You may not be aware of this, but Aggies tell the very best Aggie jokes. They have truly heard them all and in the time honored tradition of folks with an abundance of well earned confidence, self deprecating humor runs amok. I like it.
I spent the weekend with plenty of men and women in maroon shirts, hard hats, and chain maille aprons topped with white aprons which were smeared with blood. They wielded the sharpest knives you would ever care to see and sent their quarry whizzing around the building hanging from hooks on tracks in the ceiling to demonstrate the proper way to make short work of an 800 pound carcass. I wasn’t about to tell any Aggie jokes. Not a single one.
I have just returned from the 2nd Annual Foodways Texas Barbecue Camp. Held primarily in the Meat Sciences building on the Texas A&M campus in College Station, it was a thoroughly educational, hands-on, classroom driven short course on the provisions we all use to try our hands as amateur pitmasters, tailgaiters and backyard warriors. About 60 die hard BBQ fans gathered from all parts of Texas and lands beyond to listen to the experts on beef, pork and poultry. But it wasn’t only about the classroom. I donned a hairnet and gloves along with everyone else in hands-on sessions in the cooler at the Meat Science Center learning about all of the various cuts of meat and poultry, and took our turns at seasoning huge slabs of meat and ribs that would become our meals.
We began our time together with the introductions that are ubiquitous in gatherings of this nature. But, what became immediately apparent was that I was sharing my weekend with some very interesting, very nice, and very funny people. Lawyers, doctors, engineers, restaurant and bar owners, finance guys, fathers, sons, brothers, buddies, writers, and all manner of other good folks were joined together in our common pursuit of not being awful at cooking a brisket. There were about five intrepid females at this party, up from one last year. Needless to say that clear lines were drawn early on about whose necks were chafing mightily from the maroon name tag lanyard hanging around each of our necks. I can’t say I was getting hives like some I saw (all in good fun, I assure you), but it was definitely my first piece of Aggie gear. However, as our spiritual leader, Jeff Savell (who holds a doctorate in animal sciences and is a professor at A&M), commented on several occasions, it was a friendly “ecumenical” gathering of like minded souls, at least on the subject of BBQ.
The Language of BBQ
Daniel Vaughn, a Dallas architect, better known to the BBQ cognoscenti of the nation as @bbqsnob of Full Custom Gospel Barbecue, led the charge with a talk on the barbecue vernacular. In other words, he put names on all of those previously ineffable qualities about meat that many of us have been trying to describe for ages. Daniel is an extremely nice person. But, I think he strikes a little fear in the hearts of BBQ purveyors in the state as he has made it a mission to visit many of them and render an opinion as to the quality of their stuff. He is an honest man.
Let me give you an example of his lexicon. A “sugar cookie” is brisket “fat that turns into a slightly sweet and flavorful nugget after copious amounts of smoke are applied.” It had never occurred to me to covet a hunk of barbecue fat before and it now seems that I’ve been passing by one of the coveted bites. “Meat snot” is meat caramel, or “the sweet sticky layer of rendered fat and gelatin” on brisket. How do you know it is meat snot (a positive term btw)? His test is simple. When the cheap food service paper napkins tear and stick to your fingers instead of removing anything, you are dealing with “meat snot.” All joking aside, Daniel has acquired a pretty vast amount of knowledge by putting his taste buds and cardiovascular health on the line for us in 100’s of BBQ joints around Texas, and it was great fun hearing about the criteria he uses to judge good BBQ and to generally pick his brain.
After talking about BBQ and gazing longingly at slides of carved brisket and ribs, we headed over to Martin’s to get a behind the scenes look at a classic old BBQ joint. Nothing appears to have changed in this establishment for years. Well worn formica tables, a horseshoe shaped lunch counter, news clippings on the wall, trophies, beer signs, and the sensory patina that only joints this old can possess. As many of the pit owners well know, updating anything in this world of codes and laws could mean the loss of just about everything that makes these old spots what they are. But there is nothing I would change about the place anyway. It conjures up memories I would like to have created with my grandfathers, if that makes any sense. Can you hear what it sounds like when an old stainless stand up beer cooler lid is slid open? I can. A beer bottle cap dropped into a metal trash can. The sound of a manual cash register. The indelible layer of smoke.
My BBQ colleagues and I took turns going back through the smoking room in the back of the restaurant, and generally getting in the way of the hard working men and women who were preparing for the lunch crowd. When you walk through the entry to the back room, you are greeted by walls that are layered with artifacts of all the smoke that has drifted through the building. There are creosote stalactites hanging from the exposed pipes. The fire extinguisher is red with a thick brown glaze. The pit was huge. Long doors were lifted using ropes and pulleys suspended from the ceiling. The room was black all over. The heat in the room is immense. I gained a new respect for the physical strength of the people who do this hot, dirty, heavy and hard work that yields the dishes that we so crave. Few meals require such back breaking labor.
