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."

One that stands out, even among the impressive rigs here, is a low-to-the-ground shiny red number that's shaped a little like a race car. On its side is the logo of the team, Cool Smoke. It belongs to Tuffy Stone, a trim, classically trained chef who has won several state championships, appeared on TLC's "BBQ Pitmasters" and operates two barbecue restaurants in Virginia, in Richmond and Hampton.

He shows me his rig, insisting that it is really just a "traditional offset Texas-style pit." Except that his is double-insulated. And it has "wings," which open from the top and serve as storage bins for charcoal, wood, cooking implements and other gear.

"I just run hickory through it," Stone says, aw-shucksing his Lamborghini of a pit.

The pit's designer and builder, Jamie Geer, stands next to Tuffy, proud of his finely tuned instrument.

In 1991, Geer, who lives in Fort Worth, synthesized what he'd learned from cook-off competitions and built the prototype of the pit Stone uses. He installed tandem axles for ease of mobility (most pits back then had a single axle), added the "fenders" over the tires, put a dampener between the firebox and cooking chamber to direct the heat and reduce notorious hot and cold spots within the chamber, added a temperature gauge at grate level (if gauges existed at all, they tended to be atop the chamber), installed a second door to keep in heat while checking food, insulated the whole thing with two inches of ceramic wool, and erected a cool-looking wide and tall chrome "stack," a.k.a. chimney.

Later in the day, Geer gets the ultimate affirmation: Stone's pork shoulder takes first place.

Mike Richter of Jessup, who captains the Chix, Swine & Bovine team, also uses a Jambo pit. "I'm getting ready to retire and chase the barbecue circuit," says the 50-year-old section chief with the federal prison system. "Wanted to step up my game and make it easier on myself."

Richter, the grand champion of this year's Maryland state championship and first-place finisher last year in Washington's national competition, the Safeway BBQ Battle, says he's a "stick burner." Stick burners tend to be purists, preferring wood over other fuels and relishing the fickle demands of fire. "I don't light my fire and go to bed," he says. "I'm with my fire and stay with it. It's part of the mystique and part of the enjoyment I get from it."

Richter means he does not use a BBQ Guru, a device that regulates the temperature in a smoker, reducing the need to fiddle with the fire. The accessory is one of many advances in smoker technology.

Some of those advances have led to what might be called "extreme pits." Manufacturers use heavy-gauge steel, stainless-steel handles, high-quality seals and gadgetry to reduce labor and improve the evenness of the heat.

One of the most famous extreme pits is three-time world champion Myron Mixon's "Battlewagon" rig. A gargantuan restaurant-on-wheels that, in size and menace, calls to mind the John Belushi float in "Animal House," it is 30 feet long and has three cooking chambers: One can accommodate three 200-pound whole hogs, another holds 10 pork shoulders and a third holds 12 slabs of ribs. Oh, and tables fold out for easy entertaining.

"Gone forever are the days of digging a pit in the ground," says Carolyn Wells, executive director of the Kansas City Barbecue Society, which sanctions cook-offs nationwide. "Barbecuing is a sport and an art form. It's hotter than a firecracker right now. There's more money in it. So the rigs have gotten much better. There are more bells and whistles than ever."

Perhaps the leading builder of extreme pits is a loquacious Texan named David Klose. He has built smokers to order out of a baby carriage, a phone booth and several automobiles. He turned out an astonishing 5½-ton, 30-foot rig that looks exactly like a locomotive. Years ago, he built an enormous facsimile of a 777 wide-body for the president of Continental Airlines. "I'm particularly proud of the titanium paint job," Klose says.

I sit with Klose on one of the pull-out seats on his masterpiece, the Bling-Bling. It has sinks with brass faucets, satellite radio, a flat-screen HDTV and, oh yeah, heavy-gauge steel smokers. We leaf through a scrapbook of his designer rigs.

I don't need a smoker shaped like a beer bottle, a mailbox or a pistol. My needs are simple.

All I need, I decide after the past couple of days, is your basic double-insulated, heavy steel, tightly sealed, shiny double-doored rig.

After all, I'm not insecure about size.

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