August 02, 2002 Features & Images » Feature Story

Feature - Artful carnage 

A guide to the low temperatures, high seasoning and holy smoke of this weekend's Canadian National Barbeque Championships

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But we’re getting ahead of ourselves again.

Where’s the Beef?

For the competitors, this event began a long time ago. Maybe it started the first time they ever tasted real barbeque, or the first time they ever had to eat what passes for it in most restaurants after they’d tasted real barbeque. Most restaurants – at least most of them north of the Mason-Dixon line – lack the skill, the equipment and the time to make real barbeque. They cheat. They parboil their ribs and finish them in the oven, smothered with bottled sauce.

"The only time you boil ribs is if you're going to make rib soup" is how David Veljacic explained it when asked about the practice.

Once bitten by the bug, barbeque athletes – don’t laugh – spend years training, painstakingly documenting their successes and failures, learning what they can about pits, concocting rubs in the best spirit of mad scientists, blending smoke from different woods the way a few gifted Scots blend their eponymous whisky, honing their skills and their knives, putting their health and well-being at risk to elevate their art and take their tastebuds where meat alone won’t lead them.

To the competitors, we salute you.

But back to the meat.

First on the fire will be brisket. Brisket comes from cows’ chest muscles, cow pecs if you will. Whole brisket consists of two pieces, a leaner chunk recognizable as its most frequent end produce, corned beef, and a much fattier top cap. There are several hundred horrible ways to cook brisket and damn few good ways. That’s why almost no one outside of Texas cooks brisket on a regular basis. But done properly, sliced brisket is a passable meat and more importantly, chopped brisket generously seasoned with extra rub and a fine, thin sauce, is the premiere ingredient in chopped beef sandwiches. Chopped beef sandwiches are the finest thing a brisket can aspire to and if you’ve ever eaten one, you can never be completely happy with a hamburger again.

Bob Lyon, who heads up the Pacific Northwest Barbeque Association – under whose rules and auspices this competition is being held – says, "Every brisket is an adventure." Bob and his wife, the core of the famed Beaver Castors cooking team, will be competing this weekend. His brisket strategy encompasses three tactics: choosing a "good" brisket, using the right technique and cooking several, hoping at least one will be a show stopper.

I won’t go into the elements of choosing a good brisket but if you want a tiny peak into just how esoteric and weird this nonsense gets, consider this. There is a school of thought among barbequers that the left brisket, that is to say the cow’s left, is the more tender. It has to do with most bovines being right-hoofed – I’m not making this up – and the muscle underlying the left side being less developed and therefore, less tough.

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