FRANKLIN IS GOD

The Fourth of July is the best day to show off what is, for many Texans, our secret super-power: barbecuing. On the outside, we look like ordinary citizens. But, give us a hot grill and some hamburger patties and, buddy, prepare to be dazzled. And people love us for it. What else can you do for family and friends that makes them as happy as cooking up a mess of BBQ?
But for the more devoted of us, that’s not enough. We seek to ascend to a higher realm. So, we graduate to smokers. And smokers inevitably, tragically lead to that most thorny of all barbecue riddles: brisket.
Now, we find ourselves waking before dawn to light the fire and lovingly massage our brisket with the latest sure-fire dry rub from HEB. All day long, like a punctilious steelworker, we stoke the fire in the blazing Texas sun struggling to keep it at the exact temperature recommended by the latest internet guru, and, in the process – as our spouses love to remind us – wind up smoking ourselves as much as the brisket.
And then, after way too many hours of toil and trouble, the great moment finally arrives when we cut into our beloved, only to find that it’s edible, but just too dry, too tough, too fatty, too smoky, too whatever. But rather than do the sensible thing and quit, we grimly accept the faint praise of our guests as they glumly saw and gnaw away, and silently resolve that next time we’ll lower the smoker temperature two degrees and try that new rub with the pineapple tenderizer.
Some of the more devout among us have made the barbecue stations of the cross by journeying to Central Texas to sample Smitty’s, Kreuz’s, City Market, et. al. hoping to discover their smoke-ringed secrets. You can easily spot us; we’re the ones poking at the moist brisket slices with our knives and studying them from different angles, like a desperate doctor in search of an elusive diagnosis. We’ll occasionally even hold one up to the light as we wonder how they managed to achieve such excellence.
And so things remained in the barbecue world for many years, until one day – like a bolt of lightning from a clear blue sky – Aaron Franklin, The Chosen One, appeared.
Several years ago, rumors began spreading out of Austin about a new barbecue joint that was serving the brisket of the gods. The story was that because Franklin’s closed as soon as the food ran out, scores of acolytes lined up every day before sunrise to wait for the place to open at 11:00.
I scoffed and dismissed the reports as mere hipster hysteria. That is, until I watched a cooking show about Mr. Franklin. During the interview, he tossed one of his smoked briskets onto a cutting board, and – I swear this is true – it jiggled like a water balloon. “No way!” I shouted as I replayed it, “That’s not possible!” If you did that to one of mine, it would jiggle nearly as much as a slab of granite. I immediately resolved to make a pilgrimage to Austin.
I got to Franklin Barbecue at 6:15 AM, and there were already twenty people ahead of me. At first, the waiting isn’t so bad. The whole thing has the cool, analog vibe of lining up to buy Zeppelin tickets in 1977, and it’s kind of fun to commiserate with your fellow postulants: The young, foodie couple behind me had flown from Kentucky just to try the brisket.
But, by the time the doors finally opened, I was completely over it; no barbecue could ever be worth this much time and trouble.
As the line slowly progressed through the ordinary looking dining room, I carefully examined the plates of the customers who’d already been served. After five hours of waiting, I half expected the brisket slices to be levitating and have halos around them, but they pretty much looked just like mine.
I finally made it to the counter, got my slices, and beelined for one of the communal tables. Filled with skepticism and feeling duped, I finally tasted The Chosen One’s brisket.
I’ve only eaten at one three-star Michelin restaurant; I splurged on lunch at Eric Ripert’s Le Bernardin in NYC. What I remember most about that remarkable meal is the moment I realized that if a supremely talented person devotes their life to it and brings a manic attention to detail, cooking can approach the level of an art form. I was struck by that same realization at Franklin Barbecue.
My advice: Get on The Pilgrim’s Trail.
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GREETINGS FROM MERKEL, TEXAS

They say our beloved Lone Star State is so big that somewhere in Texas there’s a town with your name on it. I had my doubts, until one sunny vacation day I was headed down some lonesome highway west of Abilene when I came upon it: a large, green exit sign for Merkel.

