Author Archives: Tom Streeter

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross can bïte me

I don’t meant that of course. I don’t claim anything of a deep understanding of her work. It’s a link-bait headline and the closest thing to a fair interpretation is that I mean is that she’s the poster child for thinking about grief and I’m tired about thinking about grief. I’m tired of bursting into tears. I’m tired of reliving Tuesday morning. Tired.

A more accurate title would be The Uninformed and Unfair Caricature of Things Other People Have Said About What Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Wrote Can Bite Me, but that doesn’t really sing. And it’s missing the extra umlaut. Did you know an umlaut is also called a diaeresis? Neither did I.  You’re welcome. Anyway, Carla actually invited Dr. Kübler-Ross to take a big bite out of the big old existential whatever sometime Tuesday afternoon, and I guess I internalized what she said.  It popped into my head this morning after reading through some comments from yesterday’s post.

I’m not tired of missing Bock. From what I’ve read in so much of what you kind people have written to Carla and me, I’m always going to miss Bock.  We’re always going to miss Bock. And I’m completely OK with that. What I’m not OK with is Carla having to mourn and miss Bock and worry about my sorry ass at the same time. So I’m going to stop that now. The part about having to worry about my sorry ass, I mean.

My father died when I was 16 and dealing with his death kept me pretty much screwed up into my 30s.  Note what that sentence says: it wasn’t his death that screwed me up, it was how I dealt with it. I’ve been to too damned many funerals since then. I’ve learned a few things that work for me. I’m not going to talk about those, not right now anyway because it’s just self-indulgent and boring. Sufficed to say that in my head a death or something equally bad is just an excuse for my psyche to throw a party and invite every terrible thing I’ve ever thought whether it has anything to do with anything or not.

The problem with that is that is … well .. pretty much everything. But what I’ve been fortunate enough to see this time around is that one of the bad things it does is take up a lot of mental processing time that’s much better spent being amazed at how wonderful people are. And holy crap, you people are fantastic. Carla and I have said over and over to each other how amazing everyone has been about supporting us through this awful time. Some of you have written about the pets you lost. Some have simply said ‘sorry’ in just a few words. Some, on Facebook, just hit the ‘like’ button trusting that we’d understand that what they were liking was us and not what happened.  Stupid Facebook.  But don’t worry, we got it the way you meant it. And each and every one of those things wove a tapestry that is more than the sum of its parts. I’ve not been out of the house since this happened — not unusual given how I work — but Carla was surrounded by folks at Cincinnati State yesterday who came over to lend their support to her in person. She is grateful, and so am I. The folks I work with have been great. We mostly talk on the phone and via IM and e-mail, but it’s helped so much. I’m grateful. I’m humbled. You have made me want to be a better person. Anyone out there who says social media doesn’t lend itself to real interpersonal relationships are hereby cordially invited to kiss my ass. Clearly I have work to do on that whole ‘better person’ thing.

I said up above that for me, at least, experiencing the death of a loved one seems to be a black hole that attracts every crappy thing I think about (and there are a lot of those). Relevance or accuracy aren’t prerequisites for showing up, and are actually discouraged it seems. This loss of a cat who means so much to me (for his meaning doesn’t end with his life) has forced me to look at who I am and what I believe about how I relate to the world around me. Or, more precisely, how the world inside my head looks at the world outside my head. More than the death of a person, the death of a pet makes you look at how you relate to things because there aren’t all those messy words and opposable thumbs to make things complicated. Unless your pet is a monkey.  But then you have other issues.  Anyway, there is something streamlined about this, for lack of a better phrase. And it’s made me realize something that needs to be said. To come out, if you will.

So, thus it is spoken here in this place on this day in my 50th year:

I, Tom Streeter, declare myself to be … an introvert.

Crickets?

Really?

OK, so I’m sure this is as big a shock as Brian Boitano coming out as gay. I will be happy provide feathers upon request so you can knock yourself over. (But only for knocking yourself over, you sickos.)(Be a better person, be a better person, be a better better person.  Dammit. This is going to be hard.)

introvertCarla found this graphic on Facebook and shared it with me. The funny thing is, I really thought I was anti-social. Sort of the opposite of this from the movie Clerks:

Dante: You hate people!
Randal: But I love gatherings. Isn’t it ironic?

