The key to barbecue success? It's the pits.

By Jim Shahin
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, July 20, 2010; 5:43 PM

Smoke Signals is a new monthly column on barbecue.

I try not to stare. But, I mean, look at that thing. It's gigantic. Way bigger than mine. Ridiculous, really. Who needs one that large?

So mine is smaller. So what? That doesn't make it inferior. Or does it?

I try to pretend that size doesn't matter, but I have to face the truth: I have rig envy.

A rig is a pit is a smoker is a grill is a barbecue. They're all names for the same thing: a contraption for smoking meats and other foods. A rig, though, is a super-sized version of the others.

Checking them out at the annual Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest has me as slack-jawed as the television simpleton Gomer Pyle. Would you look at that? A barbecue smoker shaped like a pig. And over there, a cooker that, I declare, is nearly the size of my house. Lookee there, a smoker with a rooftop deck!

Used to be, barbecue was a quaint, mildly exotic hobby practiced by good ol' boys in the South who used a sliced-in-half 55-gallon drum with spindly legs and a chimney on top. It was, like mine, called a smoker. And it was an icon of a certain (less hurried) time and (more rural) place.

Nowadays, you practically need a welding license and a degree in food chemistry to understand how these things are made and what they do. Competitors on the barbecue circuit throw around terms such as "double insulated" and "regulated air flow" and "barometrics" and "digitized mills" and "convection fans" and "remote thermometers."

The point is to design rigs with such heavy-gauge steel and tight seals that no air escapes and the fire is so efficient that it only takes a few hunks of wood to power the low-and-slow cooking for hours on end.

I thought I might come here to get some ideas to replace my own smoker, but I'm more confused than ever.

"Smokers have gotten more sophisticated, more studied, more professional," says Diane Hampton, executive vice president of Memphis in May, a month-long cultural celebration. "The really good cooks are developing not only their recipes, but their rigs."

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