It’s a funny sounding name which easily lends itself to derision: “Merk the Jerk” and “Jerkl” tormented me through grammar school. Poor Fred Merkle’s infamous baseball boner and Steve Urkel’s urkelness both harmed the cause. My Aunt Angie, over in Germany, elevated the name somewhat, until recently. But overall, it’s been something of a minor affliction which brides in my family are usually happy to get rid of.

But there it was in big white letters taking its rightful place alongside Houston, Austin, and San Antonio. So, I skidded the car to a stop and asked my wife to take photos of me standing proudly by the sign as passing drivers honked their horns, pointed, and laughed.

Back behind the wheel, a previously unknown feeling of ancestral pride swept over me, and I realized I had to take the off-ramp.

I pulled into a gas station, and, while fueling up, asked my wife to go inside the convenience store and see if they had any Merkel souvenir T-shirts for sale. She still hadn’t come out after I’d finished pumping, so I joined her inside.

The store was packed, and my wife had just managed to get to the front of the line. They didn’t have any shirts, but she was asking the cashier if he knew where we could buy some.

“Why would you want Merkel T-shirts?” he asked suspiciously.

“Because my name’s Merkl, and I built this town!” I jokingly proclaimed.

Suddenly, a customer pouring herself some coffee shouted, “You built this town? I hate Merkel! It’s given me nothing but misery! I keep leaving and it keeps hauling me back!” Then she scowled and advanced toward me brandishing a cup of steaming coffee.

“He didn’t really build Merkel,” my wife added helpfully while dragging me toward the door.

“The T-shirts?” I implored the cashier over my shoulder.

“There’s a dollar store in town that has them.”

As we rushed out the door, the woman hooted, “What kind of name is Merkel anyway?”

If I had any sense, I’d have beelined for the freeway, but I was determined to wear that shirt and finally show the world my surname was legit.

While driving around looking for the store, I noticed that the tiny town could’ve used a coat of paint, but that only endeared it to me because, frankly, so could I.

The dollar store was crowded as my wife and I scoured the aisles looking for our prize. We soon found a stack of purple shirts with “Merkel Badgers”, the high school team name, proudly emblazoned in gold lettering across the chest. I grabbed six of them and headed to the lone cashier where I proudly placed the shirts on the counter in front of her.

“Why are you buying so many Badgers shirts?” she asked.

“Because my name’s Merkl, and…”

“No,” my wife hissed in my ear, “do not say it.”

“… I built this town!”

The cashier laughed and asked if my name was really Merkel. I showed her my driver’s license and said, “I think we lost the second “e” at Ellis Island, but my name is Merkel.” We talked briefly, and she told us she’d lived in Corpus Christi for several years, but she loved her hometown and had recently returned.

I noticed there was a long line of shoppers behind us by then, so I whipped out my credit card and swiped it through the reader with a flourish. “I’m sorry Mr. Merkl,” the cashier said, “but it was rejected. Try again.” I swiped it again, with the same result.

“Let me try another card”, I croaked, as I swiped a second one, which was also promptly rejected. Palms sweating, I asked the next person in line to go ahead of us, but she smiled sweetly and said, “Oh no, Mr. Merkel, you built this town. You take your time. I can wait.” All the customers behind her nodded in hearty agreement.

I fumbled in my wallet for my third and last credit card, but it was also rejected. At that moment my wife remembered she had a stash of vacation cash in the car, which she ran out to retrieve. We quickly paid for the shirts and hustled out of the store as everyone cheerily wished the Merkels safe travels.

Back in the car, I picked up my beeping phone from the console and found that all three credit card companies were texting me that a suspicious charge was being made and asking me to verify that I was making the purchase.

I can’t say I had a great time in Merkel, but I’m definitely going back someday. I want a Badgers baseball cap.