A Welcoming Outpost on a Cold, Snowy Night…

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Ooh, there is something about a snow day that either gets you pumped up to do all of the inside things that you haven’t done in a while, like organize, cook, or write.   Or the complete opposite: hunker down and do absolutely nothing.   For the first few hours, not even the plows would come out.   Why bother?   The road would just cover up as fast as it was laid bare.   The thick layer of white precipitation may physically stop you from getting in your car and driving somewhere, but mentally, it also impedes you from communicating with anyone, anywhere, for any reason.  It’s a snow day!   You are cut off from the world as if the apocalypse has fallen.   Here in New Jersey, we haven’t had many opportunities for a snow day this year, so this week, I splurged and did the latter.   But it did get me thinking about the last big storm we had about a month ago, still early in the season, in which I chose to not let the snow ruin my plans.   And fortunately, it didn’t ruin the plans of some of New Jersey’s barbeque restaurants, because when the women are out of town, little white flakes falling from the sky will not ruin the well laid plans of men.    And on this night, we had our little men with us to try a new place that we hadn’t tried before, Nik’s Outpost Barbecue on Route 202 in Bridgewater. outpost-bbqWith more snow in the forecast, and a couple of inches on the ground already, it was good to see this photo on their Facebook page, with the caption “Might be snowin’, but we’re still smokin’!”   The place was open, the smoker was going and keeping temperature, and we were ready to eat some meat.  I called ahead to see if they were BYOB because they don’t have a bar (they are!) and if they had a television because it was NFL playoff night and they don’t have a bar (they didn’t!).    Not a deal breaker though.  So I threw some IPA’s, random leftovers from Oktoberfest and my youngest son, Brennan, (not specifically in that order) into the car and drove down the hyperspace-like highway to meet my buddy and bbq teammate Boy McBoy and his youngest, Nathan, to try out a new joint.

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The place is huge for a barbeque restaurant.   Very open, decked out in stone and wood (palm trees were a little out of place), with large amount of space between the tables to walk between.  There was an extra room that wasn’t even being used.   With the large windows and the snow falling outside, you could have very well been in Aspen rather than Bridgewater.   When I came in, the blinds were drawn, but I wanted to see the large offset smoker that was parked on the deck right outside, so I drew up the blinds to get a nice view of the smoke billowing into the cold night.  img_12821Rarely, do you get to see the smoker right outside your window that is cooking your food,   It reminded me of going to Shakey’s in Memphis as a young kid when we would walk along the ramp and look through the window as the cooks made the pizzas.  (Sorry, I can’t control these flashes).  Every hour or so though, someone from the kitchen would venture out and lift the lid to check on what was inside.  Usually the smokers are boxy Southern Prides, hidden away in the kitchen that don’t add anything to the experience for Northern newbies, so I have to hand it to (Nik?) for the great touch of putting it right outside in line’s sight, along with the pile of wood to feed the beast.    Unfortunately, the manager never came out or emailed me as promised, so I couldn’t get any more information on how they cooked their food.

I had read on Yelp about the large chalkboards on the walls for the kids to draw on, to mixed reviews, and saw that they were very popular, as each square inch had been explored.   The place was not crowded when we came in but a few groups braved the night, and the boards continued to be really popular, with our own kids as well, though most of their comments were Eagles or Jets related.   Such good boys!

We ordered the Sampler for Two with cole slaw and baked bean sides, along with the smoked grilled hot links to start.   The boys ordered Tennessee Pup hot dogs each, since they seem to be the specialty here, and they include all of their favorites: hot dogs, pulled pork, and mac and cheese.  This went along with a promise to share our sampler with them, of course.   Each table came equipped with four types of bbq sauce, including the rarely seen in these parts, Alabama White.  img_12861You can see Brennan’s reaction after being forced to taste that one.  I am not a fan of the mayo-based barbeque sauces either, but would love to visit those parts of the South where it is popular to see how it is used and to sample traditional barbeque that uses it.   We enjoyed trying the sauces as we waited and talking about each one.   The consensus of the table was that the Texas Sweet was the sauce of choice here. (But beware when there are so many sauces on the table… for you may need them.)   The hot link appetizers came and we loved them!  Although there were many of them to be had, they had a great taste, so we took our time to savor them.   I recommend getting them, but if you have a large party, you will need two of them.

When the main course came, Boy and I were split.  The pulled pork and ribs were well cooked and tender, but did not have much taste to them at all, whether through any infused smoke or from the rub.  Boy thought that each was very good with the different barbeque sauces that were provided and that this was part of it, whereas I felt that each should be able to stand on their own, first and foremost.  I want to taste the smoke from the wood that is used and then appreciate the spices that make up the dry rub. Unfortunately, it wasn’t there for me.  With the sauce, yeah, it was good, but I tried it without the sauce first, and so my disappointment lingered.  The chicken was well charred on the outside but moist inside, allowing you to bite through the thin skin and enjoy the taste of coal-fired meat.    The brisket was somewhat of a mystery.  It was very thinly sliced and basting in its own sweet ju-ju, but minus the tell-tale smoke ring.   It had a great flavor to it and was the table favorite, with each of us agreeing that when we came back, we would order the smoked (?) brisket sandwich.  Again,without being able to ask the pitmaster, my guess is that the brisket was covered while smoked which would have prevented any obvious smoke rings, and perhaps sliced when it was cooled to get the very thin slices without falling apart.  If he comments on this to let me know otherwise, I will change this.   The kids enjoyed the messy hotdogs, but overall I think that atmosphere lent itself to a great place to gather some friends together.

Below is Boy’s review, which I copied from his Facebook page.   We talked about it a few days ago, so I wanted to put his comments up too.

JD:  Here’s the high level review: I’ll start with what I didn’t like. The pulled pork and ribs were bland. That would be ok if I can get a good pork taste bit no. Needed sauce. However, because they had a good sauce selection, it made it ok. The chicken I would call just good. Can eat it with or without sauce. The highlight and what made the trip worth it was the brisket. Probably the best around. Sauce with it would be a violation. The blackboard walls kept the kids entertained and it’s BYOB.

Note from Author:  BTW, don’t blame me for the lateness of this post, blame damn Netflix for putting up all of the seasons of Spartacus!!!!

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Six Ways to Establish New Jersey’s Barbeque Identity

1. Embrace Jersey produce

New Jersey is not called the Garden State for nothing!   Sure, many could think of better nicknames for the state, but only we are able to do that, and we really don’t mean it anyway.   We are very proud of our state, especially its food.  When I attended the Wine and BBQ Experience this year, I had the pleasure of speaking with Tom Cosentino, director of the New Jersey Wine Growers Association, and found out that we had some common ground regarding our missions.   We both want to make more people aware of some of the great products that New Jersey has to offer, both wine and barbeque.  One of the ways that New Jersey is competing with top-notch wineries from around the country is to embrace many of the farm produce in which New Jersey already excels.   Not only are Jersey wineries taking advantage of some of the state’s unique micro-climates and topography to yield some terrific grapes , but they are producing award-winning wines from such fruits as cranberries, blueberries, peaches, apples, and even tomatoes.   Wineries are capitalizing on the crops in which New Jersey is nationally recognized to create high quality wines from local, high quality ingredients.  New Jersey pitmasters and chefs need to do the same.   Many Jersey farms, such as River Bend Farms in Bernardsville near me, are raising and quality pigs and cows that lay the foundations for great barbeque.  The same fruits that wine growers are using to boost their reputation can be used in sauces or to develop sides that can later be considered staples, even for deep south pitmasters.  There is no reason to reinvent the wheel here, but we do need to capitalize on those things that we already do right!

2.   Network with other pitmasters and chefs in New Jersey

I do get it.   Many chefs are highly protective of their recipes, as it can influence their reputation and livelihood.  But when chefs and pitmasters talk shop together, share drinks, stories and tips, and eventually create better barbeque, then everyone wins.  The fundamental way in which chefs get better is from learning from successes and failures.  If chefs are passing along their own stories to others, then they can learn that much quicker. During my visit to Surf BBQ this year, Alex Smith brought this up when we talked about growing New Jersey’s barbeque reputation.   It has been very influential in his career, not only by talking and sharing with others personally, but also connecting through social media and other virtual methods.   Even as a young pitmaster who has gained a lot of success, he still understands the need  to continue to network with others from the industry in order to grow.   When others may have considered a restaurant in the neighboring town to be competition, he saw it as an opportunity to connect and increase their customers appreciation of barbeque.  In many parts of the country, barbeque businesses are forming partnerships and associations to get the word out.   Recently, I counted that New Jersey has over sixty barbeque restaurants.   I hope that these restaurants can use the list to reach out to others and start increasing the state’s standing. Hey, how does the New Jersey Barbeque Association sound?

3.   Embrace the diversity within the state

Capitalize on your strengths and de-emphasize your weaknesses, right?   New Jersey doesn’t have many weaknesses, so let’s look at its strengths.  One of the strengths that we do have, and many of the barbeque powerhouse do not, is diversity.  As a center for immigration for hundreds of years, the people getting off the boat loved what they saw and decided to stay here.  Those immigrants that brought skills with them did not travel far from their port of entry before they were settled, creating industry, and meeting with great success.   Generations later, we can still find their families here, continuing to share their knowledge (and recipes) with others, and enriching the state as a result.  We no longer have to look longingly at southern barbeque and try to copy it.  Within our own population, there are many different people who can help contribute to developing our barbeque identity.   I would love for that identity to consist of either a mosaic of different culture’s perspective’s of barbeque, or a melding of these cultures to produce something that is even better than the parts.  Either way, if you look in your surrounding towns, you are guaranteed to find a few places that share their own interpretation of barbeque.  Give them a try and appreciate the time and effort it took to bring those recipes and methods from other parts of the world.

