Sunday, January 12, 2014

BBQ Camp and the Essentials to Life

I have been fortunate over the last few months to spend to some time with my Cousin's husband.  My cousin and I first met when I was about 5 and she was 3-1/2.  We became good friends in our teenage years and kept in loose contact over the early years when our families were young.  You know how that goes.  You are so busy and tired when your children are young.  You are constantly going to kids birthday parties, youth sports etc.  But as our kids got older we both made an effort to try to get our families together, let our kids know each other, and spend some time together.  One of the benefits of this is the relationship that I have developed with my Cousin's husband Larry.  Larry and I have some common interests.  That fact is, he is one of the most likeable people on the planet.  He is funny, a great story teller, and has the kind of laugh that will put you in a good mood know matter how down you are.  One of the passions we share is BBQ.  Not just eating it, but cooking it.  You see there is something fundamental in life about sitting around a fire with a hunk of meat on it, telling lies (always based on a nugget of truth), and then feeding a group of people.  It is one of my joys.

Problem was, we didn't do it well.  We had heard the secrets, studied articles online, bought the books.  If you have ever had medium rare brisket, and I know that some of my family has, it is not all that good.  One needs good teeth and a strong jaw to eat medium rare brisket.  Well, my cousin and my wife decided that they had had enough bad brisket, sausage, chicken, and ribs and sent us to Texas A&M BBQ Camp put on by Foodways Texas.

Last June we went to BBQ camp, It's focus is on all facets of outdoor cooking.  Brisket, Pork, chicken, etc.  This weekend was all about the Texas Holy Grail of Brisket.  About fifty students showed up along with some outstanding teachers and a few Texas BBQ celebrities.  The class started off with introductions, not very unusual but very interesting.  There were people from all over the country.  There were restaurateurs from Arizona, North Carolina, and more.  There was a an Englishman who lives in the Houston area that was just tired of making bad brisket.  There was a pitmaster from Texas that just wanted to learn more.  Some stated that they were there because they loved Beer and BBQ and an educator from North Carolina State looking to bring this to his University.  The Houston Chronicle was there. (Greg, my apologies for being a hack writer, you are the true professional and really enjoyed meeting you).  A BBQ photographer was there.  You get the drift.  There were also the stars of the show, the Texas Pitmasters who helped us get better.

I am not going to go through a blow by blow description of what happened so here is a brief rundown:

We learned about the anatomy of a brisket:

Dr. Davey Griffen teaches about Brisket Anatomy

We learned about beef grading:

We learned brisket slicing:

Dr. Jeff Savell on knives and slicing

 We did taste testing

Proper fire building

This last picture is of Aaron Franklin showing us how he slices a brisket. Genius. So if you are still with me on this blog entry, how do the essentials of life fit into this.  Well, I will try to put it into words.  There is something to being human that is primal about fire and meat.  But for me it is the process of taking one of the toughest cuts of meat and with time and careful attention turning it into something magical.  At the end of camp, there was a pitmaster roundtable with Bryan Bracewell of Southside Market, Wayne Mueller of Louie Mueller BBQ, and Aaron Franklin of Franklin BBQ.  The question came up about how negative reviews of their product affect them personally.  The question had an impact on all of the men and you could tell that they all take it personally if someone does not like what they have made for others.  Aaron Franklin put it perfectly when he mimicked putting a knife in chest and saying "it's like a knife right in the heart".  This struck me as profound because I don't like to cook BBQ for me, the real pleasure is when someone takes a bite of something you have worked hard on and you can see the pleasure in their face and the reaction to how good it is.  It must be like applause to an actor on stage.  Wayne Mueller said that when he puts a sample of meat on the tray while a customer is ordering and they taste something truly wonderful for the first time, that is why he does this.  I can personally say that all of the teachers and professors took the time to talk to people who had questions and share their experiences and stories.  The BBQ world used to be a world of secret recipes, methods, time.  These men shared the techniques that made them successful with no hesitation.

The last question of the day was why did you take time out of your busy schedule and come to this camp.  All of the pitmasters expressed their desire to help those that love this form of culinary art.  Bryan Bracewell is an Aggie.  He sat in these classrooms as a student and was taught by the same people that invited him to come and share his knowledge.  It was an emotional moment as Bryan thanked Dr. Savell and his good friend Hoover Alexander for getting him involved in this experience and Texas Foodways.  It was the people he has encountered over the years that touched his heart.

So why is BBQ an essential to life?  Because it is fire (warmth), meat (sustenance), sharing (human contact), and art (human expression).  It is connecting with our primal selves and sharing in our heritage and sharing this with our friends and family. 

God and Texas.