Pursuing Pitmaster Status
June 9, 2017
Camp Brisket draws barbecue junkies likes moths to a flame.
There are no tents, sleeping bags or homesick campers at Camp Brisket, however, there are plenty of fires to gather around, food cooked and stories shared. Only in the big, bold state of Texas would a team of world-class meat scientists (camp counselors) come together with legendary barbecue pitmasters to share the science, technology and techniques behind successfully cooking one of the toughest cuts on the carcass.
The inaugural Camp Brisket was held in 2010 at Texas A&M Univ. in Bryan, Texas, and it quickly became one of the most popular food events among barbecue junkies around the globe. The university’s meat science section continues to host the annual event each January in conjunction with Foodways Texas, based at the Univ. of Texas, Austin. Representing the meat science contingency at A&M is the trio now known as “The three brisketeers” – Jeff Savell, Ray Riley and Davey Griffin. Savell, University Distinguished Professor, Meat Science & E. M. “Manny” Rosenthal Chair in Animal Science at A&M, presents, introduces and moderates throughout the event, while Griffin, professor and extension meat specialist, is likely remembered at the camp for being the “mad meat scientist,” who spends much of his time during the camp in front of the classroom describing the mystical muscle with a memorable visual aid: a split beef carcass hanging from a rail traversing the ceiling. Riley is the longtime manager of A&M’s Rosenthal Meat Center, working behind the scenes during the camp in addition to making a presentation on beef grading.
The event typifies the rich history of Texas and the prominent role of food in that history, which is at the heart of the mission of Foodways Texas. It is said that Camp Brisket is the crossroads of food, fire and science. The agenda includes academic-style lectures, panel discussions, cutting demonstrations, plenty of Q&A and no fewer than four brisket-based, taste-testing meals. There is also plenty of time to mingle and rub shoulders with some of the pitmaster legends known for their barbecue expertise not only in Texas, but all over the world. Attendees learned about all the factors that go into mastering the brisket, from breeds to brands and attributes when selecting meat to preparation, cooker types, the role of wood and smoke and specifics, including target temperatures and holding times.
On Day 2 of Camp Brisket, attendees got an up-close look (and smell) of a variety of cookers, from back-yard varieties to large commercial rigs.
During the introductions for Camp Brisket 2017, it quickly became apparent that the attendees, seated in the theater-style classroom of the Rosenthal Meat Science and Technology Center, were far more than a little giddy about the opportunity to be part of the annual event dedicated to brisket.
Two years ago, organizers switched the registration process for the camp to a lottery system, randomly awarding about 60 seats to the coveted two-day, $495 class. In previous years, online class registration would routinely sellout in a matter of seconds. But still, hundreds of those who don’t make the cut spend the ensuing weeks begging to be granted an exception from the event’s organizers, leaving post-lottery voice mail and e-mail messages for Savell and even more for Foodways Texas Executive Director Marvin Bendele. They joked about the shameless bribes and pleas from people who freely admit their willingness to beg, borrow or steal to get a seat in the class. Incidentally, the next lottery winners will be announced in August 2017 for the 2018 camp, which will undoubtedly be another sellout.
The 2017 class included attendees from diverse walks of life and whose reasons were just as varied. Some traveled from all corners of the globe to be a part of the event. This year’s class included backyard and competitive barbecue practitioners whose day jobs ran the gamut while others were restaurant operators wanting to learn more about brisket. Sitting side by side were IT professionals, attorneys, a nurse, a physics student, a physician and a surgeon, a rancher, a CPA, a railroad worker, a retired salesmen, several current restaurant operators, several other aspiring restauranteurs and many barbecue hobbyists. All were in pursuit of what many consider to be barbecue’s Holy Grail: cooking the perfect brisket.
“We’re kind of obsessed with brisket here in Texas,” said Robb Walsh, author of the “Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook,” during an opening presentation that provided an overview of the history of Texas barbecue. He explained how, prior to the evolution and adoption of boxed beef in the beef processing industry, the forequarter was the predecessor to brisket. Black and white photos show mustached butchers tending large, open fire pits where large cuts were skewered, sometimes on scrapped axles of old cars and positioned over fires and systematically rotated over trench-style pits. The low-and-slow style of cooking what is still known as cut No. 120 in the North American Meat Institute’s “Meat Buyer’s Guide” was an art form in Texas dating back centuries and still is being perfected as cooks obsess about how to turn a shoe-tough cut into a transforming eating experience that entices and challenges barbecue cooks across the US.
Walsh set the A-Z tone for the 2017 event, which took a granular look at all things brisket and barbecue in general.