Belly up for some mouth-watering tips

No one likes to really talk about it, and several of them will make excuses and offer explanations. But talk to enough barbecue experts long enough, and a sad truth starts to emerge. The number of people who want to smoke a brisket, who can smoke a brisket, seems to be suffering a serious decline.

“Too often, people just seem to destroy the meat,” says M Streets resident Bryant Tillery, who has been smoking briskets for more than a decade for the firefighters at Fire Station No. 17 on Skillman, where he is the captain.

“It’s a lot harder than they think, so if they can’t get it 100 percent right, they give up on it.”

Granted, it may be difficult to believe that the brisket — the staple of Texas barbecue for as long as there has been Texas barbecue — has fallen on hard times. But think of the names that are gone, whether Bob White or the Ranch House or Two Podners (or, for long-time residents, the Pig Stands that used to dot the neighborhood). Think of the picnics and cookouts and family gatherings where brisket has been replaced by chicken or turkey. Think of the all the meals that used to be barbecue that aren’t any more.

In fact, reasons abound to explain why this has happened to barbecue — part of the Holy Trinity of Texas cuisine, along with chicken fried steak and chili. Blame it on changing lifestyles, on those of us who don’t have the time to smoke a piece of meat or the inclination to eat it.

Or blame it on the increasing difficulties of running a neighborhood restaurant in a world dominated by Chili’s and McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. Says 28-year veteran Frank Hart of Back Country Barbecue in upper Greenville: “This is kind of a love-hate business. There are lots of parts I love, but it’s hard work — especially the marketing part. I’m not a marketing kind of guy.”

What he is, though — along with more than a few others throughout the neighborhood — is a person who still believes in the power of the smoke. They may be restaurateurs or caterers, professionals or amateurs, but they still have the same goal — to make the best barbecue they can.

“You know, there’s a great satisfaction in doing this,” says Myra Byanka, a Lakewood caterer who operates Cookin’ Cowgirls. “I love to see their faces when they taste it and see how great it is. Few things are better than seeing that satisfaction.”

Taking their time

Smoking a brisket is not cooking as much as it is patience. Leave it there. And leave it there. And then leave it there some more. Says Hart: “If it doesn’t cook long enough, it will taste fine, but it won’t be tender. And what’s the point of that?”

In fact, ask a barbecue master for the secret to their success, and it nearly always comes down to time. At least 12 hours, and even longer, if possible. Most professionals start the meat in the late afternoon, let it smoke over night, and don’t really worry about it until the next morning. It’s not unusual, they say, to let a brisket cook for 16 or 18 or even 24 hours.

This, it seems, makes more of a difference than the wood used to smoke the meat. Much has been made over the years about the merits of mesquite vs. hickory vs. pecan (or whatever wood seems to be popular at the moment), but what’s more important is controlling the heat so that the brisket is neither under- nor over-cooked. If there is a rule of thumb for these things, it’s an hour a pound at somewhere around 200 degrees (hence 12 to 15 hours for a 12- to 15-pound brisket, a typical restaurant cut). There is also a fair amount of food science involved, dealing with effect of heat on proteins and the boiling point of water.

But, as any barbecue master will point out, this is as much art as science, and any guideline is just a place to start.

“The most important thing is not to be scared of the meat,” says Paul Upchurch of Hickory Creek Smokehouse, located near Baylor Medical Center, and where there has been a barbecue restaurant off and on for 50 years. “That’s why so many people undercook it. They’re afraid of overcooking it, so they ruin it the other way.”

In this, brisket is probably the most difficult piece of barbecue to perfect. In the long and quarrelsome (and, by now, a bit tiresome) debate about which makes the best barbecue, something that is usually overlooked is that Memphis-style or Carolina-style barbecue starts with a significant advantage. It’s pork ribs or pork shoulder, and neither represents the challenges of the brisket. Ribs have bones, which add flavor to the meat. Pork shoulder is fattier, and that adds flavor to the meat.

Georgia author Joe Dabney, who knows as much about pork barbecue as anyone has a right to know, notes that every great pork pit master he has ever talked to says fat is one key to success, since it keeps the pork moist throughout the long cooking process. A brisket, on the other hand, is a tough, leaner piece of beef that, as Julia Child once put it, “is never tender like steak, but should be pleasantly chewable and have a real beefy flavor.” So anyone who can produce a smoked brisket that doesn’t taste like a man’s belt that has been sprayed with hickory room freshener has truly accomplished something.

And, in our neighborhood, they’re still doing that, despite the changes in lifestyle and tastes. The numbers are amazing — 3,500 pounds a week at one restaurant, 3,000 pounds at another, 2,100 pounds at a third. And that doesn’t include the smoked turkey and the smoked pork and the ribs and the sausage. Even caterers such as Byanka, who don’t smoke every day, can do 200 to 400 pounds of brisket during a busy month.

“It’s just an all-American dish,” says Hart. “It lends itself to different flavors, to different ways of cooking it. It’s just so Texas.”

On the side

This raises the touchy question of sauce. Traditional Texas barbecue, as defined from generation to generation, does not require sauce. The meat is tender enough and smoked enough and flavorful enough to be complete without it (not unlike the commandment that true Texas chili doesn’t have beans). And it certainly doesn’t require the mustardy and vinegary sauces typical of Carolina barbecue, many of which seem to call for uncommon amounts of Worcestershire sauce.

There seems to be a consensus, though, that a bit of sauce served on the side, a sauce that’s a little thick, a little sweet and a little spicy, is acceptable. What no one should do is baste with any kind of sugary sauce during cooking, since the sugar could burn and char the meat.

Surprisingly, there is less uncertainty about side dishes. We may live in a modern, all is possible culinary world, where anyone can get organic arugula or Madagascar vanilla beans at a moment’s notice, but when it comes to barbecue, tradition rules. Mustard potato salad. Cole slaw. Baked beans. Pinto beans. Macaroni and cheese. And even grocery store white bread.

“It surprises me sometimes,” says Byanka. “But you can’t beat the classics. They’ll want potato salad, and they’ll want the hard-boiled eggs and the mustard and the mayonnaise and the relish. Just like they always have.”

Because, in the end, barbecue is about time, whether it’s the time to prepare it or the time to appreciate it or the time it has been around. By some accounts, that has been hundreds of years, when the first Anglo settlers were forced to figure out a way to make a tough cut of beef edible.

“We see all walks of life in here,” Upchurch says. “At first, I thought it was because the area was so diverse, and that’s a lot of it. But then I realized it was also because people wanted to have good barbecue, regardless of who they are or where they’re from. And that’s what we give them

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