Texas Barbecue at the head of the class

by Bob Sims
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 Texas
Students at Texas A&M Univ. marvel at the sight of a carcass being broken down in the classroom. 
 
Students at Texas A&M Univ. marvel at the sight of a carcass being broken down in the classroom.
 
Sometime in the mid-2000s, Jeff Savell began to leaf through the only book at a Harry and David’s while he and his wife, Jackie, were shopping. The book, “Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook,” by Robb Walsh, interested Savell and he bought it. “I read through it and enjoyed the recipes, as well as the stories that Robb wrote,” Savell says. “I didn’t think anything about it, put it on a shelf and kind of went on."
 
What Savell, Regents Professor and E.M. “Manny” Rosenthal Chairholder, the holder of the Cintron Univ. Professorship in Undergraduate Teaching Excellence, and the leader of the Meat Science Section in the Dept. of Animal Science at Texas A&M Univ. didn’t know at the time, was that the book would start a chain of events that has brought Texas barbecue and Texas A&M barbecue educational offerings to its current celebrity status.
 
The beginning
 
In 2009, Texas A&M Univ. challenged its professors to come up with small section freshmen classes to help the newcomers acclimate to college life. Savell remembered a 2008 small section class on baseball and thought if baseball fit in, so too could a class on barbecue. “And then I thought, ‘we’ve got the perfect book,’” he says, remembering “Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook” that had been gathering dust on his bookshelf.
 
He and his colleagues put the class together and got it approved. Since then, Texas Barbecue (ANSC 117) has become one of the most popular freshmen classes on campus.
 
Two months after the approval of the class, Savell received a serendipitous and unsolicited email from author Robb Walsh looking for information about fajitas. “I sent him a note back that said, ‘I know who you are, I’ve got your book, we’re going to use it for this class,’” he says. Walsh was invited to campus to speak with faculty about fajitas, but also to speak to the Texas Barbecue class about his book.

 Texas
Jeff Savell (left) and Chef Aaron Franlin discuss the details of cooking the perfect brisket at a recent held Camp Brisket at Texas A&M Univ. 
 
Foodways Texas
 
The relationship between Walsh and the Texas Barbecue class faculty continued to develop and eventually led to conversations about the Southern Foodways Alliance and how Walsh felt Texas needed something similar for itself. The Southern Foodways Alliance, based at Univ. of Mississippi, was set up to bridge social and economic gaps in the South through food.
 
“In 2010, he [Walsh] convinced us to meet and we convened a group of about 50 people who formed Foodways Texas, now housed at the Univ. of Texas,” Savell says. The partnership between bitter rivals Texas A&M and Univ. of Texas is a testament to the way food, especially barbecue, can bring people who would otherwise never associate with one another, closer together. Foodways Texas’ mission is to preserve, promote and celebrate the diverse food cultures of Texas.
 
The Southern Foodways Alliance often holds symposiums, workshops and other events related to southern food. Savell says once Foodways Texas was established, they felt it needed something similar. Savell and some of his associates in the Animal Science Dept. had partnered with a large barbecue association before to put on some events in the past, but one of the professors involved went to Iraq and the events just died off for lack of promotion, but they had done it before.
 
The group proposed another barbecue event with Foodways Texas handling registration and the Barbecue Summer Camp at Texas A&M was born.

Barbecue summer camp

The first Barbecue Summer Camp took place in 2011 at Texas A&M. Foodways Texas and the Meat Science Section of the Dept. of Animal Science hosted the event. The Rosenthal Meat Center and O.D. Butler Animal Science Teaching, Research, and Extension Complex housed the activities coordinated by meat science professors, Davey Griffin, Ray Riley, and Savell.

The first year of the camp saw a good turnout, Savell says. But then something happened that would transform the spark to a roaring flame. “Somebody from the Houston Chronicle wrote a big story on it and it went viral from that day forward,” he says.

