CHARLOTTE — In the Alabama town where my wife was raised, there is a man named Melvin who smokes the finest Boston butts from which I have ever built a pulled pork sandwich. Word has it that Melvin used to sell the butts out of the back of his pickup before the county health department made him go legit. Now he cooks out of a storefront two Saturdays a month, and the lines stretch into the parking lot.
I've stood in those lines.
I wanted to smoke a butt like Melvin does.
A small issue: I had neither the talent, know-how nor equipment to accomplish this. Late last year, I decided to solve the third issue, theorizing that the other two would follow.
I didn't know, however, that it would take a village to raise an outdoor cook. That's what I got with my Big Green Egg.
The BGE is the king of the thriving outdoor smoker industry, boasting a growing priesthood of enthusiasts willing to pay about $1,000 to get that hallowed pink smoke ring on the outside of their meat.
Introduced in 1974 by an Atlanta man named Ed Fisher, the BGE is part smoker, part grill — a ceramic-and-clay device based on a 3,000-year-old Asian design. Fisher got the idea from seeing GIs bring home kamado-type grills from Japan after World War II.
Kamado and smoker sales are steadily growing as Americans graduate from, or add to, their gas and standard charcoal grills. While no industry numbers are kept on smokers, sales of lump charcoal, the fuel used in smokers, have risen from 17 million tons in 1993 to 113 million tons last year. Sales of charcoal briquettes, although still the largest segment of the market, have been flat during the same period.
"I think smoking, it's a process — you have a time investment that goes with it," says Leslie Wheeler, director of communications for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. "People just enjoy fiddling with it. And compared to traditional grilling, I hate to say it, but it just tastes better."
How does she know this?
"I have a smoker," she says.
"A Big Green Egg."
First lesson if you're considering a Big Green Egg: There's no need to ask an Egg owner — Egger — if he or she likes the smoker. You not only will get some variation of "absolutely," but it will come with spirited witness to the Egg's versatility.
You can do chicken and steaks and pizza and tandoori on the Egg, you'll hear, thanks to temperatures that vary from 200 degrees to more than 800. You also can cook for long stretches without drying meat out, thanks to the heat and moisture retention of the ceramic interior.
Certainly, some barbecue aficionados prefer the belched-smoke authenticity of offset, iron or metal smokers, but others use the Egg on the competitive barbecue circuit.
"I think people are able to get better results earlier than they are on an offset," says Chris Capell, who bought an Egg for his Virginia home about a decade ago and now cooks with it competitively — and successfully. His Dizzy Pig team receives annual invitations to elite barbecue competitions. "It's easier to control temperature," says Capell. "There's not as much of a learning curve."
One other benefit, free of charge: Eggheads.
Eager to help
You'll find Egg owners all over the Web, with blogs, on cooking sites. "I guess I would use the word 'enthusiastic,' " says Dave Haus, a Minneapolis Web designer who has his own Egg blog (ramblekatz.com). "It tends to be a bit addictive. The food that comes off the Egg can be the best you've ever tasted. There are guys on there where it's somewhat consuming."
Many share that devotion at weekend Eggfests around the country, the largest of which is Eggstoberfest, at the Big Green Egg World Headquarters outside Atlanta each October. The event, which began with a few dozen people, has evolved into 400 Egg chefs cooking for 1,500 participants on more than 200 Eggs.
When the Eggtoberfest is done, the company's retail store later sells those one-weekend-used Eggs, with stand, at about 35 percent off the $1,000 price tag, which is how I bought mine.
You'll find Eggheads most frequently on the Egghead Forum, a message board linked to the Big Green Egg site. There, they share recipes and tips, publish proud photos of fine meals, and patiently rescue newbies who want to smoke a butt like Melvin does.
Sometimes they go further. After a half-dozen years of cooking on an Egg, Bert Fregosi wanted a table to hold the cooker and its tools. He mentioned that on the Egghead Forum last fall.
"One Egger, whom I had never met, volunteered to help me build one," says Fregosi, an anesthetist from Alpharetta, Ga. "He contacted me over the phone, got an idea of what I wanted, sketched a plan, came up with a materials list, and met me at a nearby Lowe's."
The pair shook hands, bought the materials, then went back to the fellow Egger's house to get to work. A few other Egg owners showed up to help out and, eventually, cook. "Good people," Fregosi says.
Butt in a Bag
Yield: 10 servings
3 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 (5-pound or larger) bone-in pork shoulder or Boston butt
2 cups wood chips, preferably hickory, soaked in water and drained
Barbecue sauce of your choice
Mix pepper and salt and rub on all surfaces of pork. Set aside.
Fill a charcoal chimney with briquettes, set the chimney on the bottom grill grate and light, or prepare a fire in your smoker. Oil the grill grate.
Spread hot coals across half of the bottom of the grill and scatter with wood chips, or follow directions for ceramic smoker. Place the butt on the indirect-heat side, away from coals, or use a plate setter in a ceramic smoker. Increase temperature to 350 by adjusting vents. Cover smoker or grill. Smoke 30-45 minutes.
Reduce heat by adjusting vents to 225-250 degrees. Smoke pork 4 hours. Place the butt in a brown paper grocery bag large enough to hold it, fold the end to close it and return to the same position in the smoker, away from heat. Add more briquettes if necessary and close lid. Smoke for 2-4 hours longer or until very tender. Test for doneness by pulling away a piece. (You should be able to remove the blade bone by pulling it out with your hand.)
Let butt rest in a pan for 30 minutes, then move to a cutting board. Chop, pull or shred meat and mix with sauce as desired.
From "25 Essentials: Techniques for Smoking," by Ardie A. Davis (Harvard Common Press, 2009). Davis says he learned this trick for creating a moist pork barbecue at the Memphis in May World Championship. The fat keeps the bag from burning.