’s south of Lubbock or The Smoking Oak in Mercedes, Desert Oak Barbecue in El Paso… finding great BBQ joints in out of the way places that haven’t been written about much is a great feeling.
[A short silence.]
Sorry, I had to pause for a second… I just burped up a considerable amount of brunswick stew from Sprayberry’s in Newnan, GA. It’s a place with a waitstaff, so you get the guilt factor causing you to overindulge, because someone will be watching you and watching how much food is on your plate, and you’re pressured to finish everything. I’d much prefer a place that serves to-go, or a place that you pay at the counter, so nobody notices if you haven’t eaten all or much of it.
Jake: Mainly describing the mental effect that something has, because it isn't a lens that many critics have to view their beat through. If you ate a pound of lasagna for breakfast, you wouldn't devote most of your review to how lethargic it made you feel. That's part of my responsibility, because there's a large block of people out there that don't know marijuana can make you uncomfortably energetic, smoke the wrong thing, and wind up freaking out in a hotel room at 3 a.m. after skiing all day.
How do people react when you tell them what you do for a living?
Daniel: Here’s some advice: You’ll be told many many times that you have the best job in the world, and whatever you do, don’t dispute that. Anyone not in our line of work will have NO sympathy for you, so it’s best not to seek any out. Many people think that my job is to eat a lot of barbecue… and yes, if I got to stop at the research part, it would be the best job in the world. But then I have to write about it, and think about it, and be critical about it.
Jake: Two years ago, people were blown away because it was still a relatively high profile position. My editor had just done The Colbert Report and The View, so we were very much a part of the zeitgeist. Now, especially here in Colorado, the reactions are a product of normalization where people would rather just get back to talking about the Broncos or the dreaded transplants moving here. Cannabis is the new boring here.
Is it difficult finding enough stories to cover?
Daniel: No. Not at all. There are plenty of old BBQ joints i’ve never been to, and plenty of new ones popping up all the time. It’s really not a challenge to find material.
One pitfall, pragmatically, is that from this point forward you’ll be “that bacon guy” and I’m “that BBQ guy” and your opinion on food matters outside of that might not have the same influence. On the flipside, without that specialization, I wouldn’t have this job.
It’s the “Ron Swanson effect.” When I judged a BBQ competition with Nick Offerman, he said that when his fans met him, though they were wonderful, intelligent people, they just expected him to want to eat pounds and pounds of bacon as a human being. If people knew him from the show, they’d just assume that.
Also, you should fully expect that your aunt is going to give you the bacon wallet and bacon band aids, and that’s going to continue for a long time. You’re going to be that guy.
Jake: The biggest challenge is finding strains that exist outside of Colorado, as the Cannabist has readership across the world. If I review Colorado Blvd Kush, someone sitting in Portland cruises right past it. Fortunately, the same cannabis genetics keep finding their way into new cities and states. It's truly a mystery.
How do you go about your review process, logistically and critically? Do you invite friends?
Daniel: They happen in all different ways, but I prefer to travel alone, simply because I can move faster. If a barbecue joint warrants only five minutes of my time, it’s hard to explain that to a road-mate. “Yes, I know we just got there, and now we’re leaving. We’ve already figured it out… it’s not very good.”
Jake: It starts with a visual inspection: density, color, trichome coverage, and phenotypical variance. From there I'll smell and taste—without inhaling—before I take a couple hits. People chide me for not smoking more, but I try to keep my tolerance intentionally low as to mimic the experience of your average Joe Iowa vacationing here. I love reviewing with people, but more often than not I'll simply insert myself as a high person in situations and see how the weed impacts my experience.
What’s the most remarkable or memorable experience you’ve had while on the job?
Daniel: Being able to eat Franklin Barbecue with Anthony Bourdain was definitely a highlight, and most certainly job-related. I was on the job, on the clock there, and it was a great time. Ridiculously nerve-racking at the beginning, but that wore off pretty quickly. I was fully aware that up to that point he’d said that Oklahoma Joe’s was his favorite joint and that his favorite style was North Carolina “whole hog,” so it was just a tad bit fulfilling when, after his meal, he said that Franklin Barbecue was the best he’d had in his life. So I felt I’d done my duty.
Jake: I wish I had something more positive, but the one that made the biggest impact on me was a dispensary employee standing in front of his shop mocking a disabled patient who had left his shop moments earlier. Then he topped it off with a racist comment and put out his cigarette to help me. It's a reminder that not everyone is in the business for the right reasons, but he was ultimately let go from the shop.
Given your expertise, what advice would you offer as I embark on this extraordinary gig?
Daniel: As the cynical journalist, I’d hope that you ask people nicely to lay off the “bacon is so over articles” when you come on board.
The other part is to do yourself a favor and learn something from it. That’s something I’ve always tried to pay attention to. If I felt I wasn’t learning anything about cooking BBQ or the history of BBQ anymore, it would get pretty boring. Also, get them to pay for your cholesterol medication.
Jake: I would advise playing the heel and immediately distrust any bacon that was on your plate. Bacon has veered into that weird cultural place of becoming wildly overrated that I feel like you're best approaching it as a skeptic. Start with turkey bacon.