4.   Take advantage of our relationship with NYC

New York City is a Mecca for attracting world-renowned chefs, high quality restaurants, and very discerning eaters. With multiple restaurants on every block, New York chews up and spits out the ones that can’t hack it, leaving a long trail of failed businesses and very few gems.  I know many people who go into the city for the night just to eat at a certain restaurant, ones that have garnered glowing reviews and a great reputations, even among the throng of options.  New York’s culinary influence is no longer restrained to just Manhattan either, but stretches out in each of the other boroughs as well.  Joints such as Mighty Quinn’s, Hometown BBQ, and Mighty Sau are garnering attention and making lists of the best barbeque restaurants in the country.  With New Jersey just right across the river, many of these restaurants are looking towards this fertile ground to expand their influence and open up restaurants that would not force us to go into the city to enjoy a night out.   This is not settling for crumbs!   This is an expansion of their customer base to another group of discerning eaters!   Our close proximity to the city also allows for easier networking for chefs and pitmasters, as well as a garden for graduates from the Culinary Institute of America (which, by the way, does NOT have a field of study dedicated to barbeque).   There is nothing to say that huge events like the Big Apple BBQ Block Party could not happen here with some of the same participants.

5.   Flaunt that Jersey attitude

If the barbeque doesn’t include attitude in the recipe, it ain’t Jersey Barbeque!   Enough said.

 6.   Be patient

Texas, the Carolinas, and Kansas City did not form their barbeque identity overnight.   It took hundreds of years for these areas of the United States to become well-known for the their method of cooking and serving barbeque.   Although New Jersey has been around for the same amount of time, barbeque has not been ingrained in the culture of the area as these other regions.   Perhaps it is because the geography allows for so many varieties of food, or its proximity to the coast and beaches, or the various cultural influences and tastes.   But for whatever reason, when the people in the south and west were experimenting with wood and coals to tenderize the tougher parts of meat, we weren’t.   And now that we realize what we’ve been missing, we are hopping on that train and are impatient to arrive at the promised land.  It just doesn’t happen that way.   When I had the privilege to join Roland and Chef Carl Ruiz in interviewing Myron Mixon on Roland’s Food Court on SiriusXM, I was able to ask him about how states that are not well known for their barbeque can shape their barbeque identity.   He stated that it takes time to do this, and he is absolutely right.   If we have the goal in mind, follow the steps that I have outlined above, and we have a bit of patience, New Jersey will cultivate great barbeque chefs and restaurants that will form a network that can compete with the rest of the country.   I just hope that I am alive at the time to see it, experience it, and eat it.

 

Some Hog!

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Even native New Jerseyans make mistakes: driving south on the Parkway on a Friday evening in the summer, expecting a decent bowl game from Rutgers, and going to Point Pleasant on a weekend.   But when my in-laws fly in from Washington State and want to go to a beach with a hoppin’ boardwalk, from North Jersey there isn’t many options within a reasonable driving distance.  And so Point Pleasant it was, and while it turned out to be a beautiful day and a great time, it did take me an hour to find a parking spot after dropping them off.   I ended up near the train station in town and flip-flopped it down to the beach from there.   Loaded with stuff, it would have been torture, but having dropped everything with the family, not so bad.  Jersey beaches, almost in their entirety, without the stupid politics that people play about restricting access (Sea Bright!), are some of the best in the country.   Growing up near the shore for a young boy:  couldn’t beat it.   There are days that I miss it desperately, for many reasons, but also because the fact that I’m so far from some great barbeque places.  So when the family wanted to hit up dinner after a long day in the sun and water, we pulled up the Jersey Joints page to look for a great place near us.  And being in Point Pleasant, we hit the trifecta, as not only does it have a barbeque place, but three!.   Counting the Beach, we’ve got The Hickory Hog, Woodchuck’s, and Shore Points. None of which I have tried before, although their days are numbered.  They have a a Taking the Point BBQ Tour written all over them.   But today, purely by random, we chose The Hickory Hog, and we are glad we did.

If you have been sleeping for the last four years, you might have missed the move.  The Hog has been in its current location for the last four years, next to Gerard’s Booze Palace (my words!), so you can take a small detour, grab your favorite beer or wine, and walk on back.   Order an extra appetizer with the money that you save.   The old place is now occupied by Woodchuck’s, with no relationship between the two, although it could lead to a little confusion.  The Hickory Hog is owned by Mike and Maureen Cassidy, with each seeming to have their own domain within the restaurant.  Maureen can often be seen

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Steve and Maureen

outside with the diners and, I’m going to guess, had the major say in the decoration of the restaurant.  It is not decked out like many barbeque places with tin signs, crude jokes about pig parts, or neon lights.   It seems more like your home dining room with bright, clean walls and lots of natural light.  As I spoke with her, I could really tell how proud she was of the restaurant and how much she cared that we all were comfortable and happy. The kitchen, though, is Mike’s domain, and he is a pedigree.  Working with smoked meat since he was sixteen, he started at the infamous Southern House, a local favorite that unfortunately burned down in January of 2003, leaving a vacuum for good barbeque.  In 2007, the two decided to open up their own place, the Hickory Hog.   Now, think this:  would you want barbeque from someone who has cooked only barbeque for the last 30 years.  Uh, yeah you do!

If you go to the Hog, make sure you ask for Rose as your server.  I’m sure that all of the servers are terrific, but Rose is special.  Rose makes you feel so welcome.   Like Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma’s welcome!  Like “Be Our Guest” welcome!  She did not actually sing, but coming from a hot beach, hungry like wolves, with kids in tow, she was awesome.

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Although I love to try everything on the menu, my family was not cooperating with me.  I haven’t reviewed a restaurant before with the whole family, so the ground rules weren’t really laid out well before-hand.  I wanted everyone to order something different, so I could nibble and graze, but they weren’t having any of that.  They wanted their own dishes, and most of them wanted ribs.   Even the kids, who love their father very much, were being stingy with sharing.  I had to muscle in more than usual, but I did come away with some success.  As an appetizer, the table shared the onion loaf, which was a favorite at the Southern House, and brought back by Mike.   It’s very similar to the Blooming Onion but with less spice and shaped like a loaf pan.   Similar dipping sauce.  It was gone in a few minutes.  Next time, I’m going for the pub pickles.  Like I said, most of us ordered the ribs, as they came recommended by Rose.  Although the wet ribs were great, the star of the show was the Memphis dry rub ribs.   The rub, although sharp and flavorful, did not mask the smokiness of the meat.   The two blended so well together that they were the hit of the table.  George and Barbara, my-inlaws, said that they were better than any of the ribs in Spokane, and how they wished that they had a barbeque place like this near them. Although Washington is not the Mecca of barbeque, they have been all around the country and really enjoyed them.  My daughter, who loves pulled pork always, ordered the Carolina pulled pork sandwich and gobbled that up.   But not before allowing Daddy to pick off a piece of pork.   Tangy with hints of mustard and vinegar made the pork one of my favorites from the menu.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t any brisket or chicken on the table for me to grab, so it’s something to look forward to when I come back.  For the sides, the cole slaw and the baked beans, which I always seem to get, were sweet and good.  But my youngest son, got the mac and cheese which is one of the restaurant’s most ordered items.   Although new to giving feedback, he told Maureen, “I wouldn’t change a thing about the mac n cheese.”   So if you have a fourth grader, and he or she digs the mac n cheese, it got very high marks from my son, Brennan.

Terrific!   Radiant!    The Hickory Hog is a place with an experienced and proven pitmaster, serving up great food in a restaurant that treats their customers like their own family.  It was the perfect place for my family to unwind and enjoy a meal after a long day on the beach.  Many thanks to my family for putting up with me talking throughout the meal, snapping photos of their food, licking at dabs of barbeque sauce off the plate, and foraging for bites.   Many thanks also to Mike, Maureen and Rose for their warm hospitality.

 

Competition Team Survey Results from the New Jersey Barbecue Championship, North Wildwood, NJ

A while back, I read an article about how competitions are killing barbeque.  I wish I could find the piece (so I could give proper credit to the author), but the basic premise was that the ultra-competitiveness of these competitions are impeding the networking and sharing of ideas that are necessary to improve the barbeque craft.  Indeed, teams invest a lot of money and time in these competitions, and some teams may not want to share the exact recipes or cooking methods that would give up their advantage. But at the New Jersey Barbecue Championship in North Wildwood, I did not find that this was the case.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay for the entire weekend, and Justin and Bill had to take on all of the cooking without me, but I was hard at work for those 2 days that I was able to attend.  Hopefully, you have already read the article that I wrote on the history of the competition.  But the other reason I wanted to go down was to survey the teams on some of the ways that they cook and present the various categories to the judges.  Established competition teams, new or veteran, can see how other teams are doing it.  And hometown heroes, doing barbeque in the backyard, can gain insight into how competition teams are going about it, whether they are thinking about entering the barbeque circuit themselves or whether they just want to see what the best of the best are doing.  As I went from tent to tent to talk to each team, I found a willingness to share drinks, stories, and techniques that directly negate the premise of the article’s author.  Every team that I met seemed to  welcome the opportunity to share their experience, and understood the importance of sharing this information with others.

