I found this interesting article in the Edmonton Journal. Enjoy.
It's not tool use that defines man, it's what we do with fire
Friday, August 11, 2006
Beer-can chicken is just a beginner dish for the true barbecue chef, as opposed to the simple-minded griller.
Summer brings out the domesticated caveman in me. I cook over fire, provided that the flames are contained within my propane grill. At the start of every summer, I approach my barbecue monolith with the same curiosity and trepidation as the hairy extras in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. The kettledrum roll from Also Sprach Zarathustra pounds in my ears as I crack open the black hood and officially fire up barbecue season.
When I say barbecue I mean barbecue. I don't grill. That's for beginners. On the evolutionary scale grilling is Australopithecus; barbecue is Cro-Magnon Man. If you don't know the difference then you're probably still dragging your knuckles. The easiest way to spot grilled meat is to look for criss-crossing char marks. A backyard cook will grill steaks, burgers and hot dogs directly over high heat which produces the char marks, while a pit master will use low and indirect heat to barbecue pork ribs, beef roasts and whole chickens.
I have nothing against grillers, but I do have a problem with people who mistake grilling for barbecuing. Just because I doodle on a notepad doesn't mean I can compare myself to Da Vinci (who would have invented the barbecue if he wasn't so busy painting the Mona Lisa, inventing the parachute and creating conspiracy theories). When summer cooks lay claim to the art of barbecue, I want to scream, especially when they treat hamburgers like remote controls.
Last summer, I attended a barbecue party and watched in horror as an attention-deficit griller constantly flipped a hamburger patty until it was as overdone as a Seinfeld rerun. The cook squished the next patty under his spatula to speed things up. He was completely oblivious to the fact that the sizzling sound on the grill was the burger's death scream as all its flavour dripped away. I wanted to yell, "Put the spatula down and step away from the barbecue!"
Instead I bit my tongue, smiled politely and told the cook that the grilled shoe leather he called a hamburger tasted delicious, right before I "accidentally" dropped it into his golden retriever's mouth.
I'm no barbecue expert, but I know my way around the grill, thanks to BBQU -- Steven Raichlen's Barbecue University. I watched his cooking show and studied his books until I felt comfortable enough to attempt my first authentic barbecue: beer-can chicken. This recipe required a whole chicken to be stuffed with a half-full can of beer (I made sure they were on a first name basis first). While the cooking process was vulgar, the results were heavenly. The beer steamed the chicken from the inside out, and the barbecue cooked the skin to a golden crisp. My guests raved about the moist meat and the smoky flavour.
This early success fanned the flames of my barbecue passion. My next dish, pulled pork, was so tender that I could shred the pork shoulder with a plastic spoon, and the meat was even moister than the beer-can chicken. However, like a rock band, I was only as good as my last dish. I had to cook something new and exciting before I became the Blind Melon of barbecue.
I had heard about smoked baby back ribs that were so tender that the meat fell off the bone. Professional pit masters with smokers created these legendary racks of ribs, relying on charcoal briquettes, hickory wood chips and pure instinct. This was my next evolutionary step; my chance to walk erect with Smoking Barbecue Man.
I bought a backyard smoker, a barrel-shaped unit with a firebox attached to one side.
Because I had to shovel charcoal into the firebox like a steamship engineer, I nicknamed my smoker Li'l Joe (I rejected the name Hal in case the smoker became self-aware and tried to kill me).
My mentor, Steven Raichlen, advised in his book to use a charcoal chimney to light the coals.
I had a better plan -- a firebox sandwich with newspapers as the bread and charcoal briquettes as the filling. This would get my smoker up to the right temperature in no time.
Over the next few hours, I fed Li'l Joe a steady diet of briquettes, newspapers and wood chips.
Every time the temperature dropped, I stoked the firebox and every time the smoker got too hot, I closed the baffles.
All the while Li'l Joe puffed like a steamboat headed for flavour country.
Unfortunately, flavour country shared the border with my open screen door. Li'l Joe set off the smoke detector.
I assured my wife that smoked ribs were worth the trouble as we reset the detector. When I got back to Li'l Joe, he had gone as cold as my wife's reaction to my new smoking habit. I added more briquettes but decided to forgo the smoke until I closed the back door.
A 10-pound bag of briquettes, a box of wood chips and a week's worth of newspapers later my ribs were done. My wife sliced off an end piece and claimed the meat was tough. I explained that the end piece was too close to the firebox. However, the rest of the rack was tougher to hack through than a Costa Rican jungle. I wouldn't admit failure until I tasted the ribs.
My first bite told the tale. I felt like I had chomped into a cigarette and pork fat spring roll. Radical temperature changes and excess ash were not part of recipe.
If Steven Raichlen tasted these ribs, he'd boot me out of BBQU.
The ribs went into the garbage and I went into the bathtub, where I washed off the stink of smoke and failure.
Ironically, with the house smelling like a forest fire, my wife and I were forced to eat at a burger joint. The cook flipped my burger a thousand times before he squished the remaining juice out of the patty.
Still, the burger tasted better than the crow I had just eaten.
Playwright and author Marty Chan recently launched his new kids' book, The Mystery of the Graffiti Ghoul.