And it turns out that I am exactly the opposite of that. People are OK in small doses, but — no offense intended, really — being around a lot you people collectively really kind of sucks for me. But I like what you think. I like that you think. I even like meeting new people. Slowly. Over a period of time. And please don’t take it personally if I don’t jump at the chance to be in the same room with you at the same time.  really, it’s me, not you.  You’re great. But can you just talk to me on Twitter? Cool.

So 140 characters may not be your thing (ohhh, look at Mr. and/or Ms Fancypants with the complex ideas that can’t be boiled down to the length of a one-liner). That’s OK. I think I’m going to keep writing about whatever the hell I think about here and there’s Facebook or Twitter or comments that we can have a conversation.

I don’t want all the joking around to overwhelm the only real point I have in writing all of this.  Thank you.  Thank you each and every one. You have kept me going, and I am grateful in ways I can never say.

How it’s going

I woke up this morning with a Bock-sized hole in my heart.

It’s finally been more than 24 hours since things started going to hell and that’s a good milestone to be past. I very badly need to forget what happened between 8 and 9 yesterday. The sooner the better. It was such a small part of Bock’s life. There was so much more. Bock never had to anyone in his life who didn’t love him. That’s a pretty good life. We could have kept that going for quite a while, but it’s not to be. I want to focus on the good stuff, because there was so much of it.

Carla had to go into work today, so it’s just Porter and me.  We’re The Odd Couple.  In that we’re both odd (“One’s cranky, neurotic and needy. The other’s a cat.”).  Porter has never been alone in his entire life. For much of his life his companion was Bock. It’s not that they were inseparable, they didn’t spend every minute together, but they were both always in the house. To my knowledge, Porter is unaware of the fact that the world doesn’t come with at least one other cat to play with. I don’t intend for him to learn. As it stands at this moment — and everything is subject to change — this Friday afternoon Carla and I will go down to the Boone County Animal Shelter and find Porter a new buddy.  We want someone of similar size and age to Porter, easy-going and not all-black. We’re not replacing Bock: we’re finding Porter a new buddy and us a new cat to love. The Bock-sized hole in our lives is very precisely sized — custom-made, even — and will never be filled.  To try is pointless. But, as I said, Porter has never been alone and I’m afraid he’d get bored and, as I also said yesterday, that’s a terrifying proposition. I’ve always called him my little empiricist. He has to try everything. We need to have another cat to distract him. So we’re going to get one.

It is, of course, impossible to know what goes on in a cat’s mind. While Porter loves attention when he wants attention, he’s always been a little more solitary than the “Hey what’s going on OK fine why don’t you go ahead and pet me now then?” guy Bock was. There were certain things he’d do that would attract Bock’s attention and be a prelude to play. I’ve seen (and heard) many of these since yesterday evening. The first time just made me melt.

It’s hard not to see Porter this way. Click image to see a larger version from ComicsKingdom.com

An important ritual around here has always been The Giving of the Treat when we’re getting ready to leave the house. To keep them from bolting out into the garage when we headed out, we learned to give them a Pounce treat in the food tray of their carrier. That would distract them long enough for us to get out the door. After a while it became clear they didn’t give a crap whether we were leaving or not, but they sure liked the treat. We always — always — waited for them both to be there before we gave it to them. Yesterday evening and this morning Porter got his treat solo. Add to that the fact that no smells have been added to the litter pans or food feeders overnight and I’m pretty sure Porter knows Bock isn’t here now. He’s not moping around or being more (or less) vocal than usual. We leave sometimes and come back, after all. Maybe he think Bock will too. Or maybe cats don’t work that way. It’s just been a day, but right now he doesn’t mind being the only cat. Carla is right that nighttime will be the real test. That was their playtime.

Porter abides. I’m working on that with him.

Goodbye, Mr. Bock

The last photo taken of Bock

This is the last picture Carla took of our cat Bock. She took it yesterday as the temperature plummeted and hunkering down seemed to be the best way to go. He slept with us last night, sometimes up against me, sometimes down at Carla’s feet. He’s spent most nights with us since we got back from our cruise over Christmas. Our bedtime ritual was for him to come in to be petted, and then he’d settle down.

He seemed perfectly normal this morning when he walked in on me as I was in the bathroom, as he always did.  He stretched out on the door frame and sharpened his claws . He walked in and gave me a look that said he wanted to check out the shower, so I slid open the door to let him in. He walked to the other end of the shower, nearest me. I heard a little thump and asked him if he found something to pounce on.  Through the  frosted plastic door I could see him moving, but not too much.  I opened my end of door after a moment and he tried to come out.  But his back legs weren’t moving.

