By Dennis Lopez
If you are a writer, you know that the foundation for any story is people, place and a problem.
If you are someone familiar with the art of smoking meat, no doubt you are familiar with the hundreds of YouTube clips out there to give you limitless advice on how to prepare and serve everything from crawdads to caviar using nothing more than some smoldering eucalyptus leaves and sawdust for seasoning.
And if you know much about cooking meat, you probably understand a brisket is considered a true challenge because…well…it’s a huge hunk of meat that today costs more than the gross national product of some Third World countries and is tricky to prepare to the standards of the meat-smoking moguls of the internet.
So when my wife suggested we cook a 17-pound brisket for dinner with my kids and granddaughter, I thought…”Hey, how hard can it be? I’ll just check with YouTube.” And off I go to the computer for surefire advice from the YouTube community.
“Hmm…this looks interesting,” I say to myself.
“Texas-style brisket. It’s got to be the one,” I say, looking at a Volkswagen-sized piece of cyrovac-wrapped former cow on my counter. I carefully write notes detailing the steps, time and hints for cooking this beef behemoth. “Hey, how hard can it be? You don’t even have to trim it.”
I soon would find out.
Like good post-accident investigators, we need to look at events before the disaster. So, let’s rewind to about three days prior to the brisket debacle. It all began when my wife got a deal on brisket. And not just one, oh no. The price was so good we had to have FOUR! Most likely you could assemble an entire steer from this much beef. Freezer space meant something had to go and that was the genesis of my problem. Smoke one of the briskets. Or was it?
The root of the problem actually is two-fold. Part one began on a long-distant Father’s Day when my “Big Gift” turned out to be a smoker. In a big box. In pieces. With a million look-alike screws, nuts and bolts. If memory serves me, it seems assembly of the black beast was completed shortly before Father’s Day the next year.
The second-fold is my neighbor and good friend to whom I refer as “The Anti-Dennis” as we share the same first name. He is neat. I am messy at best. He never lets his food on his plate touch. Me? In the army I was okay eating food that blended on my tin tray like an Andrew Wyeth painting. At work, he was known as “smart Dennis.” Me: the “other Dennis.”
It was he who brought candied smoked bacon or smoked stuffed jalapeno peppers to my house to entice me to start using my smoker. And Dennis is the guy who said, “Once you put something on the smoker, you don’t have to do anything until it’s done.” So how is this relevant to my story? Allow me to explain.
About nine hours before my family and their appetites were due, I put the massive slab of beef on my smoker as per the YouTube guru’s instructions and with “set it and forget it” foremost on my mind. A list of errands in hand, including one “pick up your granddaughter” highlighted, I set off, confident that the star of our dinner was on its way to smoky goodness.
Back home around 12:30 and our granddaughter napping comfortably, I went out to check the reserve of pellets on the smoker. Odd, I thought, no smoke? Nope. Not even a small whiff. In fact, the thermometer on the smoker showed no activity at all. And the brisket? Stone cold.
I began my limited checklist seeking the answer. Pellets? Yep. Plugged in? You bet. As a forlorn hope, I punched the ignition switch and, voila, smoke.
And then more smoke. And then even more smoke now was pouring from every gap and opening in my smoker. No cause for alarm, I say to myself. It IS a smoker after all. Yes, but the flames that erupted from this steel terror weren’t part of the deal. And there were plenty of them. And spreading. Quickly. Seems the mammoth brisket was larger than the fat recovery tray beneath it. Remember the “don’t need to trim it” part of YouTube guy’s instructions? Only good advice IF you have a smoker as big as a Buick. Mine? The size of a Buick’s glove box. Fat had run into the bottom of the smoker. Poof. Fire in the hole.
All I could think of was a high dollar roast going up in flame and having to spring for pizza for dinner and having to explain why to my family. What to do before the brisket became food fit only for the gods…a burnt offering.
Start the gas BBQ! That’s it. So how to transfer the now-smoldering hunk of cow the 15 feet to the grill? The snow shovel! That’s the answer. Zip into the garage, grab my reasonably clean snow shovel and a big pair of insulated leather welding gloves. No doubt my rescue of the brisket looked a bit like a scene from a steel mill where a worker uses a shovel-like tool to move a vat of flaming, spattering, molten steel from one area to another. I lacked only protective goggles and an asbestos apron.
I shovel the brisket onto the gas grill and hope for the best.
The rest is a sort of wood smoke haze. Wearing the welding gloves, I disassembled the hot smoker and cleaned it top to bottom and rebuilt it, added fresh pellets and, fingers crossed, pushed the go button…and smoke…again, but this time it was controlled. So, hey, why not try again? Back to the snow shovel and welding gloves, hoping that by some miracle, I had beaten the odds and my brisket was YouTube quality. A hasty aluminum foil drip tray now in place, I was hopeful I had discovered a new way to make the world’s best smoked brisket.
Nope. Hours later, I was back in front of my computer looking for ways to carve a leather-tough smoked brisket. And then, to look up the phone number of the closest pizza place.