Although I was not able to meet every team at the event, a majority of the teams are represented here.  A huge thank you to each team that spent time with me to answer the survey.  In some cases, I have refrained from offering insight to the data, so that you could have more opportunity to form opinions, and hopefully share them in the “comments” section.

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Number of Smokers

48% of those teams that had dedicated smokers had only 2 smokers

 

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Smoker

Many teams use multiple types of smokers.  Each was represented here as a percentage of the total.

 

Wood

Many teams used different types of wood, depending on the meat category.  Others used two types in order to blend the flavors of the wood.

 

Charcoal

Notice that only 2 percent of teams did not use any charcoal at all.

 

Rib Cuts

Rib Wet or Dry

Dry vs. Wet, great debate!

 

Pork Butt

Most teams are looking to include the “money muscle” and tubes.

 

Chicken

Jersey Joint

About half the teams were from out of state, so understandably, they were not familiar with New Jersey barbeque restaurants.  But many New Jersey teams were also not familiar with the options that the state has, which is very disheartening.  Some teams said that they did not go out for barbeque, but preferred to cook it themselves instead.  Many favorite restaurants were in the direct vicinity of the team’s hometown. 

Love the Smell of Hickory in the Morning

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One weekend a year, the members of the Anglesea Fire Department see smoke rising over North Wildwood, and don’t rush to put on their turnout suits.  In fact, they want to see smoke, and lots of it, because it means another full contestant roster for the New Jersey Barbecue Championship (www.njbbq.com).   Since 1999, the small shore town has invited cooking teams from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and all along the mid-Atlantic to compete against one another in the largest barbeque contest in New Jersey.  As one of the state championship events, the Grand Champion, who has the highest combined scores for all four categories: pork butt, ribs, chicken, and brisket, is then invited to some of the best and most competitive national competitions to represent Jersey.  To do this, all of the various factors that go into producing the precise heat and the myriad of tastes must be dead on, not for just one or two categories, but for all of them.  Only that team that can produce its best work, despite all of the hurdles of sleeping and cooking outside, filled with adult beverages, and balancing the energy of wood and coal will win against so many great cooks.

Bob Matteucci, a member of the Anglesea Fire Department, has overseen the organization and operation of the contest for most of its seventeen years.  Originally a seafood festival, the event did not bring in the amount of people that they envisioned.  So after reading a newspaper article about a barbeque contest, members of the squad began transitioning the event to its current theme.  Enlisting the help of an outside promoter for the first three years, the contest took off, only limited by the space available in the parking lot next to the fire house.  At that time, the lot could only hold 28 teams.  Justin Drab, of Team BoyBQ, was one of the only one of this year’s competitors that was present at the very first competition.  He, and others from those early years, remember the tight camaraderie of the teams in that small lot, staying up late to watch the crowds coming out of the bars at 2 am and continuing to party until dawn.  Rib In and Butch’s Smack Your Lips BBQ, as vendors, have served great barbeque to the crowds since that very first event and are still cornerstones today.   Five years ago, the contest moved a few blocks north to a larger lot along the sea wall that can fit 66 teams, making the event more accessible and competitive.  The top two-thirds of the winning teams are given preferential registration at the next year’s event, making each consecutive year even more competitive.  The teams, which originally consisted mostly of backyard warriors, now includes many caterers, restaurants, and other foodies, which has increased the challenge and has guaranteed that the certified judges get some of the best barbeque in the country.

This year, over 100,000 people attended the three-day event that celebrates barbeque and music in New Jersey.  The firefighters of the Anglesea Fire Department and the visionary officials of North Wildwood have truly made an awesome event that we hope will continue far into the future.  If you have not attended, be sure to keep an eye on http://www.newjerseybarbeque.com in the spring to find out the dates of next year’s contest. Find me in the big lot, eat some great barbeque, and bring your lawn chair for some kickin’ music.  And a huge thanks to Bob Matteucci for taking the time to speak to me about the history of the event.

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Rockin’ the Ribs in the Ridges

For six years running, I have seen postings for the Rock, Ribs and Ridges festival, held at the Sussex County Fairgrounds, come and go without being able to attend.  It always seemed to be that the responsibilities of the suburban father and homeowner reared its head at the last minute and prevented me from going, even when some of my favorite bands were slated to be there.  Well, not this year!  Thanks to my generous wife, I was freed up to go the Sunday afternoon of last weekend to catch two of the last bands, The Outlaws and Blues Traveler.   And to try out some great barbeque.   R, R, and R (terrible abbreviation, I’ll never use it again) is somewhat unique in its design.  Not only does it attract some great bands to play (see the artist lineup on the website), accommodate overnight camping, and have some of the greatest scenery around, but invites pitmasters from around the state and other areas to compete against one another for ribs, sauces, and other dishes.  All the while selling to the masses that come see the show, and whom are invited to vote for a “People’s Choice” as well.  From New Jersey, we had Big Papa Smoke’em, Butch’s Smack Your Lips BBQ, and Texas Smoke BBQ.  Out-of-staters included Pigtails Barbeque and Skin and Bones.  Sure, there were other things to eat, but why bother?

As I walked through the gates, one of the first “ribbers” that I came across was Big Papa Smoke’em. Lately, Mario “Big Papa” Chape has been serving up his barbeque at Marie’s Chicken Joint in Chatham with owner and chef, Carl Ruiz.  Mario and Carl have been working together to expand the menu at the restaurant and offer authentic barbeque to the locals of Morris County.   Friends and neighbors of mine that have been going and eating the smokey treats have said that they were terrific.  As luck would have it though, every time I had gone by, the barbeque had not been on the smoker that day, or what I was in the mood for had been 86’d for the day.  Regardless, I would still drive slowly through the back lot, catching long glimpses of the huge smoker, cold and untended, as the meat was usually on by 3 am and off for the lunch crowd.  Any of my kids that I had in the back seat soon grew used to these little detours.  So when I saw Big Papa’s trailer and tent at the festival, I went on over in the hopes of finally meeting him and saving myself from an early 3 am wake up call.  But I had no need to worry that Mario wouldn’t be there, as it is difficult to find a chef that is more aware of how one’s name and product are so closely integrated with one another.

Mario started his barbeque cooking journey after falling in love with brisket during a trip to Houston seven years ago.  After returning home, he immediately combed Craigslist for a smoker and found a custom-made, insulated heavy-duty steel jobber for a song.  Using his culinary training, he began right away to experiment with the best ways to bring out the flavor of meat in the low and slow way.  For a year, Mario worked under Ari White of Wandering Que, known for his New York kosher barbeque and voted Brisket King of NYC in 2016, slinging over 200 lbs of brisket daily.   Can you imagine what the brisket must taste like from a Jewish pitmaster?   Oh, man!   But Mario still felt the call to bring his own translation of barbeque back to Jersey.   Because there are so many variables involved with cooking great barbeque, Mario went about compartmentalizing and perfecting each part of the process in order to help bring out the myriad of flavors and textures of the meat.  Preferring to cook mainly with red oak, Mario loves how the native wood burns hotter and gives his smoke rings a bright red color.  (I am finding a lot more people appreciating the white and red oak as fuel)   As we were talking, one customer came up and said that he was picking the brisket to eat by each vendor’s smoke rings.   Mario had just showed me theIMG_0640[1] perfect Rembrandt-like smoke ring on his brisket, and after seeing what I just saw, the man pulled out his wallet.   Knowing that moisture loss is one of the greatest of pitmaster enemies, Mario works to preserve and augment the meat’s natural juices as much as possible throughout the process, using sauces throughout to help replenish the lost moisture.  Before serving, he rubs the cooked brisket and butts to help release the flavor and juices from the fats back into the meat.

Mario represents well the new and upcoming face of New Jersey barbeque.   An appreciation of the efforts, his own and those of others, that have helped him to be successful, a great pride in his state, and a drive to put out the best barbeque possible will help promote the growing force of New Jersey barbeque.  Unfortunately, because of township ordinances, Big Papa will no longer be in my backyard, but you can follow his whereabouts in the Bergen County area on his Facebook page.  He is always willing to pull you up a cooler, share a few beers, and talk barbeque until the next customer pulls him away.   Chomp on his brisket, pork, and baked beans while you are there.  They are outstanding!  And if I know Carl, he won’t be able to be long without quality barbeque at his place.

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When I wasn’t eating, I was up seeing the bands.   The Outlaws invited the Artimus Pyle Band to come up and finish their set with a rockin’ Ghost Riders in the Sky.   Jersey’s own, Blues Traveler, closed the show with a very personal set, made up of classics and songs from their new album, Blow up the Moon.  It was the first time I have ever seen them play live, such a shame for someone who has all of their albums, but this venue, so close and intimate, was the perfect way to see them.   John Popper still rocks out on the harp!IMG_0662   Although it was my first time going to the Rock and Ribs (Sorry, Ridges), I will not miss any more.  The intimacy that this venue brings to some great quality acts, the coolness of the variety of fans (yeah, great for people watchers), great food and drink is definitely a great way to start every summer.

