By Jim Shahin Columnist, Smoke Signals, February 24 at 7:00 AM
A full room of guys — and just a half-dozen women — sit in a tiered classroom at Texas A&M University in College Station, awaiting the start of the day’s activities.
Jeff Savell strolls to the front of the room. “Most of you have mastered pulled pork by now,” says Savell, distinguished professor of animal science at A&M. “Most of you have not mastered brisket. That’s why you’re here.”
Indeed, Camp Brisket, an intensive two-day tutorial for barbecue fanatics, is like rock-and-roll fantasy camp — except instead of guitarists and drummers, the instructors are pitmasters and meat scientists.
One word: Mystique.
Slow smoking breaks down collagen, or connective tissue, transforming the notoriously tough cut into a gelatinous hallelujah of beefy, buttery flavor. The smoke creates a crusty exterior that in barbecue parlance is called bark. And the combination of crunchy surface, soft and juicy interior, and meaty, smoky taste makes for a transcendent eating experience.
When it’s done right, that is. The pleasures of beautifully smoked brisket have taken it from a humble Texas-centric pleasure to the marquee meat on menus from New York to Los Angeles. Home cooks have jumped on the bandwagon, too — but they soon realize that the quest for brisket mastery is a deep rabbit hole of questions, folk wisdom and lore.
That’s why the third annual Camp Brisket sold out in less than five minutes, attracting lawyers, real estate agents, a guy whose wife gave him the weekend as a wedding gift and a chemist who does “advanced cholesterol training.” (He insists he wasn’t recruiting.) On this weekend in January, 60-some backyard hobbyists, professional competitors and restaurateurs have flocked to this small Texas town from all over the state — and from Ohio, Colorado, California, New York, Montreal, even Kazakhstan.
The camp is co-sponsored by Foodways Texas, which is housed at the University of Texas at Austin, and the Meat Science Division of Texas A&M. The conjoining is so unnatural — UT and A&M are fierce rivals — it’s probably against Texas state law. But such is the power of smoked beef brisket.
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