Where there’s smoke, there’s bacon, and so much more. When friends in Plymouth gather for their annual Smokeapalooza, they learn a lot in a short time, and have way too much fun doing it.
The best way to get your head around the scene on Joe Pupel’s back-yard deck is to think of it as a laboratory.
“A learning lab,” he said, proud of how he and the guys took an event that includes smoking 40 pounds of bacon and wrapped it in the mantle of scientific inquiry.
The event is Smokapalooza and, boy, oh, boy, is it ever.
Thing is, amid the beer, jokes and jawing, there’s a lot of learning going on here. Ten men assemble around as many smoking chambers to prepare upwards of 200 pounds of meat. In short, this single Saturday in May is the equivalent of a whole summer of Saturdays spent fiddling with the right balance of smoke, heat, time, wood and meat.
“The smell — it’s in your clothes for days,” Pupel said, shaking his head. Then he grinned. “It’s awesome.”
Smokapalooza got its start a half-dozen years ago on the sidelines of a football field, where many of the men’s sons played for Good Shepherd Catholic School. Wouldn’t it be cool, one dad said, if we had some ribs? The conversation grew, revealing a shared curiosity about the smoking process. Finally, they chose a Saturday and gave it a go.
“We told our wives, ‘We’ll take the kids. Go on, get a pedicure,’ ” Pupel said. That year’s goal was to learn, experiment and have fun. If anything edible emerged, that was a bonus. They succeeded on all counts, despite weathering a hailstorm and tornado sirens.
They smoked again the next year, with the goal of remembering the next morning how they did it. That was less successful.
But a tradition had been struck and a creeping seriousness took hold. There were planning meetings, “because when you take the time to do the rubs, get the smokers going and spend 10 hours watching the process, you don’t want it to taste like crap,” Pupel said. Also, meetings are a good reason to drink beer.
They’ve discovered new cuts of meat, such as a picnic-cut pork shoulder. “None of us knows what that means,” Pupel said, “but it makes great pulled pork.” They’ve parsed the differences between electric smokers vs. charcoal smokers. They’ve found sources for large quantities of meat, such as a 10-pound pork butt, or a 15-pound slab of pork belly.
They’ve learned that turkeys smoke better breast-down. They’ve learned that timing is both challenging and important to master because no one likes eating at 11 p.m. They’ve learned how to smoke salt.
They’ve learned not to check meat too often because that lets the smoke escape, even though it’s hard to resist eyeballing the racks of ribs, invariably referred to as “these bad boys.”
Some have learned that different woods don’t make as much difference as you’d think, while others have learned that they makes a bigger difference than you’d think. They’ve learned that opinions — and tastes — differ.
Finally, they’ve learned that one of the best things about Smokapalooza has little to do with food.
“It’s really just time for us to sit around and talk,” Pupel said. “Everybody knows what everyone else thinks of the Mauer contract. We catch up on what our kids are doing. It’s a way of checking on things, and on each other.”
So much for sentiment: “Meat, fire and beer,” he added. “It’s like Christmas for us.”
Learning by Google
The idea of cooking food with smoke is primitive, as in Paleolithic. The general speculation is that caves lacked chimneys, which made them smoky, so when hunters hung their woolly mammoth roasts to dry, they learned that meat in the smokiest areas tasted really good.
Flash forward to Plymouth, Minn., circa 2013, where Man continues to experiment.