 

 

P.S.  On the way home, I had to turn around for the Double S Smoke House that just opened up in Augusta two months ago and which wasn’t on my Jersey Joints list.   Welcome to the community, and good luck.  I’ll stop up soon.

Shore BBQ Tour, Part 1: Local Smoke

 

New Jersey is big enough that if you want to hit up every barbeque restaurant in the state (and why wouldn’t you), then you need to divide and conquer.   If you were to map all of the restaurants listed on the “Jersey Joints” tab, you would find the distribution to be concentrated towards the north, south, and shore areas, with fewer in the interior and to the west.   The page is great for accessing when you are out and about and want to find an unfamiliar place for lunch or dinner.   But you can also group them together for a planned tasting tour.   And so it was at my nephew’s first communion that the Shore BBQ Tour was hatched by me, my brother, my brother-in-law, and his two brothers.   Later, we would recruit our long time friend, Bill, whose Red Bank home would serve as our initial rendezvous and launch point.  In a few weeks, we were to spend a night out following the smoke and shore traffic, hitting the Jersey Shore trifecta: the new Red Bank Local Smoke, Surf BBQ in Rumson, and Jersey Shore BBQ in Belmar, before retiring around Joe’s, my brother-in-law, fire pit for more drinking.  After checking with our wives and calendars, we were set for a night of deliberate, self-induced meat comas.

That day, we almost lost Mike C., my brother, to the responsibilities of suburban home ownership, but a slow light and a quick yell out the window put him back on track.  It was really quite random seeing him in his car at the stop light, going the wrong way!  Unfortunately, we were not fast enough to stop him from putting down three slices of pizza for a late lunch that put a dent in his appetite for the night, but we pressured him to carry on.   And he did.   Grudgingly at first, but he finally got into the swing of things.  Joe, on the other hand, had trained all day for the event by skipping his usual pork roll, egg, and cheese that morning.   He was ready.

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Our first stop was the new Local Smoke on West Front Street, across from the Galleria, in Red Bank, in the building that had previously been occupied by Delfini’s.  It’s away from the foot traffic of main street, but has its own parking lot, which is at a premium in Red Bank.  All of us had been to the Neptune City location, but we were eager to try this one out.  I had once met the Fat Angel competition team a long time ago at the New Jersey Championship in North Wildwood.  They had come onto the scene with a mean brisket and had won a couple of Grand Champion titles.   That was when they were still working as a catering company out of a commercial kitchen.  Five years later, that success has

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The new digs!

translated into three restaurants, numerous awards on the wall, and a large following.  This new restaurant is more modern and sleek, with clean, industrial fixtures that could serve as a conceptual model for future Smokes.   Customers order at the counter, receive a number, and hope to find a seat, which was in short supply when we arrived.   Ralph, the greeter, did help us find a seat quickly, but more and more people had to stand and wait as we ate.  Anticipating a long night of good eating, I had to warn the boys that we weren’t there to eat dinner, but rather try as much as we could, with special emphasis on any strange and unusual dishes.  We ordered the Local Smoke Sampler (smoked jalapeno poppers, chicken wings, fried pickles, and hush puppies) off the Appetizer menu and the Pig Out Platter (pulled pork, brisket, and ribs) with baked beans and cole slaw.

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The poppers looked liked dates, but tasted better than they looked and could have used a bit more pork.  I had stopped by the Neptune place the day before the Super Bowl and had seen a smoker full of bacon wrapped poppers and had wanted them ever since.  These did not have the bacon, but it gives me another reason to look forward to football season.   The smoked wings were crispy and sweet.   The brisket was the standout of the meat: lean, but still moist, with a nice smoky taste.  I don’t know if it is a stage of mine, but again, I fell in love with the sauce.  I can put that stuff on liver and like it.  A couple of months ago, I brought take out to my dad, and we both fell in love with the candy they call baked beans, infused with pieces of pork and onion.  Every time I pass by, I’m going to pick up a quart and refuse to share.  Kevin, the manager, was nice enough to take me in the back where he showed me the Southern Pride rotisserie smoker.   One of the kitchen guys was trimming up the 15 briskets that would then go in overnight, engulfed in sugar maple and cherry smoke for over 12 hours.   The team continues to compete, now under the Local Smoke name, while at the same time managing an expanding restaurant chain.  I wish them all the luck in the world, except when we are competing against them.

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The Crew:  Bilbo, Pat, Joe, and Mike C.

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Me and Bilbo, waiting to chow down

 

Shore BBQ Tour, Part 2: High (Water) Marks for Surf BBQ

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The next stop was Surf BBQ, which is about 12 minutes east, down River Road into Rumson.   The building had been McGuire’s before Surf, and Briody’s before that. Back in high school, I had taken a girlfriend to Briody’s, but before we could order, we were asked to leave because we were too young to be in a place that served alcohol.  Briody’s was now gone, but I was returning to the exact location where that embarrassing moment occurred.  The outside looked the same except for the pig on the surfboard logos, but once you walked in that door, nothing was the same. First impressions are everything,  an opportunity to germinate the feelings and ideas you want your customers to have throughout the experience.  Walking through the entrance, you are met with the brick, timber, and rough, communal picnic tables that transport you to barbeque places that have been around for generations.   Just not in New Jersey that is.

Owner, Victor Rallo, a successful local restaurateur , clearly wanted to create something different from anything else in the state.  The menu, developed with the help of renowned pitmaster Bill Durney of Hometown Bar-B-Que, is posted on blackboards on the wall, and follows the mantra of other successful restaurants:  Do one thing and do it well.   It is not expansive, but it’s not boring either.  The line moves quickly, but sometimes you don’t want it to.   There is something to be said for having a rocks glass in hand, looking up and drooling over the possibilities, and talking with your line neighbor, who you just met.  Once the decision is made, the meat is ordered and served by the half pound at the counter to the right.  While we in New Jersey may not be used to this way of ordering in finer restaurants, it follows many of the authentic experiences in the South.    If that still doesn’t satisfy you, here are some other advantages:  the bar which is within reach to the left is stocked with great beers and whiskeys, you can see the chefs at the window pull and prepare your meal, you know exactly when you are going to get your meal, and you can socialize and share with others your anticipation of the feast you will soon be having.  Barbeque is a social experience.  Enjoy sharing it!

Although having the right atmosphere and the right menu is important, if you don’t have a passionate and conscientious pitmaster to see it carried out successfully, and, perhaps even more importantly, help it evolve, you will not get repeat customers.  Victor has found that pitmaster in Alex Smith, formerly of Mighty Quinn Barbeque.   A young, but experienced chef, he has traveled extensively around the country to speak with and learn from numerous other well-known pitmasters.   I was given the opportunity to speak with Alex and was very impressed about his knowledge, attention to detail, and attitude towards the art.  He knows the products as they come in the door and treats the quality of the meat respectfully when he cooks.  Alex understands that this genre of food is a community, and that pitmasters and chefs from around the state need to share and communicate with each other in order to help grow the industry.  He said that it takes time for New Jersey to develop its own barbeque identity.   The barbeque community of New Jersey needs to see itself as a family in order to share cooking techniques and recipes, and advocate for what New Jersey has to offer.

Once at the counter, you get a good look into the kitchen.  Everything is wood-burning, from the 3000 lb custom-made smoker to the adjustable grill, using a mixture of oak and fruit woods such as cherry and crab apple, at a rate about two cords per week.  No gas is IMG_0555used at all.  A new 6000 lb. smoker is in the back and was currently being seasoned by weeks of smoke and fat, getting ready for an inaugural load of brisket.  Surf currently cooks about 30-40 brisket per night, a load that bogarts the small smoker for long periods of time.  Not only will the new, larger smoker increase capacity, but will allow Alex to cook each meat separately, minimizing the disturbances that occur from having different cooking times.  This is an example of how the attention to detail and the ongoing effort to improve the product drives this place.

At the counter, I turned around to find myself alone.  The crew, after helping decide what to order, had bellied on up to the bar.   Mike K. and Chris “Fly Boy” Flynn, his friend, had met up with us and were soon catching up over beers.  This allowed me to order and watchIMG_0542 the prep without any disturbances.  Watching the young chefs select and slice the meat in front of you is part of the overall experience, and everyone was watching each other’s order being prepared.  With Alex overseeing everything, one grabbed a brisket and showed it to Alex.  After a getting a nod, the chef began to slice it and the juice flowed.  Dish after dish, with scrutiny, they placed the prepared order on steel trays lined with butcher paper, until it was complete.  We wanted to try everything, and ordered quite a bit, and yes, I was the only one there to carry everything over to the table.  Everything was great.  EVERYTHING!

Here are some of the dishes that we ordered and some of the comments from the Boys:

Brisket:   A fine, uniform layer of black pepper in the Texas style completely covering the brisket,  sliced thick with a nice fat cap.  Joe said, “It’s so tender, you could eat it with a spoon.”

Pulled Pork:  Smoky and moist with chunks of nice bark

Beef Short Ribs:  Only Mike and Chris ate it, as they didn’t leave any for anyone else!   Said it was their favorite dish.

Smoked Chicken Wings:  The drizzled peanuts were a hit.  Naked, allowed you to really appreciate the smoke.   When I had them for left overs the next day, the kitchen smelled so good!

Axaca Style Chicken:  Marinated in a brine for hours and hours.  I want the recipe of that brine!  The chicken was moist, tender and melted in my mouth.