Now here is the fantasy camp bit. When we had eaten too much already Daniel asked me and our other new friend, Seattle film producer Jack Timmons if we wanted to do a ride along and sample some BBQ at another spot in Bryan. That would be a “Hell, yes.” We made a quick side trip to Fargo’s as our camp mates bussed back to campus. On the trunk of Daniel’s car we spread out Styrofoam boxes of ribs, brisket, and chicken. We drank Coca-Cola, ate with our hands, and used white bread for napkins. Again I say, “Hell, yes!”
We made it back to campus just slightly late for the class on brining and marinades. This was followed by a talk on rubs given by Ryan Heger and Jeff Cernosek of Adams Spices. We then donned hair nets, aprons and gloves and headed back to one of the giant refrigerated classrooms where we were set loose on giant slabs of ribs and briskets and pork butts (which we later learned is not actually anything’s actual BUTT, in the juvenile sense of the word). Adams brought us big canisters of spices from molasses granules to garlic to play with. Our teams prepared rubs and worked them into the cuts, each of which were numbered with metal tags and logged on paper so that we could talk about the flavors of the finished BBQ.
The award for the best camp lecture that was way too short goes, without question, to Nick Nickelson. He abbreviated his sessions to keep us on track time-wise, but I think we all would have liked to hear a couple of hours of his thoughts. I never really thought I’d get fired up about food safety as a topic, but his wit and dry humor had us all paying close attention. And his talk on woods for smoking just left us wanting…needing…more time with him.
Alas, this is a BBQ semester packed into three days and we had things to do. Namely, we needed to roll a whole hog into the classroom and prep it for our whole hog dinner on Saturday night. Jeff Savell, Davey Griffin and Ray Riley, all A&M Meat Science men, gave us a preview of the animal work ahead of us on Saturday. The hog was massive, befitting our crowd size. It was brought in cleaned, opened and ready to season. They pumped the meat with a solution of apple juice and spices and filled the cavity with a rub. It was a heck of a thing to see. Those not accustomed to seeing whole carcasses could be a little put off by the enterprise. But, this is honest stuff. As a nation, our meat packers save the squeamish from ever coming face to face with their dinner. We were face to face with our dinner and it was fascinating.
Next, we visited the Animal Sciences Complex outside of town that night to eat a rib dinner. Richard Flores and Robb Walsh put in the sweaty hours to get the meal on the table. And it was great. It was wonderful. Sheep milled about on the grounds, and we milled about sneaking peeks at the progress, and enjoying a beautiful evening. A few drops of rain cooled things off and we all ate copiously. Did I mention that Shiner Bock donated cases and cases of beer to BBQ camp? Did I mention that H.E.B. supplied mountains of meat for us to learn on and eat? They did. And it made us all very happy, indeed.
Highlight of my evening: I spent a good chunk of time having a friendly conversation with Tom Perini. Tom runs Perini Ranch Steakhouse in Buffalo Gap which is renowned for its excellent food. He is not only an expert on chuckwagon cooking and beef, but he is also a genuinely terrific man and one of the founders of Foodways Texas. I was honored to bend his ear. And, I felt lucky to be in the same crowd.
Saturday morning we took a quick trip to Dr. Savell’s house where we got to inspect two big smokers already at work on the afternoon’s briskets and pork butts. And, we were shown the backyard pit that Savell and his friend Bill had built to cook whole hogs. It was lovely in its simplicity. Some of these cookers and pits are expensive affairs but this was perfectly assembled out of concrete blocks. It worked out to 6.5 blocks in length and 2.5 blocks in width, stacked 4 blocks deep. Two fires are made in the interior and there is a drip pan. Some blocks were laid down sideways to provide airflow. Two cover sections were constructed of sheet metal and thermometers were placed in each side. The ground beneath was simply covered with 24”x24” pavers. The pig was placed on an adjustable rack with handles which was lowered inside the pit by a team of strong guys, who someone accurately likened to pall bearers. The hog had two thermometers placed in it which were connected to a digital iGrill unit which communicated wirelessly to an iPad. Jeff’s son-in-law, Thomas, was drafted to help for the weekend. He showed me the information grids and statistics that were handled by the iGrill and it was fascinating. It also alleviates the need to open the lid.
Beef, Beef, Beef, and some pork
Saturday was the condensed version of BEEF 101. Whole carcasses were wheeled into the classroom on the tracks and they were labeled according to cuts. Then, vacuum sealed bags containing the typical cuts found in the store were brought in and compared to the carcass and to a skeleton affectionately referred to as “Bossy.” The things I don’t know about beef could fill a book, and I think I probably started out knowing more than your average consumer. But suffice it to say that even outside of the context of BBQ Camp, this was a very important day. I will now be able to approach the meat counter, not with all of the answers, but at least with a firm basis for asking the right questions.
We did the same exercise with a pig carcass, but the beef was much more complex and far larger, of course. Also, the grading and marketing issues with beef are far more complex. We had the opportunity to go back to the cooler and have hands on time with each. I do not look awesome in a hairnet.