I called for Carla and the nightmare began. It’s only been a couple of hours since all this happened, and this is the point I already want to forget. He was in some distress, but he only yowled some. There was undoubtedly pain, but there was also the confusion that comes from something being wrong and just not understanding. We got him to the vet as fast as we could. The drive was awful. We had no idea what had happened, but Carla knew when she saw him it was over. I did too, especially by the time we reached the vet. It was clear he was dying. They saw him immediately and had the answer within minutes.  A congenital heart condition, a clot that paralyzed his hind quarters, little hope that the clot could be treated or that it wouldn’t happen again even if they could treat it. The vet had tears in his eyes when he told us the most humane thing was to put him down. Since we already knew, in our hearts, that this was coming Carla told him to go ahead. They’d taken him to the back and we could still hear him yowling on occasion, but part of that was putting in the IV and sedating him so he’d be more comfortable.  After a few minutes they brought him in to us so we could spend some time with him. His eyes were open and he was looking straight ahead. Who the hell knows what’s going on in a cat’s head on the best of days? Could he hear us tell him we loved him and thanking him for making us so very, very happy? I don’t know, but when the vet came in for the final injections, we were petting him and he knew he was loved. Because he was.

We got Bock as part of a pair.  Porter is a week younger than Bock and they never knew life without each other even though they were from different litters in the same household. Bock was the gregarious one. He was outgoing. In an act of desperation the day we got him, I gave them these silicone beer bottle caps to play with because we had everything for them but cat toys. Bock became obsessed with his bottle caps. He carried them around in his mouth.  He chased them if you threw them.  He’d bring them back to you.  Or partly back to you.  He never did figure out that whole “you have to bring it all the way back before we can throw it to you” thing. We called it the “mic drop.’  He’d chase after the cap, pick it up and bring it back about half way and drop it.  Then he’d come and sit at Carla’s feet and expect her to go get it.  It didn’t happen.  Sometimes he’d wander off and do something else, but other times he’d finally go get it — you could feel the eye roll as he tolerated the simpletons he was saddled with — and bring it over so Carla would throw it.

This is an important point.  Bock was our cat and we loved him very, very much, but Carla was Bock’s human. He liked me.  He knew how to get me to give him a belly rub or to brush him. But Carla belonged to him. She knew how to throw the bottle caps right. Because of the way we work, I’m home most of the time and we spent hours and hours together, but when Carla came home she was the center of his attention. He’d follow me to the bathroom like he did this morning so he could stare at me, but if Carla made a noise somewhere else in the house he was gone.

It’s not a big secret that I don’t care much for people, on the whole. Bock had a different personality from Porter and between the two I could anthropomorphize the hell out of them. I’ve spent many an hour talking to one of them or the other, and I have to say that Bock was the guy most likely to come over when I’d been staring at this laptop for hours on end and and paw at my elbow and say “Hey. You. Primate.  You need to pay attention to me now. Let’s keep our priorities straight.”

As I write this with tears in my eyes I can’t believe I’m never going to feel him doing that again.

I’m worried about me. I’m worried about Carla. I’m worried about Porter. My sweet little boy (for I am his human) has never been without the companionship of Bock. My favorite thing was when Porter would go and start grooming Bock. Bock would enjoy it for a while, then it inevitably set off either a wrestling match or an epic chase around the condo. Just yesterday — yesterday! — I laughed as I watched it play out as it has so often.

Because I’m 50 years old and have buried more people that I’ve cared about than I can count, it’s not surprising how fast I’ve become accustomed to putting Bock in the past tense. But goddammit, he’s supposed to be in the bed on my desk right now. I’m supposed to see him curled up in front of the speaker by the TV. He’s supposed to be asleep on top the tower or the Kitty City. We only had him for a little over a year. It’s not fucking fair.

I don’t let much in anymore. The Buddha was onto something with that whole “all existence is suffering” thing. But Mr Bock?  He got in. Deep.  And it’s going to take awhile. As awful as this is, it could have been worse.  I was right there.  Carla was off school today. We have the most wonderful vet practice (Hebron Animal Clinic) nearby. It could have been worse. We’ve already made the decision that there will be a new cat joining our family someday. Not too soon, not too long. The idea of a bored Porter is, frankly, terrifying. Bock was always there to help him burn off his considerable energy. He hasn’t started to do a search for Bock, but I expect it soon. Like everything else this awful, awful day, it will be hard.

