One of the fastest commitments I’ve ever made occurred when I received an invitation to attend an event that has become a barbecue badge of honor. I was proud to be a part of Camp Brisket 2017, the fifth annual, two-day educational workshop that is a joint venture between Foodways Texas and Texas A&M Univ.’s meat science section of its Dept. of Animal Science. So popular is the event, a lottery system is now used to determine who will be granted the opportunity to attend. So there I was, alongside about 60 barbecue enthusiasts and restaurant professionals who consider the experience to learn everything there is to know about cooking the perfect brisket an opportunity of a lifetime.
From carcass to paper plate, professors and iconic professionals in the world of Texas barbecue shared their wisdom on topics ranging from the science of smoke to barbecue pit design and much more. Led by University Distinguished Professor, Regents Professor and E.M. “Manny” Rosenthal Chair, Jeff Savell, the curriculum spelled out how the recipe for a perfect brisket is a blend of science, instinct, persistence, technique and passion for cooking one of the toughest cuts to one of the most satisfying and delicious delicacies. I came away realizing it is the element of genuine passion that is the secret sauce when it comes to pursuing the perfectly cooked brisket.
Attendees ventured from as far as Indonesia to attend the camp and domestically from Portland to Florida and nearly every state in between. And this crowd represented a wide swath of backgrounds and professions, from physicians to attorneys to IT professionals and even a physicist. One thing everyone had in common, however, was their love for food and a realization that cooking food and feeding people is a way of creating bonds and building communities that impact people’s lives. It’s the common thread when people celebrate, mourn, conduct business and socialize.
So obsessed were these fellow Camp Brisket attendees about food that most dedicated at least three full days and many hundreds of dollars to focus on a singular cut of meat that only makes up 3 percent of a beef carcass.
Another common tie among the group was the widely recognized gratification a cook receives after dedicating most of a day or night tending to every detail of procuring, preparing and cooking meat over a fire until just the right moment. It is witnessing the reaction of a customer, family member, neighbor or friend after they take a bite of something you’ve dedicated untold time, money and attention to that motivates the professionals and wannabe barbecue cooks everywhere. Tootsie Tomanetz, an 81-year-old Texas barbecue legend who’s worked as a pitmaster for 50 years and currently practices her trade at Lexington, Texas-based Snow’s BBQ, has cooked thousands of flats and points in her time and is a regular at Camp Brisket and other barbecue events held at Texas A&M. She echoed the collective sentiment of anyone who has cooked for others and is committed to making it the best it can be. “Brisket takes a lot of tender loving care,” she said with a twinkle in her eye and from the bottom of her heart.
I learned hundreds of tips about temperatures, times and techniques, but it is the heart and soul of the people I will remember most from my time at Camp Brisket.