Spare Ribs:  Sweet with lots of meat on the bone, tender but not fall off the bone (which is right!)

Smoked Bacon:  Cut thick and smoked.  Like candy.

Italian Sausage:  Smoking it makes all the difference!  Flavorful sausage only made better by the smoke.

Mac n cheese:  “Like eating a grilled cheese sandwich” (forgot who said that)

We were a week early and missed the special of the decade: smoked pastrami!  I gotta get down for that.

For those that are expecting an expedient “Part 3: Jersey Shore BBQ”, unfortunately you’ll have wait just a little bit longer.  All of us were so full from not being able to control ourselves, and from the wonderful hospitality of Victor and Alex, we were unable to continue on with the tour.  We had reached our capacity for great food, drink, and company and so decided to postpone the third and final leg of the Shore BBQ Tour and decided instead to visit one of our favorite bars of all time, Murphy’s Tavern, which is in walking distance.

More than any other place yet that I have visited in New Jersey, I have never been to a place whose goal is to have you love barbeque, as a food and a culture, more than Surf BBQ.  Everything, including the atmosphere, the menu, the attention of the owners, the pitmaster pedigrees, the cooking equipment and yes, even the line to order your food, seems to lend itself to this very important and all-encompassing goal.  I want you to walk away with that understanding.  The experience at the Surf is legit.  The food is extraordinary.  And New Jersey is better for it!

 

 

 

 

 

Father’s Day Gifts for the Daddy Pitmaster

Father’s day is coming up, and you just might need a little help with getting your Daddy Pitmaster some gifts that tell him just how much you love him and that will keep on giving throughout the year.   Well, I’m here for you!   Not only will he appreciate each and every one of these, but it will help with his prime directive: keep his wife and children happy.   So check out some of these options, put a puffy bow on top, and enjoy the results.

  1.  Meadow Creek TS120, Reverse flow, offset smoker    

TS120Alright, so you just got your tax return back or you just won at one of the few casinos that Atlantic City has left, and you’re doing okay, money-wise.  Your dad has been looking through the Home Depot catalogue and looking at the specials, wanting to do something a bit different than the regular backyard grilling experience.  Isn’t is about time you gave him a hobby that benefits the entire family and will make him the star of the next neighborhood picnic?   Damn straight it is!   Meadow Creek is a very well-known, regional welder that specializes in producing grills and smokers.   Many barbeque competitors use their products, and win!   The TS120 is a smaller model, but will certainly get the job done for just about anything except catering large groups.  It’s also got a warming box for keeping your food warm until the boys are done seeing who the kings of the horseshoe pit are.   So put the old trailer hitch on the truck, or call in a favor, and head out to Amish country to get him that gift that will make everyone jealous.

2.  Woods of the Season Club

So imagine a Jelly of the Month club… but better!!!   Keeping it Jersey, Uncle Robby’s BBQ Wood out of Elizabeth, NJ has a program where they will send you 3 boxes of various woods for each season, allowing you to try how your barbeque tastes under all types of smoke.  If your favorite local supplier only has certain types of wood, and you always wanted to experiment with something different, then here is you chance.  Comes in chunks or chips. I tried to argue that, for me, there is also corn season, apple season, strawberry season, peach season, etc., but they wouldn’t hear it.  Twelve boxes total until next Father’s Day, but he’ll be waiting by the door all year for the next shipment.

 3.   Bikini Apron

If your man is really a man, chances are he has a large collection of aprons and is proud to wear them.  Every printed stupid saying or dumb barbeque joke is fair game.  He doesn’t discriminate when it comes to making a statement while he is standing at the smoker spraying apple cider on his pork butt.  But does he have the one apron that completes the collection and that no pitmaster can do without?   The bikini apron!   Now, when it comes to this one necessity, there is no right one, because they are all awesome.   Rifle through the apron drawer and look to see if it’s there.   If not, then you know what you must do. Get onto Amazon and do a search for “bikini apron”.   Go through the many options and pick out at least one.   Many different ones are fine too.  We get into moods where one bikini doesn’t look great that day, and we like to switch to another one.  You’ll just have to deal with our moodiness and admit how good we look.

4.   BBQ Bear Paws

For over 15 years, I have been pulling chicken and pork with my hands and a fork.   So far they have done fine for me.  But if you have ever done large amounts at one time, like I have, you know how quickly this gets old.  Your muscles cramp and you end up withdownload lobster claws for hands by your twentieth pork butt.  Plus, if there is an easier way to do even one, why not do it. These plastic or metal tools shred your meat quickly and efficiently, making it so easier to prepare the people pleasers.  With practice, you’ll even be able to use them to lift and carry the meat from the smoker (without dropping it of course).  Less prep time means less fuss and more eating.  Think of all the time you’ll save that could be spent sitting in the lawn chair, with your feet in the baby pool and a beverage in your hand.   It’s a no brainer!   These can be purchased anywhere they sell barbeque equipment.

 5.    Big Max 500,000 BTU Propane Torch

Let’s face it, all barbeque enthusiasts are pyromaniacs.  It started as pre-teens in the f90ce677c45835fec7356cc7057323backyard spraying Binaca over a Bic lighter (so cool!).   Now, we still love starting fires, but it is a controlled burn; one that we harness for cooking and flavoring meat.  In comes the Big Max, a large propane torch that hooks up to a standard 20 lb. tank and lights up the coals in the firebox in no time at all.    No more using a chimney coal starter and waiting, and waiting, and waiting.   Not nearly as fun too.  Grab one of these torches for your Daddy Pitmaster and he’ll be out there starting the smoker before you can even suggest having barbeque for dinner that night.   Just watch his beer intake or else he will be recreating movie scenes with this friends.

  6.   Catfish Skinner Plyers

Unless you have prepped a lot of ribs, you’ll just have to trust me on this one.  And you might have to tell him what they are for when he unwraps the gift.  On the back of ribs, ribthere is a membrane that must be removed.  Otherwise the smoke cannot penetrate properly to that side of the meat and, when someone tries to cut or bite into the rib, they come across this tough barrier.   Getting this membrane off before cooking is a must, and the only way to do this is to dig at a corner until it separates and then pull the entire membrane off.   It takes a strong grip that eventually wears at you.  Catfish skinner plyers, normally used for pulling the skin off of catfish, are also a great tool for easily gripping the membrane as you pull.   If you eat a lot of ribs, you’ll be thankful to all of the catfish that gave their lives so that you could have this tool.   Can be found at Bass Pro or any other freshwater fishing supply store.

  7.  Operation BBQ Relief

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Your dad is so kind-hearted that the only thing he wants to do is to spread joy around the world.  So how to you recognize his sense of altruism while still sticking to something close to his heart.  Operation BBQ Relief, a charity whose goal is to help feed those affected by natural disasters, was formed in 2011 by barbeque competition teams and enthusiasts. Since then, they have served over 700,000 meals in 18 states, helping those in need stay fed and healthy when everything around them had got to pots.  From their website, you can make a donation in your father’s name or buy him an Operation BBQ Relief item from the store for him to show his colors everyday.

8.  Myron Mixon Grillmaster Chef Tool

Every once in a while, someone will come up with a versatile tool that does it all, and you wondered how you ever did without it.  The Swiss army came up with a knife, the Leatherman (whoever he is) came up with a tool, and Myron Mixon came up with his Grillmaster.  This freaky looking thing can double as a murder weapon in the next horror film, or a self defense weapon for your next home intruder, or to scare your daughter’s new boyfriend, but in the meanwhile, it may be the only tool you will need to bring out to your smoker or grill.  This 8″ knife has an alien-like extrusion that doubles as a flipper.  And because Myron knows that everyone needs a beverage by his side, it has a bottle opener to boot.  I first saw the tool when Myron brought it in to his NYC interview on Roland’s Food Court on SiriusXM Radio, and it struck me as the perfect gift for the pitmaster Daddy (See Getting Sirius with Myron Mixon post).  If you Google it, you will find many places to get it, but it is also available at your local grilling store.

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 9.   Artisan DIY BBQ Sauce Making Kit

So how much has Dad bragged that he could create a barbeque sauce that even Michael 816nMuBobhL._SX522_Jackson would want to have bathed in.   Every month?  Every week?   Every day?  Well, here is your chance to make him put up or shut up.   This barbeque sauce kit has everything for your Dr. Jekyll to make a tomato, mustard, and vinegar-based sauce that will either be the Belle of the ball, or make everyone cringe.  Sure you could gather up all of the ingredients yourself, but here they are in their own nice little package.  Just have old reliable ready in the pantry when dinner is served, and remember to smile.  Found on Amazon.

10.  ChefAlarm Digital Meat Thermometer

Ever wonder how Dad always gets the meat perfectly cooked and never gets anybody sick? Well, it’s because he knows the rules about cooking to the proper temperature.  Every type of meat has a FDA recommended temperature for proper cooking, and while some may say that they can tell if the meat is done from all the way across the yard, it simply is not true.  If you look closely, he will scan the yard to see if anyone is looking and then quietly stick his probe into the meat.  He will then slip into back into his pocket and loudly yell how more time is needed before putting out all the fixins.  Now, there is all sorts of fancy digital thermometers that that send notices to your cellphone, but that would allow Dad to do other things beside wait by the smoker with his beer.  There is no need for that!   All you need is a temperature gauge and an alarm in case you get to too much talking and exaggerating.  The ChefAlarm at ThermoWorks is perfect for that.