Early on when Bock and Porter were just little fuzzballs, I made up this little ditty that I’d say to them when I was getting dressed in the morning and they were playing in our bedroom window. I don’t know if I ever said it when Carla was around.  It was our thing:

Mr. Porter and Mr. Bock,
Coolest kitties on the block.

Mr. Bock and Mr. Porter,
Best darn kitties from border to border.

I got to say it to him one last time this morning, just about three hours ago.

Goodbye, Mr. Bock. I miss you more than words can say.

Fear of a Black Santa

photo of me as Santa
I feel like I have a certain standing to comment in this whole “Santa is White” thing. Fox News human Q-Tip Megyn Kelly is now claiming her comments were in jest. For all I know that’s the truth. I do think, however, she’s proven beyond a doubt that she doesn’t understand either Santa or jest. C’mon! She also said Jesus was white. Laff riot, amiright?

Whatever Megyn Kelly does or doesn’t believe, this thing resonated like the dog-whistle it was.  It was heard in the trenches occupied by beleaguered Yule Defenders who work every day to find someone — anyone — who will Wage War on Christmas™. The fact that they can’t actually find any of those people  is really besides the point. It’s why they’re beleaguered.  Self-deception is hard. Megyn, besides proving you can spell a name pretty much any way you want, has provided a valuable reminder that who ever those people are, They Don’t Look Like Us®.

I first put on The Suit when I was in high school. I was much skinnier then. And I was way too young to be playing Santa. I decided I wanted to do it when I went Christmas caroling with some friends and they gave out Santa hats. Until I put that hat on I never realized how badly I wanted to be Santa. So I bought a suit (I think I ordered it from the Sears catalog) and my seasonal career was born. I had a fake beard and fake wig and hid my dark eyebrows by jamming my hat down low on my face (which you can see in the picture I still do). All throughout college I played Santa over Christmas break. I did house calls. I’d advertise my services in the local shopper newspaper classifieds and my mom would start taking appointments for me right after Thanksgiving. I’d get six or eight gigs a season.  Every once in a while I’d actually deliver the gifts for a family who’d be traveling over Christmas and had kids who were convinced Santa wouldn’t come if they were away. I helped light the Christmas tree at my college in Texas and I’d do visits to shelters and such for college service organizations. For the record, being able to say you own your own Santa suit in college does not help you pick up girls. Just saying.

There was a period of years where I didn’t play Santa, but when my beard started graying I really started thinking about doing it again. I started again in 2011 when Florence city councilman Ted Bushelman passed away.  He’d always played Santa at the City tree-lighting holiday kick-off, and he loved doing it. And he was good at it. He was good at it not because he had a real beard — he didn’t — or that his suit fit particularly well. No, he was good because he had a twinkle in his eye and a love, if not a need, to make the person in front of him happy. And so much better if that person happened to be a child. That was the way he was all the time. Putting on the suit was the least of the things that made him Santa. I’ve had the privilege to play Santa for the city for the last three years and I do it for the kids and the season, but I also do it for Ted.

I’ve changed a lot in the 30-odd years since I put on The Suit for the first time. Up until this year I put some whitening in my beard because I thought my mustache was too dark. I worked with a Santa last year at an event who is a great Santa and his beard is darker than mine (we were in different rooms and the kids never saw us together). The kids don’t care. My beard is really more gray than white and the kids don’t care. I think I liked my college suit a little better because it was a darker red than this one, but the kids don’t care. I never had a kid pull my beard when it was fake and I’ve only had one kid half-heartedly try since it’s been real. Real beard, fake beard, the kids don’t care. One of the greatest Santas I ever saw was the guy who used to do it at the Florence Mall. He didn’t wear a coat, just the pants, boots, hats and a red or green t-shirt with contrasting red or green suspenders.

Santa isn’t the suit.  It’s the person in the suit. It’s what the person in the suit brings to the fictional character being played. Santa can be black. Or white. Or any ethnicity. Santa can be female. Santa can be anyone who did what Ted did: have that twinkle in the eye and have the desire to make that person in front of them happy. Especially a child. I try to live up to that. I hope I do.

And I’m proud to call whoever does Santa. No matter what they look like.

26 Letters Arranged Into Words About Brisket That Will Make You Click This Link

I’ve been reading way too much BuzzFeed lately.

