What BBQ is All About
Less than two months out from my first competition, my memories of that event are still fresh, as if they had happened today. I think a lot about barbeque in my spare time, to the extent of near-unhealthy obsession levels.
Ben and Brady, my crew, left to go home to sleep. I don't blame them, and I sure didn't expect them to stay up all night with me since they had graciously volunteered to help out. Nonetheless, I am left alone with myself, the darkness, and the heavenly smoke. Other teams are winding down from the excitement of the evening, preparing for the long overnight haul that will be peppered with catnaps and frequent checks of the pit temperature. Barbeque enthusiasts like me will probably stay up all night, tending the fires. My pit is small and finicky. If I go for more than an hour without checking the temperature, I could risk a dramatic drop in heat that could take an hour to regain.
I look around the parking lot; the smoke of 25 teams produces a foggy haze beneath the lights. At times, I can barely see Burnet Road or the surrounding buildings through the dense smoke.
The team two sites down throws a load of mesquite onto their fire. “Beginners,” I chuckle to myself. “BBQ does not need that much mesquite, at least not at one o'clock in the morning.” The acrid mesquite smoke hits my face. Man, you just don’t need that much!
I try to read a book, but the beer in my system is making me too drowsy. I try to relax, but the adrenaline in my body makes me restless. So, I just sit and look out at all the teams and watch them work. My corner spot on the lot gives me a good vantage point for viewing all the action.
I get up to check the pit and briefly open the main chamber. The briskets were forming some nice bark, and they should be mouth-watering by morning. I wondered how that fat was converting deep inside the brisket. Was it slowly becoming gelatinized like it should? Or had I made some critical error? I wouldn't know until about ten in the morning.
I sit back down on my camp stool, close my eyes, and let my thoughts wash over me like the hovering pit smoke. I think about my kids, my wife, my parents, the briskets in the pit, and everything else in between. I think about the wonderful thing that is barbeque and what it does to people. It can make people salivate; it can make people do the happy dance (myself included); and it can bring people together.
A proper barbeque has a lot of food. Considering the amount of meat on a whole brisket, the idea of barbeque pretty much assumes that it will not be a solo meal. Some of the best barbeques that I’ve attended had an insane amount of people in attendance. Even the greatest barbeque restaurants in Central Texas are built to accommodate hundreds of people. The Salt Lick in Driftwood is a giant place in the country that can hold hundreds of people on picnic tables under the oak trees. Even Rudy’s Country Store and BBQ seats groups of people on large picnic tables.
The longer I sit, and the longer the beer circulates through my blood, the more depressed I become. I miss my wife and kids. Why the hell would that matter? I'm going to see them in less than 12 hours. Besides, if I were home right now, I would be asleep! But, the thoughts persist. I missed tucking Alexander into bed and singing "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" to him. I just plain missed them.
I was lonely.
That’s when it hit me like a faceful of smoke. I sat bolt upright in my chair. Barbeque is not about smoke or fire; it's not about sauces and brisket and ribs. Barbeque is about people. That’s what it is all about. Barbeque is best served with people that you love.
A few months ago, I wrote a piece about the Great Transfiguration in barbeque, that is, the conversion of collagen into gelatin. It was sort of a tongue-in-cheek description of what goes on inside a piece of meat that is slow-smoked. Part of me actually does believe that barbeque is all about this conversion, but I cannot deny the true meaning.
Now I am wide awake. Great.
I sit in my camp chair for a few more hours, thinking about the people I love and the people I once loved. I think about my friends and family. I think about all the great times we’ve enjoyed, and all the great barbeque eaten.
Finally, I get up and throw a load of charcoal and wood into the pit and adjust the dampers for a slow burn. Time to get some rest.
As I climb into the truck and recline in the driver’s seat for a short nap, I am filled with a feeling of bittersweet happiness. I long for the past and look forward to the future, and visions of the ones I love float in and out across a silent stream of smoke.