During the day, meat was progressively coming off the smokers stationed in the parking lot and attended by a cadre of graduate students. This is hungry work friends. Perhaps one of the biggest take-aways from camp, which was illustrated by the variable timing of each piece of meat, not to mention each cut, was that it ain’t done until it is done. All the stomach growling in the world will not make a brisket tender, and patience is the ultimate virtue of BBQ. Dr. Savell pulled pork in front of the class and I couldn’t decide if he was more college professor or Julia Child up there. Either way, we were all ready to pounce. We had about five different pork butts to try, each seasoned differently by teams the day before. They were passed around and we were able to decide on favorites and correlate them with the spice mixes listed on the board. Later, the briskets came off the smoker and we were able to do the same. It was very instructive…and very good. We also had a tasting based on wood used in the smoker. You just don’t get opportunities like this in the real world. I suppose BBQ cook-off judges do. But, average Joe’s, not so much.
Whole Hog Dinner at the Savell Home
Dinner…whole hog time. I ran out to my car to drop something off and almost missed the hog coming out of the pit. It was the same but in reverse except the pall bearers were dealing with burning hot handles and a pig that had turned the color of dark roasted coffee. Some people said they thought the hog was doing “Hook ‘em Horns!!” when he emerged from the pit. I thought it looked like a hog trying to lift its middle finger. Either way, the speculation was short lived because after a flurry of photography we were all ready to dig in. Wielding nothing but tongs it seems, Jeff started pulling off succulent bits of pork. It was exceptional. I am a bigger beef eater than a pork eater and this was outstanding. It was so very tender. Plus, Hoover Alexander did all the sides and his BBQ beans are some of the best I’ve ever had. I loved them.
We had a great dinner and lots of great laughs. I bugged everyone to let me take their photo. I got to sit about and listen to Robb talk about the cookbook world with Daniel. Robb is a veteran cookbook author, his most recent book being Texas Eats. Daniel just turned in his manuscript to Anthony Bourdain, for a book called Prophets of Smoked Meat. I was in pretty good company.
Sunday was poultry day. We witnessed chickens being soaked and marinated and poked and prodded. Christine Alvarado packed as much information on the poultry business into as few hours as is possible. This was also completely enlightening. She mentioned a bird I’m definitely going to track down called a Smart Chicken which is apparently pretty amazing. Great things I never knew before as shared by Alvarado: 1) most pepperoni on pizzas is made from turkey; 2) try rubbing chicken with mayonnaise before grilling them…it helps with browning and crisp skin; 3) pop-up buttons on turkey are set to pop at 180 degrees, practically ensuring an over-cooked bird; 4) commercial birds are free of added hormones and antibiotics as a matter of course now. Poultry is one of those issues where I still would have liked to ask a million questions that have more to do with the industry than with BBQ and we flat ran out of time. But she and her colleagues do a Poultry 101 in much the same way as Dr. Savell and his crew do a Beef 101, so if you are a chicken lover…consider it.
What is my conclusion? Well, Foodways Texas BBQ Camp is really fun. Very fun. It is in its infancy and will likely get better and better every year. There are a limited number of spots and I think there will be an all out battle for them next year. I’d love to attend again. I’d love to send my husband. I know scores of folks who would love it. So, you will be competing for tickets with those of us who want to do it all over again. I also want to attend the Beef 101 class. I went to the grocery store this morning to buy a brisket and I was able to tell five things just from looking at the vacuum sealed package that I did not understand five days ago. BBQ aside, I will be a better consumer after this.
I would be remiss if I didn’t say that we all owe a debt of gratitude to Marvin Bendele, the director of Foodways Texas. The man works tirelessly to pull off these great weekends and the various parties that Foodways puts together (next up…Joe T. Garcia’s in Fort Worth). And Dr. Savell, his colleagues, his family and his students are wonderful. I never gave much thought to going to Texas A&M as an undergrad. I’m not sure I understood that the highway went further than Dallas when I was in Wichita Falls applying to schools. Now, I know better of course. But, if these young men and women are any indication of the caliber of students that this school is producing, I would surely not be opposed to being an Aggie Mom someday. We were treated exceptionally well. And many thanks also to Jackie Savell who not only tolerates massive cooking pits in the backyard of her lovely home, but also opened her home to 60-plus total strangers for one of the nicest evenings I’ve enjoyed in ages.
[Left: Foodways Texas founders, speakers, board members and leaders. Right: A&M Meat Sciences Grad students, including but not limited to Blake Hesteande, Gatlan Gray, Leslie Frenzl, Kayla Nelson, Melanie Moore, Meagan Igo, Jordan Maner, Matthew Hendricks, Jessica Steager. I think I speak for all the attendees when I extend to them heartfelt thanks.]
I could go on and on, as you well know. I’ll leave it at this. But I met a lot of wonderful folks that I have not mentioned. The attendees of this event are first rate, even the Aggies. Now that I’m away from all the knives I can say that. But rest assured, tailgaiting in the Big 12 and the Southeastern Conference will be greatly improved this year. One attendee deserves recognition, however. High praise to John Watkins who somehow managed to have his rehearsal dinner at Franklin Barbecue in Austin recently. I thought I might have the winning BBQ romance story since I met my husband at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo BBQ Cook-off in the Astrodome parking lot in Houston years ago, but John just might have outdone me with the Franklin’s coup. He’s the one a few photos up wearing a Shiner shirt, standing next to the dude in a…guess…Franklin T-shirt.