The Critical Mass

The Smokin’ Dopes: “Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhr-B-CUEEEEEEEE!” Part Two

In Part One, we saw the Smokin’ Dopes make a triumphant debut. In Part Two, they drive off the learning curve….

At Day Two of the Roc City Rib Fest competition, I forgot the details.

The categories were pork, chicken, brisket and ribs again.  That’s all-night smoking. We had the shoulder and brisket on the smokers  by 2 a.m., but I did the math in my smoke-hazed head and realized that that might be too late. Should have had them on by 10 p.m. I’d run out of rub – a blend of spices, heavy on the cayenne pepper – and ideas. I didn’t have a plan for the brisket or the shoulder. Just smoke.

The brisket: Excellent smoke ring.

The brisket: Excellent smoke ring.

A few hours later, it was  time to get the chicken ready. We pulled the thighs from the coolers and, YOIKES! They were still frozen. Phil stacked up the blocks next to the smokers, and they defrosted quickly enough, but it was more lost time. I trimmed the ribs and ripped the tough membrane from the undersides while waiting on the chicken, but I was making it up as I went now. Out of rub, I massaged the chicken and ribs with store-bought spice combinations that I’d brought along in case of an emergency.  This was an emergency. I prodded the chicken skins away from the meat with an index finger and slipped the leftover roasted poblanos from the previous day’s burger into the gap, then patted them tight. That would have to do….

Pobano-stuffed chicken.

Pobano-stuffed chicken.

We settled into our lawn chairs, with cigars, beers and whiskey, talking, listening to the other barbecuers contemplating the still night… “Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhr-B-CUEEEEEEEE!” Didn’t that guy ever sleep? I was worried. The two smokers were running too hot, close to 300 degrees. It was better charcoal, and more of it, than I was used to. Should have been 200 to 225. But I knew now that we risked the meat not getting done. “Let ’em go,” I said, hoping it would work itself out. Maybe it was the guy thing. There are three things most men believe they can do better than anyone else on the planet: Drive a car, coach a team and build a fire. The Testosterone Tryptych.

At about 4:30 a.m., cigar in hand, too much whiskey in my head, I fell asleep in my lounge chair. I’d only had three hours the night before. Phil tended the fires and took pictures of me. Later, he posted them on Facebook. Fortunately, I have some embarrassing photos of him from our college days. Payback’s a bitch.

The morning sun pried open my eyelids. I checked the smokers… looked normal. Perhaps the formula that has basically held up since Neanderthal days would prevail: Fire + dead animal = good eats. Rick made coffee, with eggs and what he thought might have been elk bacon, discovered in the deepest recesses of his freezer. “Isn’t pigs bacon?” I asked.

Orange-glazed ribs.

Orange-glazed ribs.

The rest of the Dopes began arriving. They were excited after Saturday’s successes, I was worried. I threw what I had left of the apple-orange  glaze onto the ribs. Like everything else, except beer, I hadn’t brought enough. We started taking the meat off. It all looked good. Rob did a little fine-tuning of the chicken on the grill. I pulled off a piece, the skin seemed crispy, the meat moist. Still, I had been peeking at the Smoqued Up BBQ boys’ chicken; they’d partially deboned their thighs, and rolled them. “That’s the idea,” I thought.

The chicken went to the judges. Then the ribs; they weren’t nearly as good as the previous day’s. Then the brisket. As we sliced it, a half-dozen Dopes gathered around the table, pointing out their favorite slices. Six pieces, one for each judge. The smoke ring as the best imaginable, a quarter inch of crimson. But I sensed the meat -just wasn’t tender enough. Same for the pork. We presented it as pulled, sliced and chopped, with a special West Virginia vinegar sauce I’d been making doused on the chopped pieces. Again, an artful smoke ring. But the meat wasn’t falling apart as easily as it had the previous Sunday, on the trial run.

Pork in to the judges, and that was it. Maintenance drinking was over, recreational drinking commenced. We ate heavily, drifted into meat comas, draped like gods in our lounge chairs in the afternoon sun, awaiting the results. They were not good. The best we did was 20th for the pork. The brisket judges noted we’d failed on tenderness. “Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhr-B-CUEEEEEEEE!” the billy-goal mascot bellowed, mocking us, I am sure, throughout the awards ceremony. With seven hours of sleep for the weekend, it seemed even less funny than the night before, a near impossibility. I hadn’t delegated responsibilities like the first day, and it showed. Hadn’t planned enough, and it showed. But worst, worst, worst, I had violated the oldest, most-repeated bromide in smoking: “Low and Slow.” And it showed.

Meat Smoker’s Paradise does not open the gates for those who cut corners, or allow haste to eclipse craftsmanship.

Yet, while walking the grounds, chatting with veterans of the competition circuit, many urged simplicity. They had concocted elaborate sauces, developed rubs, they said, only to discover that simple approaches worked best. “What’s the point, then?” I grumped. I want to be a wizard of the smoke wood. An alchemist of all spices.

The pork shoulder butt, before we started ripping into it.

The pork shoulder butt, before we started ripping into it.

Here is what they know, even as they select the right combination of apple and hickory wood: Primal human satisfaction is to be found on the low road. It’s showing off your innate human cleverness, in the same way you might use a couple of wire coat hangers to repair the dangling muffler on your car, rather than go to the auto parts store for the correct brackets. On Sunday morning, as wood smoke drifted lazily from our chimneys, we chewed contentedly on Rick’s elk bacon, which we eventually concluded was probably yet another pig that had come to an unfortunate end, for him, on these grounds. Would you know the difference? The talk drifted to elk hunting, and the exorbitant cost of elk-hunting tags. For an elk bull in Colorado, that’s $525. It would be cheaper, we concluded, to buy an old beater car and speed through the mountain passes, perhaps listening to a ballgame on the radio, until you hit an elk, killed it, and threw it on the fire. That is smoking. The guy tryptych.