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Postcard From Camp Barbecue

Weekend program at Texas A&M University shares meat-smoking skills and the storied culture of Texas barbecue

A group of 60 brisket lovers gathers around a vintage horseshoe bar at Martin’s Place in Bryan to kick off Barbecue Summer Camp, a weekend symposium created by Foodways Texas, an academic organization committed to preserving, promoting and celebrating the state’s diverse food cultures.

The sold-out event, produced in conjunction with the Meat Science Section of the Department of Animal Science at Texas A&M University, has drawn “campers” from across the country. We’re all here to learn and hone our skills, but the seductive aroma of smoked meat is distracting us. Soon, we’re all interested primarily in lunch, and we’re getting restless.

Robb Walsh, a James Beard-award winning food writer and author of Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook (Chronicle Books, 2002), welcomes us with a quick overview of what’s to come. “The culture of barbecue is our focus,” he explains. A barbecue camp veteran, Walsh updated the second edition of his book with information that he picked up through the event. The book’s “Tips and Techniques” section has been renamed “What I Learned at BBQ Summer Camp.”

Walsh tells us the family-owned Martin’s operation started in 1925 and that pitmaster Steven Kapchinskie is the third-generation proprietor. (The business takes its name from his grandfather, Martin Kapchinskie, who started it.) Because Martin’s moved to its current location in 1939, its interior is like a barbecue museum. What began as a service station and meat market evolved into a full-service eatery. The space remains “frozen in amber,” Walsh says, mostly because “they can’t make changes without bringing the entire building up to code.”

Before lunch, we tour the sweltering smoke room, where everything, including an old-fashioned pencil sharpener, has been blackened by decades of soot. Placing a hand above the hot grates, Steven Kapchinskie tells us there are varying temperatures within the same pit—something he knows by feel—so throughout the cooking process, he moves briskets and ribs according to his own sense. He adjusts the pit temperature by opening vents and doors (even the door to the room). “It’s different every day,” he says. Such hands-on knowledge and intuitive understanding of smoking meat to consistent perfection, day after day, is at the heart of Texas barbecue culture.

At last, it’s time to eat. The hearty spread of tender pork ribs, charred brisket, German potato salad and coleslaw is an appropriate start to our belt-busting weekend devoted to the techniques and history of Texas barbecue.

Much of the learning unfolds in College Station at the A&M Meat Science Center, where we spend a lot of time in chilly meat lockers wearing lab coats and hairnets. Classroom sessions cover everything from pit design to food safety, with subjects such as how to avoid cross-contamination with marinades. We get up close to suspended animal carcasses during beef and pork anatomy overviews. We learn about the importance of maintaining a steady flame during the barbecue wood and smoke panel discussion, featuring acclaimed Central Texas pitmasters such as Bryan Bracewell of Southside Market & Barbeque in Elgin, who prepares that night’s dinner. All that technical info could be boring, but A&M meat science professors Jeff Savell and Davey Griffin, longtime friends and colleagues, keep the exchanges light and engaging with plenty of entertaining personal anecdotes.

There are also plenty of rubber-gloved, hands-on opportunities. We break into groups and blend our own rubs and marinades then massage the spices into pork shoulders and spareribs. We make jalapeño sausage and toss chicken wings in orange-marmalade-Sriracha sauce. We even take a field trip:

On Saturday morning, the class travels to Savell’s backyard to prep a whole hog for an all-day roast in his concrete block pit. We return that evening to savor the delicious results, along with cold cans of Shiner.

Part of the fun is getting to know the other attendees from a broad range of professions who come from across the United States and as far as Mexico City.

I discuss the virtues of wood pellets and swap recipes and restaurant recommendations with a Navy deep-sea diver, an anesthesiologist, a chef from Houston and a restaurateur from Charlotte, North Carolina. Between sessions, there are enthusiastic conversations about smoker styles, beef ribs, brining and how a cooker might hold its temperature during winter in the Northeast. Many campers added a tour of Texas barbecue shrines to their travel itinerary and shared opinions about whose brisket reigned supreme. “I agree with Robb. It’s not about whose barbecue is best,” said my new friend Dave Brown, the deep-sea diver. “It’s about understanding the culture behind the food.” Mission accomplished, Foodways Texas.

I don’t expect that hunks of raw meat and stacks of wood will inspire the same desire to get home and cook that emerges when I hit the farmers market, but it does. I drive away with plenty of inspiration and a renewed excitement to stoke my own fires at home.

Paula Disbrowe of Austin is Texas Co-op Power’s food editor