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.
Last year, they tried to cold-smoke cheese, which was deemed a dismal failure, “but we’re determined to master that next year,” said Tony Korman.
Jess Ford wowed the crowd this year with his bacon-weave “fatties.” He started by weaving a lattice of bacon strips about the size of a place mat, then laid on some ground meat before rolling it up in a log. One bacon-weave was filled with ground kielbasa, homemade sauerkraut, caramelized onions and mashed potatoes.
“I’ve never done this before,” Ford said, then raised an eyebrow. “But how bad can it be?”
Ford also brought a tray of jumbo jalapeño peppers stuffed with Buffalo-seasoned chicken and blue cheese, then wrapped in bacon, which he planned on smoking for a couple of hours. Their actual name is a little, um, scatological, better referred to in polite company as ABTs. (Just Google it with “smoker” added to the search.)
One first-year experiment that’s become an annual tradition is flinging a whole octopus onto a grill for a long smoke. The consensus each year is that you can smoke that thing until Labor Day and it will never be edible. But Pupel said the eventual result, with its tentacles curlicued by the heat, makes a cool table centerpiece.
“No — it doesn’t,” deadpanned Pat McTigue.
With all the experimentation — and men — it’s maybe a little surprising how little competitiveness permeates the day. “It’s not a competition,” Pupel said, to wide agreement, although Korman noted that a particular success “makes the peacock feathers go up.”
A question about best cookbooks drew blank looks. Their chief resource is the Internet, and they can rattle off various websites such www.smoking-meat.com or www.smokingpit.com, www.amazingribs.com plus websites of various smoker manufacturers. Ford found his bacon weave tutorial at www.smokingmeatforums.com/t/87072/bacon-weave-tutorial.
“The forums are what’s great,” said Ford. “You can go on and read what worked for some guys, what they’d do differently, ask questions. They’re just a great resource.”
10 heads are better than one
By midday, smokers arranged in a great horseshoe were up and running. Some meat, like the 8-pound brisket, had gone on the night before, compelling Pupel to step out at 2 a.m. to check its progress. Someone had brought a bottle of smoked porter, which was duly tasted and critiqued.
Patricia Pupel, who doesn’t much like smoked meat, was inside making a batch of homemade pretzels for the kids. Beef and pork jerky smoked earlier was up for grabs.
Side dishes would begin arriving and, if the timing was right, the 10 families would start eating by midafternoon, as much as they wished, and still each would take home a big foil tray of leftovers that could feed them for a week.
To a passerby, Smokapalooza may look like a bunch of guys on a deck, sipping beers, watching the kids drift in and out, believing they have given their wives the day off. But behind the jawboning about the Mauer contract, real expertise is being nurtured by friends happily learning from each other’s successes and failures, and willingness to try.
Next year: smoked cheese.