Let me say up front: I don’t come from an old southern family. I come from the opposite of an old southern family, raised in a kosher home by parents who didn’t particularly enjoy cooking. If you’re not from the tribe, traditional celebratory cooking for Jews involves large amounts of chicken fat, salt, and onion soup mix. And when I was a kid, having “a barbecue” meant burning the bejeezus out of kosher hot dogs on a Weber grill cleared of cobwebs for the occasion. In my fondness for cooking pork, I’m not an originalist when it comes to cooking Jewish food, and I’m not an originalist when it comes to barbecue.
I have no hipsterish claim whatsoever to having smoked meat before it was cool. My wife bought me a smoker (pictured) for a wedding/birthday present in 2003. It is the greatest gift she ever gave me. Well, aside from the marrying me thing and the two kids. The smoker is the greatest gift that didn’t involve pain and questionable decision-making on her part. I still have the smoker (and the kids, and the marriage, surprisingly) and have never felt the need to upgrade or replace it – just like me, it’s older, crustier, and more fragrant than it was in 2003. Unlike me, the smoker sometimes oozes black goo from its lower openings. I still have a few years before that happens.
The great thing about a smoker is that it’s a device that attracts people to your home. It’s a reason to come together whether or not there is an actual holiday. You can’t – or least I can’t – barbecue a piece of meat small enough for my family of four – anything that small cooks too quickly to come out right. If I’m using the smoker, it means I need to have a few people over to enjoy whatever charred hunk of beast I just made. It’s what I think of as a “real” barbecue: an amicable humans eating together, interrupted only by the occasional panicked search for napkins.
Here’s what rains on my parade: some well meaning person, grease dripping from their chin, will ask if I’ve been to Schmo’s for their brisket. Or Smookie’s. Or whatever the new barbecue restaurant is in Chicago. A new one opens every week. And the answer is almost always no. I don’t believe in restaurant barbecue. I can’t separate the food from the experience – to me, barbecue is barbecue because it’s served at a barbecue.
Maybe that’s not true with smallish idiosyncratic shacks in Texas. But in Chicago, a restaurant is an expensive business to run. The goal must be to turn out an abundance of food consistently, serve you, and then turn over the table to serve the next people. They have to do this, or they couldn’t make their lease payments. No room for idiosyncrasy. Boring. What if they ran out of apple and used oak? Or the smoker ran cool because it was 29 degrees outside? What if the drippings that were supposed to go into the sauce ended up on the kitchen floor? I realize not everyone is going to make their own barbecue, but everyone who likes to eat barbecue should be friends with someone who makes it.
I’m not trying to convince anyone of this argument, because I don’t think I’m likely to win. After all, investors are supporting all of these new barbecue places, so there’s obviously a market for sweet, damp protein. Probably people looking to step up from making “BBQ Pork” with a bottle of KC Masterpiece and a slow cooker.
For the record, I don’t understand those people.
The other day, I was picking up a brisket from the guy, and I asked if he was going to carry turkeys for Thanksgiving. He wasn’t going to and explained that he only carries meat and poultry restaurants use, and restaurants don’t really use turkeys. Flash! There it was: why I love Thanksgiving. Because like barbecue, Thanksgiving dinner is only Thanksgiving dinner when it’s served on Thanksgiving. It’s food made by amateurs for other amicable humans. Aside from the odd diner, there aren’t a lot of restaurants popping up all over trying to sell ol’ timey “traditional” roast turkey and mashed potatoes. You definitely aren’t getting cranberry sauce or challah stuffing. Yes, there’s Boston Market. And ok, there’s probably a food truck somewhere doing this. Or doing it in a donut. Because some people place a huge value on food handed to them out the side of a colorful van. Those people can also learn to push a bar with their nose to get sugar water.
I have had some terrible turkey. It was like eating the heel of a cadaver. But it was cadaver heel prepared according to someone’s own SPECIAL recipe. I don’t care if it splinters when you cut it. It’s still awesome. If your family tradition is serving dessicated poultry with a box of Stove Top and one of those Costco pumpkin pies the size of a tractor tire, that’s a family tradition! It doesn’t even need to be turkey. Even people serving spaghetti carbonara or some sort of textured soy protein are having a Thanksgiving meal. And every family has a different one. When I finally mastered the Jewish Holy Trinity of schmaltz, salt, and soup mix, I then had to incorporate my wife’s family traditions. She is a refugee from Oklahoma, and holiday food for her involves cheese, heavy cream, and sausage. Thus, we have both challah stuffing and sausage and cornbread dressing side by side on our table. And we have a ton of it, because just like barbecue, it’s not anything you can make for a small amount of people.
It’s the second decade of the 21st century, and there are what, two things that are still great about America? You can argue whether the second one is our tremendous capacity for self delusion or John Hodgman. But the first one is that we have a national holiday that both traditional and evolving and remains rooted in giving thanks for our many gifts and eating with loved ones. Or eating parts of loved ones, depending on how the turkey tastes.