For me, learning barbecue “for real” started with neither an outstanding occasion nor outstanding training. Like any subject you thought you knew, it was but a modest introduction to an actual master’s perspective that gave me that thing which would truly propel me: my repentance.
Years earlier I had literally won a barbecue ribs contest among friends in Dallas, and years before that my sibs and friends and I had cooked thousands of pounds of meat on nightly grills. At the time I thought barbecue acumen was all a matter of increasing my “confidence”… but fast forward to a 6-hour culinary class my father and I attended together in Kansas City just for fun one day. There, I learned better, and how bad at it I actually was.
People we know, today, erroneously say we learned amazing barbecue that weekend from a well known chef, but that is not the thing that happened. Fact is, a few years later we would beat our master instructor’s ribs in a county competition. Because we were better. Easy shmeezy. Research and experiment and regimen on our own is what ultimately made us do amazing barbecue. But it was “repentance” that we first needed to get.
Embarrassed, we were, on that training day, to learn that boiling ribs merely softened the meat and exiled all the actual juices and best tastes, and that what made Ruby Tuesday’s ribs—and ours—taste so good was merely the wonderful salt, soggy tissue, and slathered on sauces. Against our own convention, we now heard that “true smoking” meant we needed to “over” cook our pork and beef, to temperatures around 200 (versus a 125 degree steak), and that we were not supposed to “cook” such meats as much as we were supposed to carefully orchestrate a scientific reaction that literally altered their chemical composition from one thing into something totally else. We learned that a rib’s true “tasting” involved a bite into it that first deciphered the animal (pork ribs!), then its flavorings (barks, brines, mops), followed by smokeness (cherry, mesquite, pecan)—in that order, and able to tell a difference. Oh, and falling-off-the bone was wrong (versus al dente), and all the why’s. How wrong we had been. We had been the best among all those doing it wrong.
Yes, we left with notes and a few recipes that day, but it did not take long for us to totally reinvent awesome barbecue into our own image. Since then, over the years, and even through inventing trainings of it for others, I have cordoned “real bbq” as involving 3 enterprises I now describe as “Science, Art, & Discipline.” But all of this barbecue smartness only followed what we had needed first to know—that we had been wrong, and that we needed to learn barbecue, starting from zero.
That is where real barbecue is first set free (repentance) and I have seen countless men especially never get to that part of it, but rather keep on in their barbecue pride to do all sorts of unlearned things and to load the internet with ideas that are off. On the other hand I have seen countless men repent it like I did, and then see their barbecue stars get born. Indeed barbecue pride does have an awesome role in the whole practice, though mostly in that enterprise of it I call Art—for the Science of it must be regarded, and the Discipline of growing in it needs to be obeyed.
I share this with hope that folks go ahead and learn the basics of barbecue from someone, knowing that not too long after doing so there is plenty of room for them to carve their growing hobby into a better thing truly their own. Barbecue is a pastime loaded with pride and showing off. That is fine, but also we can leave room to give those prides of ours their proper time; and if we are helping teach someone else, well, we can go easy and leave room for them to get that same repentance which will awaken them to serving all my enemies some really awesome barbecue.