I hate those headlines, but damned if they don’t work. I’ve been considering doing one for Hoperatives called “10 Inane Facts about Beer That Will Make You Click This Link” but I haven’t done it yet. Maybe this will get it out of my system. The reality is that I couldn’t care less if anyone reads this or not. I do this to amuse myself, and I’m easily amused.

Anyway…

One of the reasons I bought The Egg is because you can’t get good brisket in this town. There are lot of fundamental problems with Cincinnati, but I actually don’t consider this one of them. This is a pork barbecue town, and there’s nothing in the world wrong with that. The only time that turns into an issue is when brisket gets treated like pork. The basic issue is one of target temperature. If you’re doing pulled pork you want to make sure the internal temps are at least 190 (and really higher is OK) so it’s easy to pull. Pulled pork is what most people around here think of as barbecue. That’s fine. I don’t have a problem with that. I like pulled pork. But brisket isn’t pulled pork. Brisket is done at 180. It’s overdone at 181. If you’re going to miss, miss to the low side. Pull it at 175, wrap it in foil and stick it in a cooler with towels. It’ll stay hot for a long time and not get overdone. I think that’s where folks go wrong. They pull it at the right time, but let the temps rise up into the 190 range when holding it for serving.

The other mistake I think people make is somehow thinking that time and not temperature is what makes a brisket worthwhile. “I smoked this for 20 hours.” “We smoke our brisket for 12 hours.” “Our briskets get smoked overnight.” Gee. Congratulations. When was it done? If you have a whole packer brisket — one that contains both the point and the flat — you might easily hit the 20 hour mark in order to get it done. I hope to get enough experience doing long smokes on the Egg that I can put on a packer in the evening and get up the next day and finish it out. I know there are a lot of guys that have this whole stay-up-all-night-and-watch-the-pit thing they like to do. I’m getting too old for that crap. To tell the truth, I think I’ve always been too old for that crap. I’ve had an issue where I can get six good hours with a fire before it starts acting wonky. I want to understand that a little more before I attempt to do an overnight.

Today I’m doing a basic brisket flat that was just under 7-lbs fresh. I’m taking a very less-is-more approach. I rubbed it with some salt and pepper on the non-fat side. I did rub some oil on the non-fat side because I read somewhere that helps with smoke absorption. I didn’t bother with the fat side because it’s just going to melt anyway. I put it fat-side-down. The fibers of a brisket are too tightly packed for any melting fat to self-baste the meat if it were fat-side-up. I’d rather use the fat as a thermal buffer. I don’t plan to flip it and I don’t plan to use a mop. I remember when I was growing up we made the best damned briskets on a simple box grill that I think my mom found at a garage sale. We’d build a fire on one end, let it bank down to coals and stick the brisket on the other end. Sometimes we flipped it. Sometimes we didn’t. My dad never used a thermometer, but he had a good sense of how the meat should be when it was done. They were always great.

I’m kind of taking that approach today and trying to be relaxed about this. Part of the reason I’m writing this post is to distract me from messing with the Egg too much. I got a good fire going about 7:30 this morning. I made sure a lot of the lump was fully lit when I had the lid open. When I saw some ashed-over chunks, I stuck the the plate-setter in, dropped the grate on and closed the lid. I went ahead and left the dampers wide open so the fire could settle into a lower-oxygen mode. It got real smokey as the amount of air wasn’t able sustain the high combustion, but after about 20 minutes or so the smoke had thinned out. I dropped the dampers to about 1/4-inch and went about putting in the meat and arranging the thermometers. I closed the lid around 8:15 AM and it hasn’t been opened since. The grid temp had gotten up to 340 or so immediately after I put on the meat, but over the next 45-minutes or so the temp slid back to around 220-225. I opened the dampers an eighth-inch when it threatened to slide below 220. It picked up to to about 240 after about an hour and I just dropped it back that same eighth-inch and the temp is dropping back again. Not a lot. 237 and holding. I don’t plan to mess with it again unless I drop to 215 or so (and I’m not expecting that to happen, quite frankly). I’m 3.5 hours into the cooking and I’m reasonably confident that I’m going in the stall at 153 on the meat temp. I’m not even going to try to guess when it’s going to come off.

It’ll be done when it’s done.

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I’ll add pictures to the gallery as warranted.

