What Happened When I Attempted a Cornyn’d Beef Brisket

A few days ago, I publicly sought out Senator John Cornyn’s brisket recipe—or, more accurately, that of his wife, Sandy Cornyn. “Don’t do this Daniel,” implored Twitter user @NTenney, who had seen Cornyn’s now infamous brisket photo from Christmas Eve night.

Cornyn has since been roasted pretty mercilessly during the past week. The image was lit as harshly as the reactions—his Tweet has elicited almost 13,000 comments so far, most of them negative. A Pyrex dish filled with a presliced brisket was coated in a thick red sauce that made it look like a cross between a meat loaf and a McRib without the bun. Outlets from the Austin-American Statesman to Sputnik News covered the reaction from Texans wondering if they’d ever seen brisket in such a light. The Houston Chronicle carried two stories, including a more supportive one Wednesday from Erica Grieder—I’m quoted in her article as saying that I was relieved Cornyn never used barbecue’s name in vain in relation to the dish, which he called a brisket family tradition. “I’m glad that he didn’t call it barbecue,” I told Grieder.

Posting the photo in the first place seemed like a naive political move for a native Texan who represents a state synonymous with smoked brisket. The urgency of the brisket blowback elicited a more concerning follow-up tweet on Christmas Day in which Cornyn insisted the brisket was the “best I ever had,” while at the same time attributing the recipe to his wife.

A similar image from the kitchen of a Connecticut senator wouldn’t have raised eyebrows, but then neither did the same Sandy Cornyn brisket that the senator posted in a series of photos to his personal Instagram page in January 2018 and again in February 2019 (the former of which also received a shout-out in a 2018 Dallas Morning News article). Those seven photos were arguably less appetizing than the most recent, and in total they amassed 556 likes and 20 comments, all of them positive. Maybe that says something about Twitter’s viciousness, or the fact that many Texans identify brisket as purely a barbecue food. Or maybe the time was just ripe for a frustrated populace to lash out at the Senate, which seemed to have stood between them and financial relief these past few months. Perhaps Cornyn’s dish just became the whipping brisket.

I was still curious about the brisket. How did it taste? Main courses don’t normally become family traditions if they’re terrible. Although the image of the Cornyn family brisket reminded me of the presliced smoked brisket sitting in a warming tray inside an Uptown Dallas Whole Foods from a few years back, I still wanted to re-create it as best I could at home and requested the full recipe in a series of tweets to Cornyn so I could honor the original version as much as possible. Cornyn’s communications director, Drew Brandewie, offered to ask for the recipe in a kind reply to a cold text. Brandewie said he was a fan of my work, but maybe Senator Cornyn isn’t if a baked brisket is the best kind he’s ever eaten. I didn’t get the recipe, and as with most tweets constituents send to Cornyn, I didn’t receive a tweet in reply.

cornyn brisket

Trim all visible fat and slice the cold, cold brisket.

Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

Kuby’s in Dallas sells raw brisket flats, and it was happy to get rid of a half of one sitting in the meat case. I assumed Cornyn’s wasn’t a whole packer brisket from the photo, and this way I would be risking only 4.22 pounds of beef in an experiment that was beginning to feel like Pandora’s brisket. The 2018 brisket photos from Cornyn’s IG show pretty clear evidence of onion soup packet(s?), and Cornyn offers a few steps in yet another follow-up tweet: “This recipe calls for 3 1/2 hours in the oven; refrigerate then trim all visible fat; cut into slices; then another 1 1/2 hours in the oven.” He addressed this message to “the sensitive types,” which I took personally as I studied it with great interest.

The closest published brisket recipe I could find was “twice-baked beef brisket with onions,” printed in the California-based Sunset magazine. It was sent to me by Twitter user @maroonish99 (obviously a sensitive type too), and the steps seemed to match the partial method laid out by Cornyn’s tweet, minus the barbecue sauce. I was giddy, and eagerly put the brisket in the oven last night. As I watched a movie with the family, the red wine, onions, and beef perfumed the whole house. Both alarmed and hopeful, I asked my family, “Is this thing gonna be good?”

The multiple steps required make this recipe easier to execute over two days. The brisket cooks for a long while in the oven and then needs to be cooled completely in the refrigerator in order to (trigger warning to all barbecue lovers) “trim all visible fat,” per Cornyn’s instructions. That step is the first red flag, and the next is to slice the entire brisket before putting it back into the oven to finish cooking. The flat side of a brisket is already lean. Fat provides both moisture and flavor, so removing all of it seems counterintuitive if you want delicious, juicy beef. Still, I continued.

cornyn brisket

Sliced brisket with sauce: ready for some foil, then the oven.

Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

The final step before baking the brisket the second time is applying a a layer of barbecue sauce. Cornyn said his is a homemade sauce. From the photo, it definitely seems to have ketchup, so I chose a bottled sauce (which I will not name to eliminate any sort of undesired association) with ketchup as the first ingredient. Ninety minutes later, I was ready to eat.

The completed brisket looked like a frosted cake when I first uncovered it. If the smell of the brisket in the oven was the $2,000 stimulus check you were hoping for, the flavor of the finished product was the $600 you’re really getting. It was filling and didn’t taste offensive, but boy was it dry. Slices I laid out for a photo looked like the vegetable protein seitan, and then resembled scorched seitan sixty seconds later. Like a lost child I had hoped to reunite with its mother, I had saved the rendered beef fat in the refrigerator. I melted a bit in a frying pan to grill some white bread, and used it for the base of a brisket and pickle sandwich. The brisket needed more sauce, but that bread was damn good.

cornyn brisket

Beef fat–griddled bread for a tolerable brisket sandwich.

Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

It’s hard to place this brisket in a ranking of barbecue faux pas by Texas politicians. Texas agriculture commissioner Sid Miller’s barbecue scale battle failed so miserably that they took his name off all those gas pumps stickers for good measure. Governor Greg Abbott apologized to Texans for suggesting that sauce was the most important thing about barbecue. In the end, the only thing “barbecue” about Cornyn’s recipe is the sauce, and in my version, it would have been better without it (and without removing all the fat, and without slicing it before it went back into the oven).

There are two barbecue-related issues more pressing than whether Cornyn’s brisket is any good. First, I’m worried that a certain senator from Texas will invite foreign dignitaries from say, Pennsylvania, to his home for brisket, and they’ll go back to their cheesesteak-loving friends disparaging Texas brisket with far too much ammunition. The second issue is more of pity. I just prepared and ate a brisket that a senator in Texas, a state with more spectacular brisket to choose from than any other, said was the best he’s ever had. As Grieder suggested in her article, I don’t disparage the senator for enjoying his family traditions, but I also see it as my duty to offer a challenger: I hereby volunteer to provide a fine Texas-smoked brisket to Senator Cornyn at his next town hall. Just let me know when it gets on the schedule, Senator.

Texas Monthly