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Chillin’ at the Wine and BBQ Experience

“Do you want some cheese with that whine?”

“No, but barbeque sounds good!”

If I haven’t already lost you with that awful joke, then you are definitely ready to hear about the latest, newfangled couple on the block.  When I contacted Tom Cosentino, the Executive Director of the Garden State Wine Growers Association, and told him that I was interested in doing an article on pairing wine and barbeque, he was well ahead of me.  The GSWGA is an organization composed of New Jersey’s wineries that works to educate the public about its members and promote New Jersey wines.  Not only does it help get the word out about each individual winery’s promotional events and products, but also holds a number of events all over the state that brings all of the wineries together for the public to meet and taste their products.  The GSWGA Wine and BBQ Experience, held at Schooley’s Mountain County Park in Morris County, held last weekend, was one of those events, and was especially intriguing because it showcased the obscure relationship between wine and barbeque.  I’m not sure how many times you have gone to a barbeque restaurant and ordered a glass of wine with your meal, but I can tell you how many times I have, and if you blink, you’ll miss it.  Let’s face it, wine is not the first thing that I would think pairing with a heaping plate of smoked meat.  Sure, I would go beer, and bourbon, or maybe a few shots and some water (and then a few more shots).   Surely, not wine.   Right?  But when Tom challenged each of New Jersey’s wineries, based upon the knowledge of their own products, to recommend a few of their wines to go with barbeque, I have to tell you, they came out swinging and hit it out of the park.

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I’ve never been to a wine festival (full disclosure of how uncouth I am), but I was damned impressed.  Each winery set up a tent around the park, with plenty of varieties of wines.   Armed with a wine glass and the prepared list that each member recommended to go with barbeque, I went from tent to tent to try each one, not wanting to miss a single one.  13315334_1116871611692025_7774346572613641435_nWhile not schooled in the intricacies of wine tasting (it would have been good to take a course), I know what I like.  But I know barbeque.   So I was able to visualize and scrutinize each recommendation, allowing each wine’s taste to mentally complement my memory of some great barbeque dishes.  And while not all of them hit the mark, in my opinion, I came away with a couple of insights.

First, New Jersey makes some damn good wines.  While I did not like them all, I would be proud to serve most of them, with bold and crisp flavors at one of my events.   New Jersey has three major wine growing areas, corresponding to the types of soil, elevation, and climate.  Many are located in the southern region of the state, in the sandy soil and marine climate of the outer coastal plain.  As you go more north, the soil gets less sandy, the elevation gets higher, and the climate gets more extreme, resulting in shorter and tighter growing seasons.  These differences allows each of New Jersey’s wineries to put out very distinctive products, something for every one.  The GSWGA puts together great resources on putting together a tour for people that want to explore the state’s wineries and, with each one, you will taste some very interesting and contrasting flavors.

The second insight is that their is no one variety of wine that goes with any one type of barbeque.   Whether you are having beef brisket, or pork, or chicken, the wine that you have really depends upon your personal taste.  It would be very easy to tell you to go with a red or white, or a certain wine like Chambourcin, which comes from a regional grape that is popular in New Jersey, or a Rose, which is popular on the list.  But I can’t.   And you shouldn’t.  I think that you need to follow your personal tastes, just as each vineyard did in their list recommendations, and enjoy how the meat and grape complement each other to produce a richer experience.  Have a number of bottles available during your barbeque and talk to each other about the tastes that the meal and drink bring out.  With each conversation, you’ll get a better idea of which types of wine hit the mark with your friends.

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The third insight is that there still needs to be more done to wed two growing New Jersey industries.  In 1981, New Jersey relaxed some Prohibition-era rules that allowed greater expansion of wineries in New Jersey.  Many wineries have chosen to focus on already established products such as apples, cranberries,  blueberries, and other produce to help make high quality wines that have a very distinctive New Jersey quality and character.  The result was and is a growing proliferation of wineries in New Jersey, that, along with other East Coast states, are stealing some attention from international and West Coast vineyards.   Similarly, New Jersey barbeque is growing and evolving, still working to differentiate and distinguish itself from other national barbeque Meccas such as Texas and the Carolinas.   Unfortunately, there weren’t many barbeque trucks at the festival, and talking to some of them on Saturday, they would have liked to have more people come over.  Oink and Moo, Texas Smoke, Ben’s BBQ, and Lost in the Woods were there.   The Oink and Moo’s pork and chicken tacos were good and Ben’s jerk chicken sandwich was great.  It was cool to share some competition war stories with Ben, who had come back from the hospital during one competition to realize that he had won quite a few awards. 13332875_1116871595025360_9132034195809738673_nMany of the people had bought bottles of wine, gravitated towards the shade beneath the trees, and hung out in their lawn chairs, drinking and eating together for a perfect day.

Like the wine industry, the growth and popularity of New Jersey barbeque relies on the sharing of ideas and the growth of the industry as a whole to expand its overall market and produce even higher quality products.  The two are amazingly similar, sharing the need to get the word out that New Jersey wine and barbeque are high quality products that should be considered some of the best in the nation.

I want to thank Tom and the GSWGA for their hospitality and for the NJ wine/barbeque pairing guide that can be found via the “Barbeque Pairing” tab.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Getting Sirius with Myron Mixon

Anybody who knows barbeque knows Myron Mixon: deep South pitmaster, television personality, restaurateur, and author.  Oh, and don’t forget beating over 200 of the world’s best barbeque competition teams in this year’s Memphis in May for a record tying fourth time.   Can I get a witness, because this guy is legit.  He certainly has a lot to be proud of (and tired from) this year.  Not only is business taking off with his cooking school, smokers, and culinary equipment, but he is also traveling the country promoting his brand new book, Myron Mixon’s BBQ Rules: The Old School Guide to Smoking Meat.  These travels took him north of the Mason-Dixon line last week to NYC, for an interview on SiriusXM Radio’s Roland’s Food Court program, which airs on Opie Radio.  It’s a program inspired by Roland Campos, who is the talent booker for the Opie and Jim Norton Show, and co-host, Chef Carl Ruiz, a renowned chef and restaurant owner in suburbia Morris County, New Jersey. Together, these two put on an exciting show that explores food in all of its facets, from little known dives in the city to veterans of the culinary world that are pushing its boundaries.  You would be very hard pressed to find guys that know and enjoy their food more than these two, or love to talk about it.  Roland can fall into an ecstatic seizure when the conversation turns to one of his favorite dishes and Carl can meet chefs in their world, using his experience to elevate and shape the discussion to another level.  It’s a unique and cool chemistry, one that they invited me to experience with them.

I met Carl through another friend, two weeks ago at a party,  and coincidently, at the same house that inspired the post, “Brazil Next Door”.  (The Brazilian barbeque was back this year too!).    Carl’s place was featured on Guy Fieri’s “Drive-Ins, Diners, and Dives”, and he had later won Guy’s Grocery Games on the Food Network.  The three of us are very much into barbeque, and Carl is growing his barbeque-loving customer base at one of his restaurants, Marie’s Chicken Joint, in Chatham, NJ by wisely parking his smoker in the lot and cooking up chicken, beef brisket, and pork for those lucky enough to get there early.  My friend, Abi, has been going there about three times a week since he has smelled the first whiff of smoke drifting west into our town.  The conversation turned to Roland’s Food Court, and how Myron was coming in to talk about his book while on tour.  He asked if I would be interested in coming in to watch the broadcast and meet the Master, to which I was quick to say, “#%*@ yeah!”.  Carl called and put me on the guest list immediately.  I couldn’t believe it.   I would meet one of the most renowned pitmasters in just a few days.

The SiriusXM studio is extremely cool.  Roland came out to the lobby to get me and we went back  to the office area.  Each channel has an office, albeit a small one, where the hosts have desks and prepare for the show.  I was a bit early so I hung out and waited in the Opie Radio office, listening in on the prep work, reading through Myron’s book, and listening to our hosts talk with other guys about crazy things that happened that week.  The interview had been moved up, but we were still running a bit late.  When the time came, we walked down the hallway, past open glass studios of screens, audio equipment, and broadcasters, in the midst of their shows.  I listen to Sirius everyday, but had no idea of who anyone was from looking at them.  Who knew which shows that I always listen to were going on as I walked past.  And because I know some of you are wondering: no, I did not see Howard.

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Our studio

Our studio was one of the larger ones that I saw, though I suspect there are bigger ones for shows with more people.  There is a large table with five microphones around it, a smaller desk with a computer and mic, and a seating area.  As we came to set up, Roland asked if I wanted take part in the interview or hang on the couch.  Carl looked at me like, “Well, what do you want to do?”  and I quickly elected to sit in.

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Ready or not!

A week ago, speaking on a national radio show with these hosts and talking barbeque with Myron Mixon was something that I would never had guessed I would be doing.  I had a number of questions for Myron, as you would guess, ranging from winning competitions to the state of barbeque in New Jersey, each waiting for someone of Myron’s experience and success to answer.  Our competition team captain, Justin, simply texted me to “Get some cooking tips.”  But this was not a local show where most listeners would be in the tri-state area.  It would go out across the country, so Jersey specific questions, while interesting to me, were not the concern of most of the audience.   We had about twenty minutes with him, at which time he would move on to his next appointment, and we had to make the most of it.

