When you walk into a room and the first person who catches your eye is Tootsie Tomanetz and then you meet Patrick Feges, and then you see John Brotherton, and Russell Roegels, and then generations of the family Black walk in, and then you get to say hi to Wayne Mueller…you could be forgiven for wondering if you had died and gone to Heaven, where God was busy assembling the BBQ all-star crew. But no. The fact is that if you dig deeply into Texas BBQ, it doesn’t take long to figure out that everyone is in touch with Texas A&M and the folks in the Meat Science department.
I’ve said it before, there is little in this state that touches on agriculture, farming or ranching…cattle and all their products, chickens, turkeys and pigs, too…pecans, peaches and persimmons…for which Texas A&M doesn’t consider it their duty to reach out and help in some way. Thus I found myself again at the spiritual home of Texas meats, The Kleberg and the Rosenthal Centers at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas to attend the Texas Barbecue Town Hall Meeting, a gathering of restaurateurs, pitmasters and industry folk connected intimately to the fine art of smoked meats.
Where else can you casually bump into a collection of scholars who study things such as “Assessment of Postmortem Aging Effects on Texas-style Barbecue Beef Briskets” or grill an expert on the seasonal variability of spot market pricing for pork bellies?
Did you know that next Monday, a new method of grading the maturity of beef carcasses goes into effect and one has to know a bit about bovine dental development to get the hang of it? When you extrapolate the effects of the grade changing that will result from this new grading system over a system that produces billions of pounds of meat per year, the economic impact of such a change is not negligible. Fine tuning on grading (or the mis-calibration of grading technology) can have millions and millions of dollars of impact on the economy, and that impact ends up affecting your “two meats with sides” at your favorite BBQ joint.
The people who make your favorite dishes gathered on Monday for a Town Hall Style meeting with the experts to hear all about it and to ask questions of the people who study the myriad minutiae of beef.
That being said…here’s the real truth. BBQ in Texas is a family. We all just like to get together to say hello and catch up. Top 50 lists are wonderful fun, and Yelp might help you fine tune your choices, but the people who make your favorite (and even not so favorite) BBQ bust their tails every day to turn out their best work. I’m sure there is a scoundrel here and there, but the folks involved with Texas BBQ are some of the nicest in the world. Who would pass up an opportunity to catch up for a day? Do you like how I put myself in there as part of the “we?’ Did you catch that? Groupies are important too, right?
We began the day with a talk by Dr. David P. Anderson. As I hinted above, this was the talk about economics and markets and Dr. Anderson did his best to run us through the market conditions for pork, beef, poultry, and dairy. Dairy plays into this conversation because much of the Prime grade meat we get actually comes from dairy breed cattle, and then there’s my butter. Butter is important to talk about, too. At least I like to talk about butter. Takeaways from this talk: We are in a period of low feed costs, which benefits producers of birds and hogs, in particular. Beef inventory has rebounded nicely, production is expected to increase, demand continues to be good, and international trade is always a big question mark in forecasting. Marketing plays an important role in costs and demand and specific cuts like beef rib-eyes and bacon can change an overall picture for the year. Also, specific large retailers can shift the entire curve of one product. Consider the impact of Arby’s putting a pork belly sandwich on their menu.
As a cattle raiser myself, I thought this talk was fascinating. Yes, I am a cattle raiser. I have cows. I have bulls. I am part of this great Texas food system, as small as my part is. But these talks impact how we birth, feed, raise and sell our cattle, so I was glued to these charts. We discussed how feed prices and beef prices impact the timing of taking cattle to market. Also, Dr. Anderson spoke of how there is now a previously unheard of premium on heifers, which come to market smaller. Smaller animals equal smaller cuts and many restaurants are asking for more reasonable sized portions from cuts. The animals typically brought to market are getting so huge that the individual cuts are becoming cumbersome to market and serve in a restaurant setting. Dr. Anderson fit a lot of information into a very short period of time and I would have liked to have spent a semester in one of his classes.
We moved on to an anticipated talk about beef aging. Specifically, the question at hand was whether or not aging improved the palatability of smoked brisket. You might think that palatability is a yes/no question. But when you put scientists to the task of assessing palatability it becomes far more complex. Suffice to say, our BBQ scientist, McKensie Harris, walked us through the experiment which utilized twenty-four carcasses to yield 48 matched briskets. They were aged under refrigerated condition for seven, twenty-one, and thirty-five days respectively, and then frozen. They were thawed at the same time, taken to a beloved BBQ joint with the capacity to handle such an experiment (Bryan Bracewell, Southside Market, Aggie), and smoked. Then they were taken back to College Station as they rested in peach paper and subjected to the tasters. There is more to it than that, of course. It is science, not the Pepsi challenge. There’s a lot of math involved. Shear tests were performed. Standard deviations and means and footnotes happened. But the bottom line from Harris’ work is this: No.
Simply put, postmortem aging had no impact on tenderness or juiciness. In the parlance, “no added palatability benefits would be achieved through using products with extended postmortem aging periods.” If I remembered how, I would insert a footnote here and tell you way at the bottom how to find the article. Let’s just say it can be found in the journal Meat and Muscle Biology of the American Meat Science Association and was published on June 7, 2017.
