Wind Sprints: Smoke gets in your soul at the Colorado BBQ Challenge (column)
Marcel Proust had his madeleine. For me, it’s the burnt-end piece.
No other morsel sparks memories of my home place like a charred, fatty nugget of brisket that’s been slow-smoked for no fewer than 6 hours — smoked until the fat has turned to warm, beefy butter and the exterior is black as soot.
You see, this time of year offers the rare occasion where I can proudly confess my Texan roots (if my frequent use of “y’all,” and even sometimes “all y’all” doesn’t already give it away) and maybe even brag a bit. The Colorado BBQ Challenge in Frisco — though it tends to skew toward Kansas City style — is a travelling road show of Texas memories.
We don’t have many mountains, or any public lands to speak of in the Lone Star State, but we know barbecue. We know that post oak is best, that you should only season the meat with salt and pepper, and that you should never use sauce, even though every barbecue joint offers it (this is a only a trick to test your BBQ bona fides).
In Colorado, our national forest is something we cherish and protect, but maybe that’s only because lodgepole pine makes terrible, resinous barbecue unfit for man or beast. Give me oak, mesquite or hickory any day. Like evergreens, they’re beautiful trees to look at, to be sure, but their highest and best use is being burned to cinders in the noble cause of transforming meat into something nearer-my-God-to-thee.
More so than any journalism awards I’ve ever received, my proudest accomplishment as a newsman is having my fawning profile of Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor, Texas, framed and nailed on the wall of that venerable institution, which some have dubbed a “cathedral of smoke.” (They’re not wrong.)
Unless they’ve redecorated since last I was there, my story is on your left immediately after you hear the screen door slap shut behind you. After you finish reading my paean to culinary perfection, you then proceed to step in line, and there’s always a line. As the pitmaster and his acolytes lay down cafeteria trays and butcher paper, they will — if it’s available and they’re feeling generous — slide a burnt-end piece in your direction, like a priest distributing the body and blood. You immediately inhale into your brisket hole, and make the sign of the cross.
The burnt end is the crunchiest, fattiest and smokiest part of the brisket. It inflames your senses and hurls you into a primal state that makes over-ordering your only conceivable fate: You’ll have one pound of brisket, 4 giant beef ribs and a pound of sausage — half regular, half jalapeno. Some odd person behind you will order turkey. You suppress an urge to snarl at them. Like the sauce on the table, poultry are there only to ensnare and expose you. (The sides, too.)
Next you will order a beer or a Big Red, pay a female cashier with a voice and mien of sweet tea, and then slide into the tables nearest to the wall of business cards, which have been stained a tobacco brown by years of absorbing barbecue’s sweet incense. That famous feature has taken on a quality that is almost geological, something like the mussels that cling to the underside of a boat.
It’s time to tuck into bliss. I’m writing this at around 3 p.m. on Friday. My stomach is rumbling. The cars are lined up Frisco Main Street, stretching past my office window. It’s time to hit save on this column, leave my desk and go in search of brisket.
Ben Trollinger is the managing editor of the Summit Daily News. He’s attended four Colorado BBQ Challenges so far and has realized that long lines don’t translate to the best barbecue. Contact him at 970-668-4618 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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