Today, my father would have been 64 years old, but he died last year. There isn’t a day that he isn’t on my mind.
Some years, his birthday would fall on Labor Day. This year, my birthday’s on Labor Day. It’s a day and a long weekend I’m relearning to appreciate.
This past summer, one of the things I wrote about Dad was part of the Acadiana Writing Project. It seemed appropriate to share it today on his birthday and on this Labor Day weekend.
Happy birthday, Dad.
The brisket looked and tasted like a gigantic piece of charcoal. I didn’t say anything about it though and kept on carving it as if nothing was wrong. My father sidled up next to me and looked over my shoulder. I expected him to grab a piece, taste it, and tell me what I needed to do next time. But he didn’t.
Instead he said, “You’re cutting it wrong.”
I dropped the knife down in the pan and turned around.
“You do it then,” I popped off.
“Nope,” he said, “it’s your brisket.”
He turned around and walked out of the kitchen.
My father was The Brisket King. He had this massive barbecue pit — stainless steel doors, a giant box for burning logs, another box for smoking sausage, built-in thermometers, a trailer hitch, four wheels, and its own license plate. It was a machine built for serving a crowd, and that’s usually what he did. He had mastered the East Texas barbecue, and his brisket was the baddest in Leon County. It had a crusty and black outer edge. Just beneath that was a thin red layer where the smoke had penetrated it, and it was never dried out. When you tasted it, the smoke hit you first, followed by the moisture and that slight crunch on the outside layer.
I couldn’t smoke a brisket. I had tried a few times, but it always came out so dry it was like beef jerky. I was more of a pork man, particularly ribs. After years of trial and error, I had finally mastered those. I could smoke some ribs that fell off that bone and melted in your mouth. My father tried to do the same with beef ribs, but he never had any luck. They always came out tough and stringy. One afternoon he finally confessed to me that when it came to ribs, he had converted to the pork side and used my method for cooking them.
I own a smoker and a gas grill, and both of them were gifts from my father. He gave me the smoker when my wife and I bought our house. Later, after he convinced me that not all pieces of meat require a charcoal fire, he gave me the grill.
Dad lived for the Fourth of July. He liked to surround himself with his kids and his grandkids and to barbecue under that brutal East Texas summer sun. He was looking forward to it last year.
I prefer Mardi Gras. It’s usually not as hot, and there’s a couple of days before it to prep the food and equipment, followed by a day to do nothing but eat, and a day to repent and clean up.
Dad spent his last Mardi Gras here in Lafayette with us. He died last year. I keep telling myself that time will make his death easier for me, but it hasn’t. There’s an open wound in my heart that still hasn’t healed, a part of my life that’s been stolen from me. There’s a scab that’s been forming over it, but it hasn’t healed. They say time heals all wounds, but I doubt it. There’s no healing, just change.
Dad and I used to talk about how we both loved to barbecue, but neither of us ever felt like we had the time to visit with anyone while we were cooking. So this past Mardi Gras, I tried a new method.
On Sunday, I injected a 6-pound pork shoulder and a 10-pound brisket with marinade, rubbed them both with dry seasoning, and put them in the smoker. For the first four hours, I kept a constant plume of smoke going with an indirect heat of about 200 to 225 degrees. The last couple of hours I maintained the same temperature with charcoal. That night I wrapped the meat in foil and threw it in the fridge. On Monday morning, I cut up the meat, put it in a pan, bathed it with sauce, covered it back up with foil, and put it back in the fridge. On Mardi Gras morning, I set my oven to 200 degrees and reheated the covered pans for a couple of hours. It produced the best barbecue I’ve ever made. The brisket wasn’t just like Dad’s, but I know he would have approved.
I want to call Dad on the phone and tell him that I know how to smoke a brisket. That’s been the hardest thing to get used to — thinking about calling him for a spit-second and then remembering that he’s not there to answer my call.
I know I’ll never be The Brisket King, but now I know what it takes. I wish I would have figured it out sooner, but it is what it is. I don’t profess either to be a brisket convert. My feet are firmly planted in the pork camp. I can’t imagine a world without smoked ribs, pork shoulders, tenderloins, or pork steaks. But I know what it takes to smoke a brisket properly, and I appreciate it. So anytime I have to drag out the smoker for a day’s worth of work — whether I’m working on ribs or a shoulder — I’m going to throw a brisket on there for Dad.