Brisket makes a Texan start smoking

By Jim Shahin
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 26, 2010

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.

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