They did the summer camp again the next year and it eventually filled up with an eclectic mix of backyard enthusiasts. The coordinators kid with one another about the number of IT people who attend the camp. Savell jokes that he’s never heard a barbecue guy get excited about an opportunity to spend three days at an IT conference. The fascination with good barbecue is unique in that people from every profession will go to great lengths seeking out ways to do it better.

“It’s the people wanting to do this stuff outside of their job,” Savell says. From petroleum engineers to surgeons, the 50 seats sell out faster year after year. This year’s camp sold out in less than a minute. Another camp was added and it is sold out too. The popularity led to the consideration of a camp for the winter.

Why Camp Brisket?

There are a few reasons why Savell and his associates chose to focus the winter camp on brisket. For one, Texas and brisket have a history. The southeast is known for pork. Kansas City, because of its location, rail system and cattle drives, had access to both beef and pork, but Texas was always basically beef, Savell says.

It started with the German and Czech meat markets. If meat didn’t sell, they would smoke it as a way to preserve it, and boxed beef’s eventual availability allowed specialization in the restaurants. “Somehow brisket became the thing that Texas specialized in,” Savell says.

Brisket’s toughness also makes it a challenge to cook.

“We did a ranking of muscles years ago. We did 40 of them and 38 were more tender than the brisket,” Savell says. “It’s almost like a little alchemy,” he adds. “You take some wood and some smoke and some seasoning, and it’s low and slow, and you take this tough, old, sorry cut and turn it into something that melts in your mouth and it’s magic."

When a restaurant cooks a brisket well, people will line up around the block to buy it, Savell says. In Texas, barbecue restaurants are judged on their brisket. “You don’t get brownie points for doing ribs well and brisket average,” he says. “It’s like, well they’ve got really good ribs but their brisket is average; well then they’re average.”

Texas AM  
Frequent monitoring of the smoker is important, but so is not opening it too much.  
 
Notoriety

With two Barbecue Summer Camps and a Camp Brisket selling out in seconds, there’s no doubt of the concept’s success. A number of factors have contributed and Savell believes the press and multi-media channels have played a large role.

“It’s the growth of the food networks and the blogs and the Top 10, Top 20 and Top 30 lists, all the shows about this [barbecue] and the competitions,” he says. “All that just kind of comes into the perfect storm."

From the start, the Houston Chronicle covered the goings on at Barbecue Summer Camp. Once that happened, the online version became searchable and then the San Antonio paper picked up the story, furthering its reach again.

Last year the Washington Post did a story on Camp Brisket. This year the Dallas Morning News covered it. Savell says that it starts as just press coverage, but turns into big feature stories. “None of the stuff we’ve ever done has gotten any kind of press like this,” he says. “It’s just crazy the notoriety, the press and the contacts we get."

Camp Intangibles

Barbecue Summer Camp and Camp Brisket offer an ever-growing evolution of the barbecue world. Not only do the educators continuously modify what they teach, but experts that come to sit on panels go back to their businesses and modify what they’ve done for years based on what they learn at the camps.

“We’ll get various people that come help us, various pit masters and things like that, and almost every one of them has made changes to what they’re doing,” Savell says.

Whether it’s the spices they use, the wood or the grades of meat they use, everyone involved with the camps learns how to take their barbecue to the next levell.

The camp structure provides the opportunity for all participants to “up their game,” even on something as basic as pepper, Savell says. “So now they’re getting pepper from some specific place in India that has a tremendous aroma. If they hadn’t been in the discussion they might not have even thought about that or heard of somebody doing that."

The love of barbecue comes from not only the joy in eating it, but also the joy that comes from the ability to prepare it, and prepare it for large groups of people, Savell says. “Think about Mexican food. I love Mexican food, but I’m not enthused about trying to learn how to make every kind of tamale there is in the world,” he says. “But if I could figure out how to cook a brisket better, then there’s something about the celebration of that.

“We want to figure out how to make the best barbecue. Whether that’s by the latest equipment, the latest seasoning, or the best charcoal or wood fire, whatever kind of tip we can get, you know we’re going to try it.”

 
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