Myron and his son, Jack, arrived in the studio, each wearing their Jack’s Old South shirts.  He looked just like he did on television, and while he can be abrupt on-screen, which I see as a symptom of his passion for cooking, he was very charismatic and friendly.  My nervousness ebbed away as we all talked about his book, his family, some favorite recipes, and how barbeque is evolving.  I don’t believe that it my right to disclose the things that were said that day, as the interview has not aired yet, but we did discuss something that I will address on the site at a later time, which is: how does a place, like New Jersey and other areas not currently known for its own barbeque, develop its own identity?  I believe that this is one of the most important questions that I look to answer in each and every one of my posts.  Myron did give some insight to that question, and it has helped with my understanding of New Jersey’s role in this delicious art form.  You just have to listen in if you want to find out.

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The interview with Myron Mixon on Roland’s Food Court with co-host Chef Carl Ruiz (and guest host Stephen Cullis  🙂 )will air multiple times this Memorial Day Weekend on Opie Radio (Channel 103 (Sirius 206)).  It will also be available on iTunes for download.  Tune in for the extended weekend, spend time with friends, and cook up some great barbeque.

HUGE thank you to Chef Carl, Roland, Opie Radio, and the entire SiriusXM organization for hooking me up for this unforgettable experience.

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Steve, Carl, Roland, Myron, Jack

 

 

 

 

 

You Don’t Have to Do a Hillary Clinton!

In 1999, Hillary Clinton moved to New York state.   The Clintons, by way of Arkansas and Washington D.C., moved to New York not to for the skiing in the Catskills and Adirondacks, nor to be closer to the girl that rocked his world (she was from California), nor for Yankee games on the local networks (though she convinced the voters that she was a Yankee fan).  Nope.   She moved to New York because a Senate seat became open and the state has tremendously lax guidelines for candidates wishing to run for office.  New York had something that she wanted, and so she ventured north to get it.  I travel to New York often enough, and on this occasion, had reason to go across the border, but once I returned to the Garden State, I pulled up the “Jersey Joints” page and looked for a place to stop in for lunch.  As would have it, the northern-most barbeque restaurant on the list, the Mason Jar, is just south of the New York-New Jersey line in Mahwah.  It’s worth the trip up Route 287, through the beautiful, wooded ridges and valleys of the Highlands.  IMG_0379[1]And as my friend and colleague, Nicole Dixon, told me, it’s also a favorite haunt of hers and other Ramapo College students.  Go Roadrunners!

If the owners of the place want people to come in, then why did they put the parking lot in the back?  When I pulled up and got out of my truck, I was immediately blasted by the sweet smell of smoking meat being diffused from what I guess was the outlets of the smoker.  I barely made it in, as I seriously thought about just hanging out there and basking in the aroma all day.  Or better yet, ask for a table and beer to be brought out and placed right by the exhaust pipe.   I would have been perfectly happy doing that.  Until someone makes an air freshener like that, you have to do what you have to do.  But I was hungry, and there weren’t any tables outside, so I did have to go in.  Eventually.

IMG_0374[1]It was early, so I was one of the first ones in the place.  I went to the bar and met Christine, the bartender.  At that time, I didn’t know how awesome she was, but I’m sure that the regulars that started drifting in did.   As she went about her work, she sang along with the classic rock coming from the speakers, and I found myself singing along as well.  But low.  I can do a mean “Fine Young Cannibals” but that is it.  The Mason Jar is one of those places that feels super friendly and you feel immediately at home.  They also seem like they are proud of their food.  If you have read some of my posts, you know that I like to sample everything that I can, especially the pork, ribs, brisket, and chicken, as well as some of what I consider the essential sides.   I also like to explore the menu for what I think is some of the unusual twists on barbeque that may be unique to the joint.  So I ordered the Jar-B-Que sampler and the Carolina-sauced pulled chicken with cole slaw egg rolls on the appetizer menu, shot the breeze with Christine, and roamed the many rooms looking at barbequeana  (not a real word, but penned by me none-the-less) on the walls.   By the way, I found out that the 3 pound burger challenge is still valid for those man vs. food types.  Nicole never tackled that challenge when she was in college, so I am sure she is happy to see that she could still get her name up on the plaque.

The Mason Jar serves more than barbeque.  If you take a look at the menu, you’ll find lots of different kinds of food, but the food was barbeque-only quality.  I loved the crispiness of the egg rolls with the pulled chicken and cole slaw, but I’m telling you, don’t you never mind the sauce that it is served with.  IMG_0381[1]Although good, set that aside and go right to the bottle of hot and tangy sauce next to you.  Haters of Hot need not worry, it is not that hot, but tends more toward the tangy side, and it stole the show.  They could steal the Frank’s Hot Sauce motto, because I was looking for stuff to put that *&#!@ on.   IMG_0382[1]When the sampler came, I tried the sides first.  The cole slaw and corn bread, staples with any barbeque, were fine, but I finished off the beans, which, with bits of pulled pork mixed in, where dark and strong.   Loved ’em.   The brisket was nice and tender, and the pulled pork had ample bits of bark with a nice smoky flavor.   But my favorite of the three had to be the chicken.  In competitions, we go with the dark meat of the thighs or legs, which has a lot of flavor and doesn’t dry out when smoking.  But this chicken was moist white meat with a pleasant, distinctive flavor.  I thought that they had to be smoking whole chickens back there.   Like Grub Hut of Manville, when I come back, I’ll be looking forward to the chicken again.  And, oh yeah, the sauce was always within reach, though nothing really needed it.  Right about now, you are probably asking, “Now, what about the ribs?”  Sadly, I did not try them.   I don’t think that I could have put them down, as I was in for lunch and drinking only water, but it does give me something to look forward to next time.  Also saves me from trying the burger challenge.

After lunch, Christine introduced me to Joel, one of the owners, who was nice enough to take me in the back to meet the pitmaster (didn’t catch his name this time) and see the smoker, a large rotisserie Southern Pride jobber.  Joel opened up the doors for me to see dinner: racks of happily basting Memphis style spare ribs, a small set of beef short ribs (oh yeah!), and (I was right!) and more that a few half chickens.  Civilized beings don’t go licking the meat while it’s in the smoker, so I held off, regardless of how difficult it was.  But Joel did give me a slice of lemon cake that was on the Mother’s Day menu, so I still walked away happy, lingering again in the back lot, taking in the smell of meat and burning fruit wood.

 

So listen, I absolutely want to thank Joel and Christine for their exceptional hospitality, as well as serving me up an awesome Jar-b-que lunch.    The Ramapo Roadrunners, with all of the events and great food right down the road, will have a grand time putting on those freshman fifteen.   And regardless of whether you are a donkey, or an elephant, or in between, if you are looking for great barbeque, don’t do a Hillary Clinton!   Don’t go to New York. Stay in Jersey!

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Joel and Steve

Let’s Start a Revolution

Back in the (colonial) day, where was a guy to go in order to get away from everything?  The cows had been milked, the fields had been sowed, the horses brushed.  As the moon slowly rose over the horizon and the stars twinkled one by one into existence, would Papa pinch out the wick of the candle and sneak out to the oasis of manhood?  Sail to the island of smoky paradise? Slip into stream of flavor?  Yeah, he would.

To get an idea of just how important the smokehouse was during colonial America, I took a ride up over Mount Kemble to join my friend and colleague, Monica (Funi), at the grand reenactment at Jockey Hollow National Historical Park, where, as a member of Jersey’s 2nd New Jersey Regiment, Helms’ Company (www.2nj.org), she was helping to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.  During the war, most of the soldiers in the regiment would have held from western Central Jersey, especially from the Hunterdon County area. Although the regiment regularly reenacts various battles and skirmishes, this weekend was especially cool because of the amount of interest and people taking part in the event.  Members of the regiment would spend the weekend immersed in the lifestyle and activities that soldiers and those that supported them would have done almost 250 years ago.  Because I am not a member, I can only guess about the conversations that were had in the evening over the blazing fire, before turning in for the night in their canvas tents.   Gunpowder wet again!  Ration bag light on tobacco.  Anything stronger than tea?  The drudgery and monotony of soldiers on the march, offset only by the extreme danger and comradery of brothers in arms.  When Funi invited me up for the weekend, I looked forward to learning about how colonials prepared their meat.  From previous visits, I know that the Wick House, which is the centerpiece of the park, has its own smokehouse, but I

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The smokehouse at the Wick House

was also interested in hearing about how soldiers ate meat on the march or in camp.  Without refrigeration, the meat had to be preserved in other ways in order to have it available for days on end and in the heat.

 

When I arrived, I found Funi sitting with a group of soldiers in the shade of the Wick House doing what members of the regiment would have done between skirmishes: resting, eating and tending to their equipment. As a woman, Funi was heavily involved in the support structure of the fighting troops by making camp, helping to prepare meals and rations, tending the wounded, and making or repairing clothing. At the moment, she was decked out in her bright blue dress (looking great of course, even with battles raging around us) repairing a piece of clothing with needle and thread. Also in the group was Adam Young, of Clinton, a militia memberIMG_0318 that can be recognized by his distinctive blue woolen cap, who was currently repairing one of the rations bags that the soldiers would have carried. Funi introduced him as one of the best sources in the regiment to talk about how the troops stored and prepared their meat during the Revolutionary War. Throughout the conversation, Funi and I regularly exchanged glances as Adam belted out answers to all of my questions and elaborated with some pretty unusual facts.

