A bevy of barbecue enthusiasts surround you. “Smoke ring!” “Burnt ends!” “Crust!” The slang comes from all angles, out of the mouths of both experts and newbies. You’re in line at Franklin Barbecue or La Barbecue, right? Nope. It’s Barbecue Summer Camp, kids.
Every year Foodways Texas joins forces with Texas A&M’s Meat Science Section for a meat-filled weekend of teaching barbecue at the college. As we explored in our new videos, Texas barbecue is a tradition that families have handed down for generations. But it’s no longer enough for professional pitmasters and casual smokers to poke a piece of brisket to tell if it’s finished. Nowadays, the science of smoking is critical.
That’s where Barbecue Summer Camp shines. Last weekend, at the fourth annual camp, A&M professors Dr. Jeff Savell and Dr. Davey Griffin (plus their army of grad students) taught campers about the chemical process that creates the smoke ring, the animals' anatomy and the science behind brining, and also delved into terms like soot, creosote, the Maillard reaction and more. Panels with professionals like La Barbecue’s pitmaster John Lewis and Snow’s owner Kerry Bexley added even more expertise, and hands-on sessions allowed campers to prepare and smoke briskets themselves and party with a pig roast on Saturday night.
So who frequents these events? Foodways Texas executive director Marvin Bendele says it ranges from competition barbecuers and families to pitmasters and chefs from chain restaurants. One Seattle resident came to class knowing nothing and has now opened his own restaurant called Jack’s BBQ in the Northwest. Campers’ passion is clear from the price: $550 for the public and $495 for Foodways Texas members. Tickets go on sale six months beforehand, in early December, and sell out in mere hours.
Texas barbecue is smoking hot right now. Savell says, “Texas has three foods: chicken-fried steak, Tex-Mex and barbecue. But no one is standing in line for the first two.” Those lines partially owe their length to this century’s new school of barbecue. This generation of brisket differs wildly from what Texans ate 50 years ago. “The brisket I ate as a kid wouldn’t be bold enough today,” Savell reminisced. Whereas the brisket we Texans grew up eating until the mid-2000s was lean to the point of being dry, “Today the product has a heartier flavor and a crust. It has fat and no one apologizes for it.”
Whether they’re buying brisket or smoking it at a competition, everyone wants to capture the magic. It’s not so easy to turn water into wine, though. “To apply the art,” Savell told us, “you have to have a better understanding of the science.” He likens it to creating a more beautiful painting when you comprehend the chemistry of paint.
While La Barbecue pitmaster John Lewis said he had a good time on his panel about building the perfect smoker, he’s already a Michelangelo of meat. Lewis said the real treat started on his tour of A&M’s meat science and technology center, when he stepped into the kill room and spent time with the wheel of beef slabs. “Obviously I don’t want to kill cows,” he told us. “But it would be helpful to be able to break down a side of beef.” Knowing about cuts of beef and the slaughtering and butchering processes also helps experts like Lewis communicate better with suppliers to get a more desirable starting product. Barbecue camp features a session called Brisket 101, but some serious folks want more.
Enter Camp Brisket, Foodways Texas’ winter weekend, which is almost as popular as Barbecue Summer Camp and has been around as long. Though it’s open to the public, it draws more professional pitmasters, even reigning kings Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue and Justin Fourton of Pecan Lodge. Lewis says that he can’t wait to attend his first one this coming January to learn more about the types of beef, grades of beef, cuts, terminology and more. In other words, it turns out that alchemy works better when it’s bolstered with a little modern science.
For a look into the weekend, check out our slide show below.
La Barbecue's John Lewis pensively examines the slabs of beef.
During Brisket 101, campers learn about cuts and grades of beef and get a general anatomy lesson from Ph.D. candidate Crystal Waters.
A&M professor Dr. Davey Griffin talks beef to a captive audience.
Salty, savory, fatty brisket, in all its glory.
After rubbing briskets on the first day, campers get to smoke them on the second and then evaluate their work.
Saturday night ends with a pig roast party after a hard day's work.
Big beef ribs benefit from a gentle rub before campers put them on the smoker.
The gorgeous finished product.