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A cast iron grill smoking through its cracks.
Food & Drink

Distinctive Process: Smoking

smoke in the air

All it takes is one whiff of fire and smoke and I’m transported to one of my favorite memories — backyard barbecues with my dad. I grew up in the home where his grandparents once lived. It was passed down to him, complete with a huge backyard perfect for gathering the entire family together. The star of the show was the meal, which always consisted of delectably smoked meat paired with crisp salads and buttery corn on the cob. Like the house, the tradition and the recipes were passed down through generations. 

A single hint of smoke in the air and I can feel the blades of grass tickling my feet, reminding me of the days I’d sit with my brothers, aunts and uncles eating at the picnic tables we’d arrange on the lawn. It was never fancy, but it always represented a craveable moment that was wrapped up in mouth watering aromas, unbeatable unctuous flavors and the kind of love that every kid should be lucky enough to enjoy.

Weeks before the big day, Dad would get a glimmer in his blue eyes as he planned out his menu with my mom. She handled the sides. He was the master of smoke. We lived down the street from our local butcher, so he’d pop in to talk with Gary every few days to see what he’d be stocking in the days before our party. Pork shoulders, beef briskets and ribs were frequently added to the lineup, depending on what looked best.

prepped and primed

The night before, I’d see him gathering whole spices, toasting them and adding them to his special mortar and pestle. He’d be rubbing the meat down with his special blend of spices and seasonings while us kids went to bed. And in the morning, I’d wake up to the wafting aroma of mesquite, oak and hickory. It was an all day affair. 

Dad had prepped and primed himself, fueling up first on coffee and breakfast, later cracking open an ice cold beer as the heat of the summer sun shone down upon him. Between helping us get ready for everyone to arrive, he’d take up residence at the smoker, beside which he always kept a folding lawn chair and a small table stocked with his tools of the trade — a bucket with soaked wood chips and chunks ready to fuel the fire, oven mitts and a meat thermometer. 

After a full day of manning his smoker, he’d proudly announce that dinner was ready and add platters filled with meat that was falling apart as it was served. As delicious as the potato salad and other sides were, the flavor of that meat was the be-all and end-all of the meal. Our tables would fall practically silent as my normally chatty family tucked into their plates, marveling over each tender, flavorful bite.

low and slow

The long, low and slow cooking method basically melts the fat and connective tissues into the meat, rendering it impossibly succulent. Best of all, no matter what meat he chose for that meal, it was always perfectly infused with smoke and seasoned with his secret dry rub recipe.

That was a tradition that continued well into my 30s. As my brothers and I grew up, our big family barbecues became a little less frequent, but we made a point of getting together with as many of our extended family members as possible at least once a year. And Dad continued his tradition as Master of Smoke. 

Then the news came that he was ill. We rallied around him, but when the time came for our annual backyard barbecue, he wasn’t well enough to take the reins. Instead, he chose that year to pass the tradition on to us.

The long, low and slow cooking method basically melts the fat and connective tissues into the meat, rendering it impossibly succulent.

Now that Dad’s no longer with us, it’s a new tradition that we continue in his honor. I’m grateful every day that I learned the art of smoking for myself. As a kid, I always thought that cooking with fire was simple. But, as expert pitmasters can tell you (as my dad told me), doing it right takes time, patience and a fair amount of skill that only comes with practice. 

Today, I’m proud to take the mantle as Master of Smoke. Dad passed on his dry rub recipes to me, and I honed my skills over time with trial and error. I’ve learned about the importance of wood for heat and flavor. He taught me about the importance of having a mix of large and small pieces of wood to keep the fire burning as long as possible. I’ve tried a variety of woods from versatile hickory, intensely flavored mesquite, slightly sweet apple or rich, nutty pecan.

When I come to the end of a day of smoking, my hair and my clothing smells like the woods that I’ve used. This always reminds me of the days when I’d curl up on my Dad’s lap after a wonderful day spent with our family in the backyard. I like to think that my kids and my nieces and nephews will think of me when they catch a whiff of smoke in the air or after they take the tradition over in years to come.