First Days

Starting somewhere

As I write this in late January 2021 I’m getting ready to spend a month in Texas at a few different barbecue ‘joints’. In the few months that I’ve been smoking meat on a regular basis I can safely say that my knowledge has gone from zero to…non-zero…but I know that I don’t know what I don’t know. 

There are people who have already done pop-ups, built out a trailer, opened a restaurant. It took me a minute, but I finally realized that I don’t need to reinvent the wheel.  With a few DMs on Instagram I found some owners who said they would let me to hang out at their restaurants. 
I’m pretty stoked to visit these folks; I can imagine learning more in my first hour in the first restaurant than in a year of watching YouTube videos.
Until March 2020 I worked at a restaurant where meat was smoked on a regular basis, but for some reason I was never curious about the actual technique. Every day I would lock up my bike and walk past the smoker. If it was in use I would check out what was being smoked, not how it was happening.
Then I had a lightning-bolt-from-a-podcast moment; shortly after I realized: I don’t know anything about smoking meat.
For better and worse, we live in the first era of unlimited information. You can learn anything you want with a few clicks.

The AF Factor

As seems to be the case for most people just starting out in barbecue, I began with Aaron Franklin, the de facto spokesperson responsible in large part for a new wave of national interest in this uniquely American incarnation of a millenia-old cooking technique. The perfect combination of intelligence, can-do, charisma, and humility all came together in one person who could probably have chosen to design rockets but who instead prefers to trim 14-pound beef briskets so they aerodynamically facilitate the proper flow of smoke through the cook chamber of his offset smoker (that he obviously built himself).
(More recently I’ve been listening to a podcast called Tales from the Pits – “we’re the Ken Burnses of barbecue…” –and I think 100% of the interviewees acknowledge Aaron Franklin as an inspiration, either him as a person or the experience they had of going to Austin and having Franklin Barbecue’s brisket.)
His book Franklin Barbecue is a masterclass in fundamentals, from wood to fire to cooker to meat; and his, um, Masterclass series of videos lives up to the name. I watched them weeks before my first cook; then, after I began smoking and serving once a week, I revisited the lessons, picking up newly relevant information every time.
Tips that seem obvious in retrospect were insanely helpful. For instance, I would put a piece of wood in my firebox and it would take awhile to catch fire — and then once it did, it would burn way too hot for way too long.
Solution: use a chop saw to make the wood smaller. Genius.
Other instructions were less obvious, even in hindsight. The first time I watched his videos I didn’t catch him saying that he would be closely monitoring the fire the entire time, situating himself right next to it. He explained that the temperature of a backyard cooker (what I was using) fluctuates easily compared to something more suited for commercial use, i.e. a much larger smoker. Smaller firebox = smaller amount of wood burning = each piece of wood has a greater effect on the overall temperature.

Fire: no longer binary

For my whole life fire has either been burning, or not. Now there’s nuance.

When I’m getting ready to smoke meat in my little backyard cooker, the first thing I do is burn a full firebox of wood. After about an hour this leaves me with a bed of hot coals which is responsible for a baseline temperature. 

For the rest of the day, at any given moment there are maybe three – or maybe two, or maybe four – chunks of wood burning atop the coals. As these chunks burn down I’m replenishing, adding a new piece maybe every ten minutes — or maybe five, or maybe twenty.  Wood is non-uniform organic matter, it’s semi-unpredictable, sometimes wholly unpredictable.  I’ve looked away from a respectably burning fire for a moment – sometimes for a few seconds! – and when I look back, poof!  Nothing.  No flames at all.

It’s alternately maddening and challenging and fun. But no matter how it occurs to me at any given moment, it demands my full attention. There’s nothing I do in my life in which I’m more mindful – “in the moment” – than tending this fire. Not meditation, not mountain biking, not other kitchen endeavors.
Sitting on the ground for six to eight hours, alternating my gaze between the fire and a temperature gauge. I’ve learned some things. Stay tuned.

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