UPDATE: So I took it off just a little over 8 hours after putting it on. I managed to actually fall asleep and take a little screw-it-it’s-a-day-off nap and, by the time I woke up, the temp had creeped up to 264 and the meat was at 177. The patient is currently resting in foil inside a foam H-E-B cooler for at least the next hour or so. I’ve added a picture of the final product on the Egg and I’ll post up slicing pictures in a separate post tomorrow.

Nailed it

I got this one right. The final tale of the tape was 10.5 hours. At the end I was up in the 230-degree range on the grid temperature, but I didn’t care because it was all about developing the bark at that point.

Something I neglected to mention in yesterday’s post was the fact that I set this up as a bi-level cook with the 6-lb main section down below (and monitored) while the smaller pieces were up on the secondary grid unmonitored. I knew the upper pieces would cook more than the larger pieces down below, but I figured it wouldn’t matter (and it didn’t).

When I took the meat off the Egg I wrapped all of it together in four layers of foil, then loaded it into a styrofoam cooler. We took off for dinner and when we got back three hours later I started pulling the meat into the crockpot that Carla will use to reheat and transport it. I burned my hands on more than one occasion. I didn’t even have any towels in there. It stayed plenty hot.

I said in yesterday’s post that I’d share my rub recipe if I like how it turned out. So here it is:

2 Cups Turbinado or Maple Sugar***
1/4 Cup Paprika
1/4 Cup Chili Powder (I like Fiesta brand)
1 TBS Garlic Powder
2 TBS Fresh Ground Black Pepper
2 TBS Onion Powder
3 TBS Cumin
4 TBS Salt
1/2 TSP cornstarch (only if it’s being stored)
1/2 TSP Turmeric


***Or enough maple syrup to cover meat. Wrap in plastic wrap or cover tightly with foil overnight at least.

This is basically a modified version of the Flame Tree BBQ rub from Walt Disney’s Animal Kingdom. I reduced the black pepper from the original, substituted some amounts of the other spices to replace the seasoned salt the recipe calls for and tweaked the sugar specifications. For this particular batch I mixed up the dry parts of the rub sans sugar and applied it very, very heavily to the meat, then dumped a bottle of maple syrup over the whole thing and rubbed it in. Then I applied the remaining rub just for good measure.

The photos pretty much tell the tale (you can click them to get a better view). The first shot shows the basic setup and the second shows some details of how the bark developed. The third one shows the main section of the pork and the last shows just how ridiculously little fuel was burned in the 10.5 hours. I think I added too much lit lump charcoal initially — the chimney starter was 3/4 full — and I think the widespread coverage of ash screwed with my air flow. I can keep rock-steady temps for six hours, but then I have to do adjustments. I’m going to go with maybe a 1/4 to 1/2 load of lump in the chimney starter next time and try to get it to sit more in the middle rather than spreading out. Just to see. But the big improvement this time is that there was a strong, established fire from the beginning and that made all the difference as time went on.

The irony is that I’ve only been able to eat a very small amount of this batch. I’ve definitely tried it, but the whole reason I did this batch was for a retreat Carla has tomorrow. It’s not that many people, so I’m hoping some will come home.

Or I’ll just have to make another batch. Darn.

ILBBICNL* 2: The Butt’ning

bad_chickenThis chicken kind of sucked. I screwed up the fire completely and I don’t think there’s really anything else to say about that. Most of it got pitched. It was supposed to be a no-big-deal cook, but it wound up being a very big deal. Carla has a Faculty Senate retreat this Wednesday and she volunteered me to make pulled pork for it (with my knowledge and approval beforehand). Last week was weirdly busy and she’s the one who had time to go get the meat.

She came home with a 10-lb butt. I freaked a little on the inside because I had a 7.5-lb butt take 13.5 hours and never really get to temperature, and she’s bringing home a 10-lb one? Yikes. And that’s on the heels of building a completely underwhelming fire for the Chicken-That-Shall-Not-Be-Discussed. When I finally was able to ask her about it without making it sound like “My God, what are you trying to do to me?” she said that the one she got was the smallest one they had. All-righty then. Gotta deal with it. Gotta be smarter than the meat. You’d think that’d be easy, but I can think of one chicken that did better than me.

