Diary from (barbecue) camp

June 30, 2010|By CHRIS COPLEY
  • Professional barbecue cook Dave Nash, left, slices meat from a smoked pork butt. Nash led a recent class in smoking pork butts at Mason-Dixon BBQ Services near Greencastle, Pa.
Photo by Chris Copley,

Try this at home.

That's the message Eric Forrester wanted to convey to participants in his first BBQ Bootcamp held June 25-26. Slow-cooking big cuts of meat is not just for professional barbecue cooks on TV. This is something backyard cooks can do at home.

Oh, and there was another lesson: "With barbecue you never know how it's going to turn out," he said.

Here's how the weekend went.

Friday - 5 p.m.

Forrester owns Mason-Dixon BBQ Services, a new barbecue-dedicated store in an old, brick school building a couple miles east of Greencastle, Pa., on Buchanan Trail.

I pulled into the parking lot to see a couple canopies, a variety of grills and smokers and a group of big men with big arms. As a journalist whose brain is stronger than his arms, I immediately felt intimidated.

I also worried that I would be the only attendee who didn't have a big, outdoor gas grill and years of barbecue experience.


I needn't have worried. Some boot campers had big, fancy grills and some didn't. Some people were experienced with cooking big cuts of meat over low heat, and some just cooked burgers and steaks.

We began with a supper of grilled sausages and fresh fruit. I chatted with fellow students and realized I wasn't alone. Plenty of participants had simple charcoal grills and limited barbecue experience, just like me.

Forrester went through the schedule of the 19-hour boot camp - debone and prep the meat Friday evening; prep the grills and smokers early Saturday; start the meat cooking before sunrise; eat breakfast; remove butts from cookers; and then, near lunchtime, pull apart and sauce the roasted pork.

Forrester pointed out that barbecue is regional and personal. So, he said, boot campers would prepare their butts differently - different spices, different rubs, bone in vs. bone out - and then cooked slowly at low temperatures to tenderize the meat. Then we would sample the results and see what we liked.

Then Forrester introduced Dave Nash, a professional competitive barbecue cook from Taneytown, Md. Nash was our official teacher for the boot camp. We swung into action.

6 p.m.

First up: Deboning and prepping our butts. Josh Busick, a butcher with Penn Avenue Meats in Hagerstown, talked about the pork butt, a thick wedge of pork that is actually the shoulder of a hog.

Busick showed how to debone a pork butt with a specialized knife. He made this process simple to understand - cut close to the bone, but not too close; keep your fingers safe; examine the bone after it's cut away and cut off chunks of useable meat, as needed.

Boot campers sat two to a table under a canopy behind Mason-Dixon. Everyone received a deboning knife, and about half deboned their butt. I deboned mine. My table partner, Ernie Girardin, a Hagerstown firefighter, kept his butt bone-in.

While boot campers' hands were busy, the conversation continued. Nash talked about barbecue competitions. He said he and his wife, Cathie, leave Friday morning for the competition site. They drive their RV, with their $3,000, gravity-fed, Superior-brand offset smoker stashed in the back "garage." They prep the competition's featured meat Friday evening, start their fires around 9 p.m., start the meat cooking at midnight, and present their entry to the judges midday Saturday.

7 p.m.

Then we prepped our pork. At each table were injection marinades and spice rubs, with different products on different tables. Girardin and I had Cajun Injector-brand roasted garlic and herb marinade and Big Green Egg-brand gourmet seasoning. Forrester provided injectors for each boot camper.

I had never injected marinade into meat before, and I was dubious. My doubts were voiced by Rick Corun of Greencastle, a boot camper who is also a certified barbecue competition judge. "If you want to taste the meat, just cook the pork."

He skipped the marinade injection and patted his original spice blend on his pork.

But most boot campers used the injectors. Tips on prepping: Inject "as much as it takes," Nash said. Fill up your cut with marinade. This adds flavor and helps keep the pork from drying out during the long hours of cooking. Virtually everybody in competitions injects marinade and adds a rub, he said.

And a tip on spice rubs: Pat them, don't rub them, onto the meat. "Rubbing them fills up the pores in the meat," Nash said. "That keeps the flavor and smoke from penetrating."

We dutifully patted spice all around our meats, tied or netted our butts, and placed them into disposable foil trays. When I was done, my butt was dusted red-orange with the paprika-rich rub.

The trays were covered in plastic wrap, numbered and placed in coolers for a few hours.

At the end of the evening, Forrester invited everybody back in a few hours. Cookers would be set up at 2 a.m. Butts would go in at around 4. Or, for the sleepyheads who can't make it that early, breakfast would be served at 7. I vowed to make it back by 4.

Saturday - 4:45 a.m.

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