 

Because livestock, such as cows and pigs, which were easy to keep, could move with the troops and would not spoil until after they were butchered, meat was abundant during the war. In fact, when soldiers signed up to fight in the army, one pound of meat per day was a common stipulation of the enlistment contract. Although in reality, meat was not issued except or every few days or so, it was more plentiful and not as highly sought after by the soldiers as fresh vegetables, which were more difficult to find and store. Vegetables rot really quickly. Although the soldiers carried muskets that were great at shooting quail and other game such as deer, squirrels, and rabbit (giving the guns the nickname of “fowlers”), soldiers were strictly forbidden to hunt while marching or camped. Ammunition was valuable and sometimes in short supply, and loud shots could easily give alert the enemy and give away positions. Random shots also were used to sound alarms, so although a furry critter on the ugly side of a barrel could have provided you with a tasty treat, the noise would have brought hundreds of unwelcome guests that would have strung you up… and taken your dinner.

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Adam

 

But, lo, smoking the meat for added flavor (or any flavor other than salt) would not be in the cards. Soldiers weren’t able to smoke the meat, but were only able to boil it, extensively, to get rid of the salt taste. Not only would it extend the rations by creating broth, but the broth was also thought to help balance the four humors of the body (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile) that regulated a person’s health. Archaeological evidence shows that soldiers did cook the meat over the open fire on the down-low though. Barrel bounds , twisted into various shapes to be placed over fires have been found at sites, suggesting that these were used to hold the meat above the flames. They were known to also use planks and set food on right on top of burning logs as well.  Everybody living in this country can appreciate the sacrifice that the Patriots made in order to help our nation.  The sacrifices that they made, men and women, to fight in a struggle against a force that was the strongest in the world at the time, must have been immense.  To leave home and family for asuch a long amount of time, under extreme conditions, and at the risk of life or limb was a lot to ask.   To think of what they gave up so that we had the opportunity to choose between Clinton and Trump in 2016!  Perhaps one of the biggest sacrifices was giving up the delicious smoked meat that they left in their home’s smokehouse so that they could gnaw on boiled, over-salted meat.  Hopefully, they returned to that smokehouse and appreciated the taste of great barbeque for the rest of their lives.  Thank you, Funi and Adam, for sacrificing some of your time to talk with me.

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Funi in Blue

Taking the High Ground

Sitting here, looking out the window, you wouldn’t know that it is spring here in Jersey.  Temperatures are more like early March rather than April and the forecast calls for light snow showers.   Every weekend I think that I’m going to spend outside planting new bushes and flowers, we get a hard freeze that would not give them the start that they would need, and so the outside chores get pushed back a wee bit longer.  The only way that I know it is spring is that my entire schedule is spent carting three kids to and from lacrosse practices, all week long.

Well, that and thinking about the upcoming barbeque season.

As I speak to more and more competitors and backyard warriors, it is clear that the quality and taste of good barbeque starts way before the meat hits the grate.  Sure, smoking good meat is about the ability to balance heat and smoke, walking that tight wire between sweet and hot, and finding that perfect temperature in which the bone releases the meat like the fingertips of two lovers on an outbound train, tenderly but with purpose.  But the perfect barbeque starts way before this, requiring the same thought, practice, and effort as playing that smoker like a savant.  Hard cooks must choose the right fuel, prepare the right rub and sauces, and invest in quality meat before cooking day.  They must look to “take the high ground” and recognize that by doing this, the battle can be won before it is even fought.  It will save you from having to “fight like the devil until support arrives”.  I will be your General John Buford in this first in a series of articles that looks to help you prepare to win the trophy, a finger sucking pop from your neighbor, or a nod from your wife to finally upgrade to that beautiful trailer that you’ve had your eyes on.  So grab your notebook, hit the “follow” button on the bottom of the site, and read on.   This is New Jersey, and it’s time to put it on the barbeque map.

So why is it that certain types of wood give different flavors to meat?   Is this certainly true, or (do I blaspheme?) is it all in our heads, a tribute to the power of suggestion?   If true, then choosing the correct wood is integral to preparing an award winning dish and should be given the same amount of consideration as everything else that we do.   To answer the question, I traveled back to my alma mater, Cook College at Rutgers University, to speak Dr. Jason Grabosky, professor of Ecology Evolution and Natural Resources, in the hopes that he could shed some light on this and share with us the science behind our favorite choice of fuel.   Dr. Grabosky, decked out in a wool hat and carrying a wooden walking stick (which doubled as a teaching tool throughout of discussion), was kind enough to meet with me for some time and answer all of my questions as we walked beneath the trees surrounding Passion Puddle.  Much of the information and insights in this post come directly from this conversation, of which I am very grateful.  Hopefully, I am able to communicate this conversation well enough and will attest that any mistakes found here (which will be none) are solely mine.

                                                              grabosky-jason

                                                                   The man, Dr. G!

                Trees are almost entirely (90% – 99%) composed of three elements: carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, laid out certain patterns, in the form of cellulose and lignin.  Cellulose and lignin are sugars that are stored by the tree as the product of photosynthesis.  Remember from biology class that that photosynthesis uses carbon dioxide from the air and water from the ground and produces glucose (sugar) and oxygen which is then released to the atmosphere.  During combustion (or burning) of wood, these huge sugar molecules react with oxygen in the air to form carbon dioxide and water vapor, as well as heat and light (and great barbeque).  Because the amount of oxygen in the air is not usually sufficient to combine with all of the carbon in the wood, the combustion is rarely complete, and results in the production of smoke, solid particulates and other waste products that stick to the meat in the smoke chamber and contribute to the flavor.  Trees also absorb water, which fills in the cells of the tree, including its leaves, trunk, and roots, so that at any one moment, the tree and its wood will have a variable percentage of water in it, making it more or less difficult to burn and, when it does, influences the amount of water vapor or steam released.   So if all trees are made up of the same three elements, how can the various types of trees change the flavor and smell of the meat?  Did you catch it?  (Suspenseful pause) That’s right, it’s all in the waste products, which consist of creosote and the aromatic compounds in the phenol family such as guaiacol and syringol.   Together with the particular oils and other compounds found in nut trees such as hickory and pecan, and fruit trees such as cherry and apple, you can get a multitude of tastes and aromas when smoking your meat.

So how do trees form these compounds, and how can we make sure that we get enough in our wood pile?  Creosote and these phenol compounds form in the lignin, not the cellulose.  Remember that we said that most of the tree is made up of only three types of atoms: carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen?  Well, when a tree wants to create strength and combat gravity, it combines these elements into long, strong chains called cellulose.  Most of the trunk and branches are cellulose, allowing it to grow straight and tall, with long reaching branches.  But cellulose is not great for compression, or squeezing together, and since certain parts of trees press on one another, and the weight of the tree adds up, it needs another way of arranging these atoms, such as rings.  These rings, known as lignin, give the tree more load-bearing capabilities and durability.  Lignin is also more resistant to other forms of stress, such as bugs and climatic conditions such as wind.  It is more difficult for pests to chew through and contains antiseptic chemicals.  Hostile environments can affect the ratio of cellulose to lignin, influencing the taste as much as difference in tree species can.  The tree directs a lot of energy and minerals to make sure that these areas are secure, and it is these areas of more complex chemistry that the waste products that we love so much are produced.

Trees also compartmentalize the various functions of the tree, so recognizing the which part of the wood to target for burning is very important.   Toward the outside of the tree, lies the sapwood, the “working area” of the tree, where the xylem and phloem transport water and materials up and down the trunk between the leaves and roots.  In the center lies the heartwood, a dense area where the tree deposits all its waste from the production of plant matter, via the rays leading from the sapwood.  The older the tree, the greater the amount of waste and aromatic compounds that gets deposited in the heartwood, and a more distinguishable difference between the two areas can be seen.  When I am smoking up meat for the family, I mostly use apple wood (tyvm Wightman’s Farm, Harding Township).  They trim their apple trees often and offer up some of the wood for me to use.  But my conversation with Dr. Grabosky has helped me consider my fuel a bit more carefully.   To get the optimum amount of desirable aromatics for great tasting meat, I need to target wood with those qualities that hold the most chance of containing the good stuff.  Trimmed branched may not contain enough deposited aromatics to give my meat sufficient flavor.  As I rifle through the pile of trimmed logs, I’m now going to go right for the heart of the wood, looking for the durability of the lignin or discoloration from accumulated compounds at the center of the trunk.

Choosing the right pieces of wood can be just as important as choosing the right type of wood.  While pairing up the species of tree with the right type of meat may be another topic for another time, it is equally important to know your fuel and to choose the pieces that will give you best opportunity to show your barbequing skill.  Proper fire box management to get optimum volatilization of these chemicals is also important enough for a discussion all its own.  All of these decisions come before the fire is lit, and must be considered to help your meat absorb the taste and aroma that we all associate with quality barbeque.  So like the Union army at Gettysburg, look to the high ground to gain the upper hand and ensure victory before the battle has even begun.

 

Above is a blast from the past for forestry students.  Back in the day, students had to know the characteristics of all these types of wood.  Most of these blocks had dates on them from the 1920’s and 1930’s.  Would have hated to cart this back and forth to class as a teacher.  Pretty cool though.