A full room of guys — and just a half-dozen women — sit in a tiered classroom at Texas A&M University in College Station, awaiting the start of the day’s activities.
Jeff Savell strolls to the front of the room. “Most of you have mastered pulled pork by now,” says Savell, distinguished professor of animal science at A&M. “Most of you have not mastered brisket. That’s why you’re here.”
Indeed, Camp Brisket, an intensive two-day tutorial for barbecue fanatics, is like rock-and-roll fantasy camp — except instead of guitarists and drummers, the instructors are pitmasters and meat scientists. Why devote all this attention to smoked beef brisket?
One word: Mystique.
Slow smoking breaks down collagen, or connective tissue, transforming the notoriously tough cut into a gelatinous hallelujah of beefy, buttery flavor. The smoke creates a crusty exterior that in barbecue parlance is called bark. And the combination of crunchy surface, soft and juicy interior, and meaty, smoky taste makes for a transcendent eating experience.
When it’s done right, that is. The pleasures of beautifully smoked brisket have taken it from a humble Texas-centric pleasure to the marquee meat on menus from New York to Los Angeles. Home cooks have jumped on the bandwagon, too — but they soon realize that the quest for brisket mastery is a deep rabbit hole of questions, folk wisdom and lore.
That’s why the third annual Camp Brisket sold out in less than five minutes, attracting lawyers, real estate agents, a guy whose wife gave him the weekend as a wedding gift and a chemist who does “advanced cholesterol training.” (He insists he wasn’t recruiting.) On this weekend in January, 60-some backyard hobbyists, professional competitors and restaurateurs have flocked to this small Texas town from all over the state — and from Ohio, Colorado, California, New York, Montreal, even Kazakhstan.
The camp is co-sponsored by Foodways Texas, which is housed at the University of Texas at Austin, and the Meat Science Division of Texas A&M. The conjoining is so unnatural — UT and A&M are fierce rivals — it’s probably against Texas state law. But such is the power of smoked beef brisket.
The effects of brisket’s popularity have reverberated all the way to Washington, where at Harvey’s Market in Union Market, “we sell at least 100 pounds a week,” says co-owner George Lesznar. That’s after not selling any brisket at all until 2012, even though Harvey’s has been around since 1931. The popularity, along with a trimming of herds caused by a Texas drought, has also meant a rapid increase in price. According to the USDA, the wholesale price of 100 pounds of brisket this month was $334, up from $159 five years ago and $232 last year.
None of that matters to the brisket cultists gathered in College Station on this particular weekend. They just want to improve their game, to land the white whale that is the perfect brisket. They hope to learn secrets imparted by barbecue’s high priests, such as Robb Walsh, the dean of Texas barbecue writers and author of “Legends of Texas Barbecue”; Daniel Vaughn, Texas Monthly barbecue editor (yes, there is such a position) and author of “The Prophets of Smoked Meat”; meat scientists Savell and colleague Davey Griffin; and celebrated pitmasters, including Wayne Mueller of Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Tex., winner of the James Beard Foundation’s “American Classics” award; and Bryan Bracewell of Southside Market in Elgin, Tex., which dates to 1882. Oh, and one more, a certain next-generation pitmaster from Austin.
“We’re going to randomly pull somebody out of the crowd,” Savell says. “You, sir!” He points to Aaron Franklin. Everybody laughs.
“If somebody in here doesn’t know who Aaron Franklin is, you might as well leave,” Savell says.
The tiny Franklin Barbecue restaurant regularly attracts two-hour lines of patrons waiting beneath a wilting Texas sun for a taste of what Bon Appétit called the best barbecue in America. He has a PBS show called “BBQ With Franklin” and a book scheduled for April release, “Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto.”
