Photography by Darren Jacknisky
Ron Varty was strolling through Canadian Tire when he came across a charbroil smoker, discounted for $124.99. Twenty-five years of installing security systems had treated him well and he’d been seeking a new hobby after mastering leatherwork, so, he thought, why not?
Seven years and two smokers later, he drove his wife, two kids and a yellow lab, Jasper, to a location in Montana that he’d only seen once, on Google Streetview, to pick up the newest member of the family – Black Betty. Two metres tall and slightly wider, Betty is two tonnes of steel welded to a four-wheeled trailer. She originally came from Lang BBQ Smokers, a 25-year-old company in Georgia, who custom-built Varty’s belated 50th-birthday present to himself. “This is my little red sports car,” says Varty, who now runs Northern Smoke BBQ and has Betty feeding up to 800 people at festivals and weddings.
He has vowed never to grill another steak again. At least not with propane flames. Real “bar-b-que” is a square dance between wood, meat, steel and smoke. It’s not fast food. It’s slow, careful and, like Varty’s leatherwork, a craft. Though few are willing to shell out $20,000 for moist beef brisket or woodsy pork shoulder, a growing number of Edmontonians are willing to shell out the time.
“The original charcoal grill is where barbecues started,” says Maryanne Petrash, manager of Barbecue Country on 75th Street. “But because of how much time and effort it takes, the time it takes to heat the charcoal, the time it takes for charcoal to cool down, people wanted more convenience, so they started going towards propane and then into natural gas. And then, lately, over the last five years, we’re seeing the trend go back to charcoal.”
The gateway drug is the Food Network and increased travel to the southern states where, says Petrash, they laugh at us when we call our barbecues “barbecue.” But, she says, “You don’t have to be a redneck to enjoy this.”
She should know. She and her fiance have accumulated four grills and smokers. “My yard is getting smaller by the minute.” Naturally, it all comes from her workplace of 17 years. Barbecue Country is where the enthusiasts converge. And for anywhere between $300 and $1,500, a neophyte can leave the door forever transformed. But you’ll probably want to do your research.
There are electric smokers that look like trains, ceramic ones that look like bullets and porcelain kettles that look like UFOs. Each requires different techniques of heating and ventilating, because opening the chamber to inspect most meats lets out the very thing you need to break up the connective tissue in tough meats. (“The general rule in barbecue,” says Varty, “is, ‘if you’re lookin’, you’re not cookin’.'”) But if a place like Barbecue Country isn’t grand enough, you can always have one custom built for the price of a used car.
After mastering two bullet and two kettle smokers, Nhaelan McMillan turned to Houston’s Pitmaker to build his “Safe”-style smoker, named that because it looks like a safe on wheels. McMillan’s baby is taller, has a long prepping table and is made of stainless steel to fight the local winters – so it looks more like the Pope Mobile infected by the Terminator; maybe that’s why it got held up at customs for a month. “They couldn’t classify what it was.”
The Safe smokes wood and for each type there’s a unique flavour. In America, regions use whatever wood is most abundant – mesquite in Texas, pecan in Georgia – but most of our flora turns the meat piny and acidic, so it must be imported. Barbecue Country and Cabela’s sell bags of mesquite, hickory and wood chip blends, and while McMillan previously ordered from the U.S., he plans to order cherry, alder, apple, maple and hickory from B.C.
He’s also spent considerable time on his spice rubs. He discloses some of the common ingredients – paprika, chili powder, brown sugar, celery salt, mustard powder – but in the end no two rubs are the same and many ingredients are closely guarded.
“What makes a good rub?” asks Varty. “That’s a deeply personal question. What I want is something that’s going to add flavour but not overpower the meat. I don’t want to just taste smoke or the rub. I want to taste pork. It has to enhance what it’s on.”
” [A good rub is] something that is that versatile, that doesn’t have to be pigeonholed into one specific protein,” says Bjorn Cochran, co-owner of Sloppy Hoggs Roed Hus, Edmonton’s newest addition the barbecue diner circuit.
But making rubs and buying smokers is easy, says McMillan. The rest is technique. “It’s trial and error until you get it down, but once you get it down it’s dialled in.”
With that figured out, he can feed up to 70 people. “As soon as the weather’s decent enough, I’m barbecuing all the way until it’s shitty,” says the tattooed concert promoter. He’s smoked ribs southern style, pulled pork with Carolina care and chicken like a true Jamaican. He’s even done goat. He’s turned his attention to brisket, the underbelly commonly used for corned beef. “That’s the tough one.”
One problem is finding brisket that hasn’t had the fat chopped off. Barbecue mavens want fat. It’s their friend. Smoked right, it renders into the meat and makes it so moist and juicy it dribbles down chins. But most butchers trim the fat off specialty cuts like brisket and pork shoulder. However, some have started taking cues from folks like Varty and McMillan.
“They come here for specialty cuts you can’t get at your local grocery store,” says Darcy Boisvert, co-owner and butcher at Real Deal Meats. “Some guys want anything from two-inch pork chops to two-inch ribeye to fresh beef brisket or pork shoulder butt, or Boston butt. You can find these if you look hard enough, but we carry them regularly.”
Boisvert isn’t so much catering to the enthusiasts as he is to himself. He’s been smoking for 11 years and, four years ago, bought a Vortron, a $90,000 smoker that looks just like it sounds: a 12-foot-tall wood-gorging machine with a capacity to turn 230 kilograms of poor man’s meat into a small luxury.
Every Saturday between 5 and 6 p.m., customers come to Real Deal Meats to pick up orders of up to 2.3 kg each of a single smoked meat from the rotating menu. So, if your weekend barbecue goes terribly awry – if your rub tastes like sand and your meat is tough as rocks and your wood smells like sap – Vortron’s got you covered.
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