By Jim Shahin
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 26, 2010; E01
One Sunday afternoon shortly after moving to Washington from Austin, my wife, Jessica, and I had a few expatriate Texans over for a barbecue. We were sipping margaritas on the back deck, reminiscing about the Old Country, when Jessica, normally a gentle-tempered woman, interrupted with an urgent cry: "Look!"
She pointed at the wood smoker several feet away. We turned and, instantly, we understood. Slats of pale sunlight shone down through the trees like spotlights and bathed the smoke-swaddled black metal barrel in a radiant halo.
It was what you might call a hosanna moment. Well, it was what a Texan might call a hosanna moment.
If Texans are downright religious about their barbecue -- and they are -- then the cut of meat in the final hour of its 18-hour wood-smoked coddle, unseen within the barrel's metal lid, is what they believe is God's own Sunday dinner: a juicy, slow-smoked beef brisket.
Duly, we fell wordless, which is quite a feat for Texans. A few of us even lowered our bottles of Shiner beer.
It isn't just the meat that inspires such reverence. It's the mysterious process by which its flavor is attained. Located slightly below the shoulder, the brisket is an ornery cut. Somehow, when it is put on a grate to be massaged by the gentle fingers of wood smoke and left undisturbed for hours, a sublime transformation occurs. The mean ol' cuss turns beautifully tender.
Years ago, Texas butchers considered the brisket worthless. They smoked it and sold it cheap to field hands. Over time, word got out that this stuff was pretty amazing, and butcher shops started becoming full-time barbecue joints. Along the way, brisket ascended from scrap meat to king of the Texas barbecue plate.
When I moved from Michigan to Austin in the 1970s, I had no clue about any of that. For a while, I didn't even like barbecue; it seemed to me rubbery and bland. Turns out I was looking for barbecue love in all the wrong places.
Then one night I went searching the neighborhood for something to break the monotony of the burgers and chef's salads I served while working at a fast-food joint. And I found nirvana, in a decrepit shack on a forlorn corner at the crest of a hill. The black lettering on the fluorescent light said, "Sam's Bar-B-Que."
There was something intimidating about the place. I drove back and forth, deciding whether to go in. But desperate appetites make a man go places he would ordinarily shun. I pushed open the ripped screen door. It slammed behind me.
In the sallow light, I walked to the small, faded-yellow counter and ordered the Texas mixed plate: ribs, sausage and brisket, with sides of potato salad and pinto beans. I gnawed on a deep-flavored rib and took a bite of the spicy coarse-ground sausage and found both to be phenomenal.
The brisket was a revelation. When I bit into the glistening meat, I literally staggered a step. Could brisket really taste this good? Succulent, firm, robustly flavored, the thick slices of beef were as tender as a ballad and as powerful as an R&B belter.
From that moment on, I set about learning everything I could about barbecue: its origin, its lore and especially its cooking process. Time after time, I put a brisket on to smoke. Time after time, the result was inedible. What, I wondered, was the secret? Was my fire too hot? Was I using the wrong wood? Was I denied success because I was not a native-born Texan?
In desperation, I called the cousin of my native-born-Texan girlfriend. His skills at smoking a brisket were the stuff of family legend. His brisket jiggled with moistness, and yet it was easy to slice. Each bite delivered the flavor that makes steak seem wimpy by comparison. The man's name was Red.
It was a Sunday morning when I called him. (Funny how Sundays play such a big role in my Texas barbecue experience.) After I explained who I was and what I wanted, there was a pause. I imagined him wondering whether it was still legal in Texas to shoot the live-in Yankee boyfriend of a relative who asks for your brisket recipe.
But after I begged and pleaded and all but promised to marry his cousin, which I eventually did, he relented. He told me about keeping the fire low and feeding it regularly to keep it steady. He told me about spice rubs. Mostly he told me that no matter what else I did, there was one essential ingredient: patience.
Get the wood smoldering. Put the brisket on the grate. Close the lid. And, no matter how much you want to check on it, leave the darned thing alone.
When I got off the phone, I followed his orders. The brisket that emerged from my smoker many hours later jiggled slightly, like his, and had robust, buttery flavor, like his; and its slices were firm, like his. It was nothing short of a miracle.
Since that time, I have interviewed dozens of professional and amateur pitmen. Some swear by a certain wood. Some argue for a specific spice rub. But all of them agree that patience is the key to turning out a good barbecue brisket.
Patience, yes. And a little magic.
Even now, I get jumpy as a cat when I cook a brisket. The fire gets too hot or too cool. The wood seems moist. Something. When you invest a day, you want what you're doing to pay off. But it doesn't always. Sometimes, still, it comes out a little tough. I put it back on the smoker, fiddle with the heat and pray.
For years, my wife and I would set the alarm to stoke the fire every two hours through the night to make sure the heat stayed steady. We would stagger sleepy-eyed down the stairs, across the hall and out the back door. "Time to make the doughnuts," we would say, mimicking a sleepyheaded baker on an old TV commercial. After gaining some confidence, we cut back to every four hours.
The wake-ups are made bearable by the sublime primal fragrance of the cooking meat, which churns a deep hunger and perhaps envy among your neighbors. You might stand there for a moment, under the stars, watching the light trail of smoke as it vanishes into the night air. And you might be tempted to open the lid and peek inside.
That is when you remember Red's watchword.Recipes
Shahin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.