I did what any good nerd does. I turned to the Internet to look at more ways to build and manage a fire in the Egg. And I found them here. It’s not obvious from this link, but these guys are famous for their incredibly obsessive reviews of lump charcoal. I’d be disturbed by them if (a) there was anything fundamentally wrong with being obsessed with lump charcoal, or (b) their research didn’t benefit me directly. I came across the linked article and from reading that I vowed to do three things when it came time to cook the pork for Carla’s group:

  1. Go back to my roots and use a frigging charcoal chimney to start my fire. Back when I had my New Braunfels Black Diamond offset I was a firm believer in what’s called The Minion Method. That link goes to the Ur-article on the method (developed for a Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker), but the principle is the same no matter what you cook on. Load all the fuel you want available for your cook in your cooker’s charcoal vessel. Light a small amount of fuel in a chimney starter and let it get fully lit. Put the lit fuel on top of the unlit fuel and let it get established, but start regulating the dampers. This is actually the theory behind how the Egg does its thing, except the recommendation is often to use a firestarter cube or something like that right in the firebox. I’ve been trying to use the fire starter cubes. I don’t like them.
  2. Divide and conquer. Using the 1.5-hours-per-lb rule-of-thumb, a 10-lb butt will take 15 hours to get to the magic 190 (note to those who read the Naked Whiz article linked above: they were going to 200 and that took closer to 2-hours-per-lb). I didn’t want to do either. So my plan was to divide the butt into two 5-lb sections so there would be more surface area and the cook-time would be reduced (plus more surface area for rub, so more bark!
  3. Hey mister! Leave them kids alone! The largely-accepted rule for smoking temperatures is the range 200 -225. I vowed to get the temp into that range, set the alarms on my grid thermometer for 199 low and 226 high and not touch the dampers unless an alarm goes off.

I put this all into practice around 6:00am this morning when I lit off the fire. I probably used too much charcoal in the chimney starter, but the only effect of that is that the handle of the Egg’s lid got really hot. I’ll use less next time, but it didn’t hurt anything this time around. The ceramic doesn’t get to temperature immediately, so in the first half hour of lighting the fire it’s OK if the temps spike really high. Once the cold platesetter and grid and such go on, the temps will drop. That’s what happened. I lit off the fire around 6:00am and by just after 7:10am I had the meat on and the temps were rising through the 180s and into the range I wanted. The temp leveled out about 187 and held for about half an hour, so I bumped the dampers open a few millimeters and in just a little while (within half an hour) I was planted between 216 and 219 for the next six hours. It was a beautiful thing. Just as the meat temp was climbing up to 168 — the prime zone for getting stuck — the grid temperature began to drop. It took more than an hour and a half, but it finally dropped below 200. My alarm went off and sometime around 2:30pm and I opened the dampers by maybe a 1/4-inch to really let some air in. The temps started a slow rise and in about 20-25 minutes I was over the 226 mark. I shut the dampers back, but the grid temp kept rising. Interestingly, the meat temp actually dropped from 168 to 165. Evaporative cooling can be really efficient. Anyway, when I hit 241 I decided to shut the dampers back to barely open. I’ve gotten the grid temp to fall back to 231 and the meat has risen to 173, so it’s past the stuck stage. I probably shouldn’t have opened the dampers so much when I needed to increase the temperature, but I seriously doubt I hurt anything. The lid temperature never exceeded 230. I consider the lid to be the average temperature of all the cooker components. Don’t know if that’s accurate, but that’s my rationalization.

About the cooking time ahead of me. It turns out the bone didn’t extend through the entire butt, but did extend more than half-way, so I deboned it rather than just dividing it into two equal parts. I wound up with a 6-lb piece and the remaining 4-lbs are in three pieces (one of which has the bone on it). I heavily rubbed all of the pieces with a rub I made up. I’m not going to be one of those “it’s a secret” jackasses, but I’m holding back until I know if what I did is any good. It’s a wet-rub based on the one used by Walt Disney World’s Flame Tree BBQ at Animal Kingdom. With variations. Like I said, I’ll share if I like it. Anyway, the rule-of-thumb says I ought to be getting close to done at around 9 hours and at the time I’m writing this it’s been about 8.5 hours. I’m guessing it’s really going to be 10-11 hours and I’ll be happy if that’s where we wind up.

I’ve been much better about chasing temperatures. I made sure I said something to Carla about not screwing with the dampers unless I’m out of range and I’ve stuck to that. I’m still technically over temperature now, but it’s falling at a good rate and I’m hoping it’ll level out between 200-225.

I’m not going to do a running update on this post. I’ll do a follow-up (with after pictures) tomorrow sometime and give the post-mortem then. As I finish this we’re at 174 (meat) and 231 (grid). Target is 220 (grid) and 190 (meat).

