I received a smoker for my birthday this year. It is a charcoal and wood smoker; not one of the fancier, smarter, and more efficient electric models. This is basically a black water heater sitting on its side, propped up by four legs, with a stove pipe sticking out of one side. It is as simple as can be for the smoking process.
For one of my side projects to become a more employable writer, I am rewriting the manual to use this behemoth. The original was bare-bones; and the primary concern of the two pages of instruction was to keep you from burning your backyard down with a misuse of charcoal lighter fluid. I was lost when it came time to smoke my first few chickens. The manual detailed nothing of realistic cooking times, the size of the fire, the type of fuel that should be used, and extra equipment needed to actually complete the desired task. There was also nothing about how much of your day would be consumed by cooking your dinner.
This is a running theme in my life these days. How much should food be a concern? It is just fuel and deserving of no fanfare? Eat the required vitamins, stay near your calorie count and get on with your hectic American existence? Or, since there are entire cable networks dedicated to preparing, caring, exploring, and discovering food, is there more for the brain itself? Can you spend time on the planet devoted to nourishing your palette? We have art and music for the eyes and ears, what about my tongue? What did he ever do to be so ignored? Nothing, I say!
In our house, we cook. There are no prepared frozen entrees of anything, save an occasional store-bought pie. We never made a formal decision to put some thought into our food. It is just the way it is. My wife is a chef; but there were never home-schooled classes on how to chop onions or sear meats in a skillet. Both of us come from families who cooked whatever was around. Nothing fancy, nothing too exciting or even worth passing on to younger generations. Cooking was an effort. You burned a few calories before eating a few.
With that labor to create our own food comes an appreciation when it’s done with flair and expertise. I know the precision it takes to achieve perfect uniform pieces with a chef’s knife. I can tell when the seasoning is just right. My kids now know that a dinner with a protein, a starch and a vegetable doesn’t fall from the sky. It’s not a magic trick. It takes practice and time.
When I smoke my first slabs of ribs on July 4th, it took six hours of work. The smoker’s fires have to be continually rebuilt. I monitored the temperature of both the heat and the meat inside. I have a remote thermometer that beeped when things were getting too hot or cold. It was my afternoon. I played some cards in between, but for an entire afternoon, I was tethered to my backyard.
I make homemade pizza when it’s a bit cooler outside. My process for making pizzas for company can take up to three hours. Preparing ingredients, dough work, and fighting with my oven to operate correctly. My wife makes a giant mess to make chicken and dumplings. She also discovered a fantastic fried chicken recipe that takes 30 minutes per batch to complete. There are no less than four batches whenever she gets the urge to fry.
There are rib places out there that serve them up hot in 15 minutes. I could snag three pizzas from Costco for $30. I am renowned Popeye’s Chicken fanatic that has no qualms about the 20 minute drive to the nearest location.
So why? Why all the effort? Why do people show up to all my wife’s restaurants over the years? Why, in a time of chronic obesity, should we care at all about food?
Like art and music and television and athletics, there is a skill to this. Because an appreciation exists out there for a juicy hamburger, coq au vin, and leek soup, there are those of us who want to perfect them. It’s another thing we can get good at. The entire willing world is out there ready to sample these creations. You only need teeth and a modicum of bravery. Most food needs no explanations, artist statements or librettos. Granted, nuances are lost to the uninitiated. But that distinction just upholds the similarities between art and cooking.
Whether or not you’ve ever spent ten seconds in a kitchen, you have some preferences to what you like to eat. Keep an open mind. It may seem insane for someone to spend a day working on chalk sketches on a sidewalk, or a sandcastle at the beach, only to have all the effort eventually washed away by the elements. Is that so different from my wife’s chicken or my ribs? Or a vegetable garden? Or making mac and cheese from scratch?
I’m going outside to smoke ribs now. It looks like it may rain on me today. In a few hours I will smell like sticky sweat and apple wood. Before you even ask, I will tell you. It is worth it.