Lunch was provided by the Webbers from Tin Roof BBQ in Atascocita, Texas. They served an excellent Prime Angus Top Butt Sirloin that was coated in spices and pepper and smoked to perfection. It is a cut I don’t see very often, but it was quite lovely. They also served us some good old fashioned broccoli rice casserole that was a serious treat. The beef was from 44 Farms and Brek and Ronnie really put a nice meal in front of us. Many thanks to them.
After lunch we moved over to the Rosenthal Center where so much of my beef education has occurred. This is where we hold the Barbecue Summer Camp and Camp Brisket, cooperative efforts of both the Meat Sciences Department and Foodways Texas. This is where the meat lives, so to speak.
We suited up in our hairnets (and for the gentlemen, beard nets and mustache nets) and hard hats and went back to the cooler to inspect some beef carcasses and learn about the impending changes to grading standards. Bear with me as I was having more fun taking photos than paying attention. However, the USDA is updating the methods by which companies who use the grading program can establish the age of an animal. The beef industry begins out in the pastures with animals generally to-ing and fro-ing about the ranges. And cows do not send out birth announcements. It has been my personal experience that the ladies consider it a rather private affair and unless they are in some distress, will go find a nice quiet spot, give birth, and show up again later trailed by a new member of the family. Multiply this by the size of the herd and there are generally speaking lots of new family members goofing about the pasture in a matter of weeks. These little beasts grow up together in generally consistent age groups, but there are no birth certificates, per se. Often, after a season or two they are sold at auction to a different rancher who will feed them and watch them grow and then sell them on that gain. Then they often go to yet another home and are finished before going to a processor. They have several stops along the way to the plate and generally not very specific proof of age. But age matters in grading. Cattle 30 months and younger are included in the youngest maturity group for grading, or “A” maturity. And this has a significant impact on the price they bring. Previously, the system of evaluating maturity hinged on muscular and skeletal evaluations. But, all animals and breeds mature a little differently, and heifers mature, skeletally speaking, more quickly than males. The new system allows producers to use age documentation or dentition to establish the younger age. Ray Riley basically gave us a lesson in bovine dentistry to show what it was all about. Cattle lose baby teeth just like other animals and new adult teeth grow in their place. By assessing how many teeth have been lost and how many adult teeth have emerged, you can get a very good picture of how old the animal is. Now this information can be used to help establish age for maturity grading purposes which goes into the overall picture of the quality grade for the carcass. This is important because for businesses and consumers, the grading is often how we assess our purchases with respect to flavor, tenderness, and juiciness.
Ray also cut several carcasses at the rib-eye and Davey Griffin went through the basics of grading with respect to marbling. Many photo ops were had in the cooler with the beef and then we returned to the classroom to go over beef cuts in a slightly warmer environment. We all enjoy the brisket, of course, but there is a lot of education to be had for BBQ restaurants about beef ribs as well as alternative cuts that can work in a restaurant. Many great spots will utilize interesting cuts like the Top Butt Sirloin that Tin Roof served. Many have Prime Rib days. Many will do tri-tip specials, and whatnot. Having a repertoire of different cuts to utilize and knowledge of beef anatomy in a boxed beef world not only keeps things fresh for customers but allows the industry to be more knowledgeable about pricing and value in what they purchase. The Town Hall Meeting allows for a brushing up on such things as well as an opportunity to ask questions of the experts on all things beef…or turkey…or pork…or chicken.
I’m not expert. Not by a long shot. Every time I go to A&M I am reminded about how little I know, but also about how much fun it is to learn about these things. I think I’d trade my economics degree and probably my law degree as well, at this point, for a stint as an undergrad in Meat Sciences. I find it that interesting. And these are the people creating and improving the food systems that will feed our world. Food. What could be a more basic topic of conversation. It seems simple because we do it every day. We buy, we cook, we serve, we eat. But, good grief, is it ever complex. In beef alone, we are talking about 27 BILLION pounds of product in one year alone. Quality, safety, and logistics are just the start of this conversation. But this is where the conversation happens, and technology and skills and ideas are honed. If you eat any beef at all, I assure you that your experience was touched in many ways by the work done at Texas A&M. More than you can imagine, I suspect.
But more than that, I find it interesting and extremely touching that around this core of good humans at Texas A&M, more specifically this Meat Sciences program, a family has been born in the BBQ community. I often talk about chosen family, and how much I love my friends at Foodways Texas. Texas BBQ is a chosen family of passionate, hard working people whose entire mission is to feed people the best BBQ they can. The fact that they come back to school when they can to touch base with their colleagues and to learn more is a testament to that drive. And, what a lovely family this is. I was honored to be a fly on the wall.
There are many opportunities to be a part of this learning experience, should you have the interest. Obviously I am biased. I want you to join Foodways Texas and come to one of our BBQ camps. But if you are a beef producer, a rancher, a restaurateur or a grocer. If you are a chef or you are a journalist who covers food, there is an extension program for you. Please check out Texas A&M website for more information.