Franklin saunters out from the audience to center stage, where, for a previous session on anatomy, sides of beef hang from ceiling rollers like skeletons in a med-school class. He dons a white apron and blue gloves and approaches a table where an untrimmed raw brisket awaits his surgery. A genial guy who chats throughout his demonstration, Franklin slices the stiff fat, called “hard fat,” off the meat, then begins carefully whittling for well over a half-hour until he has trimmed the remaining fat to a roughly
Two smoked briskets are brought in and laid on a table. Their fragrance fills the room. They were cooked the night before and have been resting for a couple of hours. “Resting a brisket for a long time is really important,” says Franklin, whose briskets at his restaurant stay in a warmer at 140 degrees for two to three hours after coming off the pit.
Franklin and Savell each take a brisket and, side by side, demonstrate how to slice them for maximum tenderness. A full brisket is the conjoining of two pectoral muscles, Savell explains. The pectoralis profundus, often called the flat, is lean. The pectoralis superficialis, or point, is thicker and fattier. They must be cut at different angles to assure the meat is always being sliced against the grain. “You want it thinner here, about
And so it goes throughout the two days. Minutiae and detail. How to build a fire. How to keep it steady. The specific flavors of different woods. A demonstration on a rainy Saturday morning of cooking techniques, with a backdrop of a dozen or so models of pits all wafting tendrils of smoke; not a soul seems to mind the rain. The different grades of meat and how they’re determined. (Did you know there are three grades of “choice”?) The history of brisket. (Fun fact: Brisket wasn’t common, even in Texas, until the 1960s, when beef began being sold to stores by the cut rather than by the side, and when Lyndon B. Johnson’s pitmaster, Walter Jetton, promoted it as a “self-basting cut.”) Whether to wrap in foil or not. (Basically, your choice.)
Campers ask, well, you name it. What percentage of moisture should be in the wood? (About 20.) Begin with cold or room-temperature meat? (Debatable, but consensus is cold to get the pink color around the perimeter called a smoke ring.) What is the ideal smokestack? (Long conversation follows about tapered chimneys, round vs. rectangular stacks, a balance of intake and exhaust, the restriction of air flow. “Redneck science,” Franklin calls pit design.) How much smoke should be used? (Depends on how smoky you like your brisket.)
Meals are taste tests. At one, campers blind-taste slices of brisket from different aluminum pans and score them as a test of different grades: Select, Certified Angus Beef, Choice, Prime and Wagyu. Not surprisingly, Prime and Wagyu tie for first, while Select places last. But in something of a stunner, the difference is minuscule, only a half-point separating the top score (6) from the bottom (5.5). Barbecue joints in Texas commonly used Select in the past but, due to increased demand for better quality, more often these days use Certified Angus Beef and Choice. A few even use Prime.
Another meal compares briskets cooked over different woods. At a third, there is a contest between foil-wrapped and unwrapped brisket. (I prefer the unwrapped because the slices have a meatier texture, but I like them both.)
As the light fades over Camp Brisket, campers begin filing out. Their tummies are full of brisket. Their minds are full of newfound brisket knowledge.
A couple of barbecue restaurateurs, who switched months ago to higher-grade brisket as a result of their attendance last year, say the camp deepened their understanding of both brisket and the marketplace. A competitor from Montreal tells me he has a better grasp on creating a consistent product.
A father from Northern Virginia and his son, from Texas, took different lessons. “My briskets have been dry,” says Warren Russell, 61, a retired Army colonel and Pentagon consultant who lives in Falls Church. “I got some tips I’m going to go home and try. Wrap. And let them rest.”
His son, Collin Russell, 29, an Army captain who lives in Harker Heights, Tex., was a little more relaxed about barbecue. “I’m not sure I’m at the same fanaticism level as some of these folks here,” he says. “For me, it’s nice to spend some great time together and come back to A&M for something other than a football game.”
As for this camper, although I’m an old salt at this, I learned that I, too, have a lot to learn. I’ll scour the new knowledge, trimming and resting and sweating the details, all in pursuit of nabbing that elusive white whale.