I’ll let you know.


* ILBBICNL == I Like Big Butts I Cannot Lie

Wherein I Describe How I Learned Some Things About Cooking

The ResultThe first long smoke is in the books. If I were grading I’d call it a B-. It’s good. I think I did more things right than wrong, and the things I did wrong are correctable now that I know what’s happening. I don’t think we’re going to have any trouble finishing the outcome from this round, but there are things I’m definitely going to do differently next time. And the next time is coming pretty soon. This week, probably. I have to keep the momentum up. And it’ll be better than what I did this time. That’s the point.

I think vinegar did me in. Specifically, the vinegar in the mustard I used to coat the butt. My first mistake was coating the butt with the mustard before coating it with rub. Chalk that one up to a rookie mistake. The salt in the rub helped the vinegar soak into the meat more than it might have had the rub been a bit more of a barrier. There were two negative outcomes of this as best I can tell: there’s a distinct vinegar taste I don’t care for immediately under the bark, and I think the vinegar is the culprit for the long cooking time. There’s no way an under-8-lb butt should take more than 13 hours and still never reach the 190-195 range I wanted to hit. I was reading up on brines here and I was struck with his discussion of what happened when he used a vinegar brine:

As you can see from this plot, the “plain” and salt-brined samples (blue and purple curves) behaved pretty similarly. But the vinegar curve (red) took much longer to cook, and more gradually approached “done”. As we explained in the article on barbecue stall, slower rising temperature curves are the result of evaporative cooling. That is, water migrates to the meat’s surface during cooking and cools the meat- just like sweat on a hot summer day.

brine curve

From http://www.genuineideas.com/ArticlesIndex/brine.html.

I’m not going to definitively say that the vinegar in the mustard is the cause of the weird temperature behavior, but I think there’s evidence to support the idea. And the flavor issue bothers me more than the cooking time. I know there’s a whole school of barbecue that elevate the vinegar sauce and mop to a defining characteristic. That’s fine; It’s just not what I prefer. I was worried that what I was perceiving as an off-taste was the Rivertown Wit I used in the injection brine. I don’t think that’s the case because I’m not finding the flavor down deep where I injected. I’m finding it right under the bark. And I keep calling it an “off-flavor,” but that’s not really fair. It just took me a long time to finally identify what I was tasting. It didn’t click until I though of some sauerbraten I had recently. Imagine that flavor without the sweetness. Add a little sweet sauce (Sweet Baby Ray’s Honey and Brown Sugar) and it’s pretty damned good.

Firebox remainsLet’s talk about the things that went right.

Fuel usage? Fantastic. As I said in the last post I’d added a bit of fuel, but I’d hardly describe it as jamming the firebox full. The picture on the left shows the remaining fuel before I knocked the ash down. Essentially what you’re looking at is a single layer of fuel on the bottom of the firebox. The firebox is just the bottom “bowl” part of that picture. The fire ring is the cylindrical part right above it. When I started the fire I’d say that the top of the charcoal was pretty even with the top of the firebox and hardly poking ip over the dividing line between the box and the ring. What you see is what there was left after 13.5 hours and whatever time it took for the fire to be smothered once the meat came off and I closed the top with the ceramic cap and shut the bottom damper altogether. I’m guessing I could have gotten another five hours out of the fire.

I was very pleased with how I got the fire stared and the basic temperature dialed in relatively painlessly. I think I overreacted a couple of times as the day went on, but that’s why you start out doing forgiving cuts of meat like pork butts and country ribs. They’re pretty hard to screw up. I think there’s some value in making sure the lump and wood chunks are mounded so the self-stoking effect of the Egg’s shape can work as it’s supposed to. As it was, the fuel was in the firebox bowl very level and it was burning from the center. That meant it was relying on pieces falling in from the edges when a new piece of fuel was needed. It didn’t work badly at all, but I think it can do better if the fire works its way down a mound of lump. Gravity is our friend.

I don’t intend to document every single time I use the Egg as obsessively as I did this time, but I wanted to capture my impressions this time because I figured I’d be learning a lot and I wanted to take notes. I think next time I’m ditching the mustard and going more for a salty-sweet rub and leaving it at that. It appears there are three ways to brine (immersion, injection and rub) and you’re supposed to do one of the three. I did two.

Later today I’m firing up the egg to do a roasted chicken with potatoes and veggies. I promise that if I post anything it’ll be a picture and no more than 500 words.