Up in Smoke: A Dangerous & Delicious Journey to the Heart of Flavor Country, or How I Came to Rock the Red Right Hand

I thought I knew barbecue. Spice rubbed steaks perfectly seared. Fennel seeds folded into lean ground beef. Sizzling hot links bursting with capsaicin. Pepper strips glistening with extra virgin olive oil. Carne asada grilled to a crisp over glowing coals. I was living in a fantasy world of outdoor cooking. But it was all a lie.

I went to Texas and the scales fell from my eyes. Barbecue’s pink and fatty and sold by the pound on sheets of butcher paper with cheap beer and stacks of white bread. Most importantly, it’s smoked, not grilled. That means it’s tender. While grilled food toughens over the flame, perfectly smoked meat seems to melt in your mouth. A week of glorious velvet brisket tightened my jeans and shortened my belt and set me on a mission.

I would master this art, or die trying.

Upon return to California, I started my research, learning first that an approximate smoke flavor could be reached by mixing some wood chips in with the charcoal on my Weber. But I wasn’t going for a cheat; I wanted the real thing. And so it became clear that I’d need to make a serious upgrade to my outdoor kitchen.  There were, however, some concerns. Kat and I are renters and notoriously nomadic, so as appealing as the idea of a traditional brick barbecue pit sounded (and I’ve got just the stack of bricks for it), it seemed a little too permanent for our tastes. The long barrel smokers, while portable, begged a little too much real estate on a porch already housing both gas and charcoal grill. Finally, the answer came to us in the form of a Brinkmann vertical water smoker, obtained through craigslist. Sure, it sounds like it might be some sort of fancy bong, and it looks like a tiny bank vault, but we got it for less than $50 and it fits perfectly between my grills.

Smoking takes the whole concept of low and slow to its own particular extremity. Done right, food cooks at between 150 and 250 degrees over a space of 5 or more hours, which means you can’t really just throw a sausage on after work unless you’re thinking about breakfast. Proper smoking requires forethought, planning, and ritual.

Two agonizing weeks passed between my bringing the Brinkmann home and actually having the span of uninterrupted daylight I’d need to make a meal on it. During that time, I cleaned my new smoker, read extensively on barbecue, collected spices, and planned my recipe. I’d be making skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs, rubbed with salt, pepper, paprika, cayenne, garlic, and sugar, smoked with assorted peppers from my garden and shallots in a bath of beer left over from new year’s over a hickory fire. The guy who sold me the smoker said I should start simple, after all.

The day of smoking came. I guessed I’d be taking about five hours to get the chicken up to a salmonella-free 180 degrees, so I started cooking at 1:00, anticipating a 6:00 dinner. I built my fire, and went into spice my thighs and chop the peppers and shallots. After 30 or so minutes, the smoker’s top chamber was reading 200 degrees. I poured beer into the bowl above the flames and it started to lazily bubble and steam. I dropped the shallot and pepper chunks in and started placing my thighs on the grates.

Before long, the backyard was filled with aromatic and eye-watering smoke. As the afternoon wore on, I replaced the beer in the bowl and monitored the chicken’s progress. The skin was rapidly blackening and crisping, but also trapping steamed beer against the meat. They were self-marinating. By 4:30, my thighs had reached a core temperature of 140 degrees. I flipped them over and added some wood chips to the fire and went back into the house, impressed with how smoothly things were going.

And here, things took a turn.

By 5:00 the temperature of the smoker had dropped below the temperature of the chicken thighs themselves. The beer had stopped bubbling and was congealing with chicken fat, and my fire was down to embers. I threw on more wood chips but they only flared up and smoldered. Soon, I was down to tree trunk cross-section thick wood chunks that would only smother the remaining embers if I threw them in the pit.

And so, I can say this: When I went to the shed to get the charcoal starter fluid, I was desperate. I wasn’t thinking straight. I was a smoked meat junky in danger of losing my next fix. So, I did what any junky would do, and took one of those railroad tie sized hickory chunks and doused it in butane. and somewhere in the back of my head, I was thinking this isn’t the best idea, but by that time, I was throwing it in the pit and this giant tongue of flame was already taking all the hair off of my right arm and blackening my knuckles and I was screaming Sweet heavenly mother of kombucha don’t let this ruin the chicken and grabbing a knife and running to the giant aloe plant and hacking off a spear and squeezing the gel out onto my still-smoking arm. And as the cooling relief spread, I closed the door to the fire pit and cracking a Diet Coke as the thermometer inched back up past 200 and sure dinner was late and my arm looks all deformed but damn was that some chicken.


About Mark

It is the business of the future to be dangerous; and it is among the merits of science that it equips the future for its duties. -A.N. Whitehead
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6 Responses to Up in Smoke: A Dangerous & Delicious Journey to the Heart of Flavor Country, or How I Came to Rock the Red Right Hand

  1. Kat says:

    I don’t think the first photo really displays the singed armhair… or lackthereof.
    Do I need to start standing by with a fire extinguisher?

  2. nw says:

    HOLY HELL YES.

  3. Clint says:

    Out of curiosity, Kat… what’s it like being shacked up with a mad scientist?

    • Mark says:

      It’s been a weird progression. I used to be a guy who only cooked two things: bland chicken breasts and a green bean recipe I copped from our pal Dave. Then we got married and our friends gave us all of this cooking equipment and suddenly, I started putting very strange things on Kat’s dinner plate.

      She’s been a sport, though, and taken the successes with the failures.

      I may have pushed it a little too far the other day when I announced my intention to use the brinkmann to make grilled double downs.

    • Kat says:

      Mark’s giving me way too much credit by calling me a sport… it’s totally terrifying.
      The thing is, I really support creative ventures and trying new things, but when flames start shooting around the yard and Mark starts talking about drinking the sinister, browning, fermenting kombucha brew that’s merrily cooking away in our metal garden shed, I get concerned.
      I especially hope he doesn’t transition over to the automotive sciences by attempting to install a flux capacitor in my convalescing car.

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