The mission: Wake at oh-dark-hundred, slave all day over a hot pit, and honor a tradition as big as Texas.
The commitment: “After spending six to 12 hours on a single brisket, if something goes wrong, it’s like someone calling your baby ugly.”
Top 3 ways he’ll change your life:
- A heaping portion of Texas culinary tradition, from a time when the word “foodie” didn’t exist
- A meal that’s been loved on for a full workday before it hits your plate
- A sure way to battle iron deficiency
In sum: When you send your kids off to school in the morning, you hope they’ll get seven hours of individual attention from an expert who really cares. Why not expect the same for your brisket?
Behind the scenes
Just another Thursday morning at Louie Mueller Barbecue. If I had scheduled this meeting for Saturday, it would’ve meant leaving Austin at 1:15 a.m. for the 2 a.m. punch-in. I feel about as raw as the brisket we’re sorting through.
It’s hard to complain when I’m standing next to three guys who do this every day: Tony, the pit assistant, a professionally-trained chef whose beard and burly appearance are like a Texas barbecue caricature; Craig, the entrepreneur, who quit his high-paying job to apprentice here so he can open a smokehouse restaurant in Tokyo; and of course, Wayne Mueller, third-generation owner and pit boss.
Wayne’s granddad, Louie, started the place in 1949. Now, the interior walls of the Louie Mueller Barbecue building – built in 1905 – are stained black with soot. The jukebox, the heavy wood dining chairs and tables, even the butcher blocks in the pit area are all heirlooms. In the predawn light, there’s a cathedral-like hush.
Yes, it is historic, and yes, it is awe-inspiring. But it is also dizzyingly early, and I am cranky. The restaurant doesn’t open till 11 a.m. Must we be here seven hours early?
Rise and shine and red meat
The short answer is yes.
“As a barbecue person, one thing I’ve come to venerate is time,” Wayne will tell me later, after caffeine has taken hold and talking isn’t such an aberration.
It takes six to 12 hours to properly smoke a single brisket, so the early morning is a race against the clock. Wayne, Tony and Craig fiddle with the fires, lay out rows of brisket on the main pit, and arrange dozens more in a new mobile pit outdoors. (Wayne spent a full year conditioning it, lovingly painting its grates with fat and grease until the metal absorbed the flavor.)
Pit assistant Tony tells me that fire-tending was the hardest thing to learn. To get a fire burning just right, pit barbecuers tussle with a number of factors: type and size of wood; air humidity and temperature; direction and strength of the wind.
As Tony relates this, he nonchalantly plunges his hand between flames. He’s reading the temperature by touch.
Mueller says barbecuing is an art, “not just some redneck byproduct.”
This craft is all feel and finesse. Barbecuers feel the flame to know when the fire needs to be stoked. They feel the heat coming off the pit to know where the sweet spots are. They feel the consistency of the meat to know how much longer it needs.
To test doneness, they jab their fingers into a brisket in three distinct spots, a move that looks a little like Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill” doing the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique. Finally – and this cracks me up – a perfectly done brisket will jiggle when slapped.
“We haven’t standardized, mechanized, or gone to rotisserie like some places,” Wayne says. “We use sight and touch.”
Here’s the feel-good moment of the day: “We treat every piece of meat as an individual,” he says reverently. “You have to identify its needs. It gets as much heat as it needs, not as much as the one next to it.”
The best way to a town’s heart is through…
These skills take years to learn, and decades to master – hence the hierarchy of titles from pit apprentice to that elusive Zen guru of barbecue, the pit master. It’s a craft that hasn’t deviated over generations.
“This represents an earlier time, a simpler time, that people remember from their youth,” Wayne says.
Behind the counter, in the employees-only area, he’s tacked up clippings from the local newspaper, from a section where citizens say why they’re proud to live in Taylor. All cite Louie Mueller Barbecue.
In the second dining room, next to the antique sausage grinder that Wayne’s grandfather used, two maps hang on the wall, speckled with stick-on dots. One is of the United States, and one is of the world. Each dot represents a customer’s hometown.
It’s astonishing to see where people have traveled from to visit this restaurant in small-town Texas. At Mueller’s urging, one customer from India approached the map to put a dot on his hometown – and discovered someone had beaten him to it. Another, from Switzerland, heard about Louie Mueller Barbecue from his next-door neighbor.
My favorite part of the day is when I ask pit assistant Tony why he left his career in fine dining for the sweat- and soot-filled life of a barbecuer. His expression softens.
“I wanted to be part of something bigger,” he says, “part of a tradition. The love and the amount of time that you spend with one brisket far outstrips every other entrée in a regular restaurant. How much can you care about something that’s mass-produced, where all you have to do is turn on the gas?” Wayne and Craig nod solemnly.
“When something goes wrong with a brisket, it’s devastating,” Tony concludes.
“It’s like somebody calling your baby ugly,” Wayne says. Then he brightens. “Oh, but when it goes right–”
The guys erupt in hoots, grunts, and a pantomimed scene of slapping a brisket. I can practically see it jiggle.
Many thanks to Wayne Mueller and crew for their warm welcome. (Literally: It was a seven-hour barbecue sweatbath.) Visit Louie Mueller Barbecue online.