The Washington Post

Barbecue smoker: An imperfect romance

(Mattias Lundin)

My smoker keeps me up at night, which, frankly, is the least of my concerns about the rickety old Brinkmann that lives in our back yard, rain, shine or Snowmageddon.

If I’m honest, the thing I truly fret about is the smoker’s fire and whether I’ve become too distracted, too busy and too tired to keep it burning throughout the night, as is necessary for perfectly smoked meats. Too frequently I find myself crashed on the couch when I should be tending the fire, allowing the wood to smolder down to embers and ash. I’m then forced to reignite the very fire I’ve extinguished out of neglect, an act that feels like a metaphor for every long-term relationship.

But my smoker always forgives these mistakes, which is one of the many reasons I adore this bucket of bolts and cheap black metal. Despite my negligence and occasional lapses in judgment — the constant opening of the barrel lid, for instance, to impress guests with a mushroom cloud of smoke — the Brinkmann still rewards me with meltingly tender brisket coated in a midnight bark of salt, pepper, hickory smoke and rendered fat. Or with spare ribs that, if you slice between the bones, reveal salty, succulent pork with a red racing stripe of smoke around the edges.

I prefer to think my Brinkmann rewards me because, as with a cherished spouse, I’ve come to accept its flaws: its sudden mood swings from hot to cold, its appetite for expensive meals (known as seasoned woods), its skill at lying about its internal temperature, its inability to keep anything to itself (namely smoke, which seeps from every fissure). But I know this is my personal fantasy, my desire to play the role of ideal partner, patient and loving and forever accepting.

The truth is, ours is not a balanced relationship. I hold all the power, the congressman to the intern. I can do whatever I please to my Brinkmann. I can leave it outdoors buried under a five-foot snowdrift. I can let raccoons chew through its warm winter covering (in their naive and failed attempt to reach whatever congealed fat remains at the base of this steel cocoon). I can even forget to cover my smoker when it pours down rain, adding yet another layer of rust to its aging body. Yes, I can do all those things (and have), and my Brinkmann must still perform.

(Tim Carman/The Washington Post)

So I guess you could say my affection for the Brinkmann is a kind of paternalism, both shallow and controlling, based only on the smoker’s ability to keep me happy by doing its job. But you would be wrong. My Brinkmann is part of our household. I sometimes sneak a peek out the window to check on it, irrationally worried that someone might have stolen it. I berate myself when I forget to put on its raincoat during a storm. Whenever my wife suggests we stop wasting money on our rental bungalow in the ’burbs and buy a home, I start to fret, imagining D.C. townhouses with little outdoor space.

“What about a back yard?!” I’ll cry out loud, mostly to myself. “We must have space for the smoker!”

My affection for the Brinkmann is based on my respect for its mysterious properties. The fact is, my role in our backyard duet is minimal — and not just for the speedy little tangos, like my smoked buttered pecans recipe, but also for the long, slow ballets that the smoker was designed for. I merely season the meats, place them inside the barrel smoker and start feeding it wood. The Brinkmann — this miraculous hollow chamber of thin, flimsy steel and grates — does the rest. In a matter of hours, it somehow channels smoke and heat, transforming raw meats into the holy platter called Texas barbecue.

More from Food:

Carbs and me: We’re inseparable

Butter: My first love

Tarte tatin: My dining obsession became one of my favorite things to make

Beets: The love that leaves its mark

My refrigerator: commercial, see-through, and the best thing about my kitchen

My childhood glass: Always half-full, preferably with milk

Tom Sietsema’s valentines to people and places he loves

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.



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