May 18, 2001 Features & Images » Feature Story

Judgment day for the pit zealots 

Last month, in a back parking lot in a nondescript Tacoma neighbourhood, the faithful gathered to seek perfection

By G.D. Maxwell

"There is food... and then there is barbeque," according to Walt. Walt, who prefers to use only one name, should know. He is a zealot, a crusader on a quest for perfection. Perfection in Walt’s world – as it should be with all things – is an ephemeral goal seldom glimpsed, only rarely achieved, and probably not even capable of definition. It’s like art; it’s like pornography. It’s just one of those things you’ll know when you see, or in the case of barbeque, taste.

If you’re a zealot, a convert, you’ll rave on and on about your quest. You’ll bore friends to tears and they’ll wonder what’s gotten into you, whether you’re playing with a full deck. Many will begin to avoid you, relegating you to the waste bin of friendship peopled by Amway sales reps, high pressure life insurance sellers and born-again fundamentalists. Others will seemingly enjoy your single-minded eccentricity, if only in smaller and less frequent doses.

Over time, your circle of friends will change, morph into a new collection of like-minded individuals. People who can hold forth for hours at a time on the unique characteristics of pecan smoke and its superiority over hickory, mesquite or apple. People who will enthusiastically and authoritatively tell you the only way you’ll ever reach the next level of perfection is by learning how to weld and build your own pit. People who will drive 200 miles on the rumour of an old-fashioned butcher who knows how to age meat to perfection. People who start cooking tomorrow’s dinner the night before because, well, because it just takes that long to do it right. Zealots. Crazies. Barbequers.

I stumbled into the suburbs of this fringe neighbourhood a little over a year ago while doing some background research for the In Search of the Holy Grill road trip. I knew competitive barbecuing existed. I knew leprosy existed. I just never expected to get too close to either one.

But every boy – gender inclusive – needs a hobby. Why do some people go gaga over orchids? What drives grown men to give their basement over to model trains? Or taxidermy? Or philately? Why not barbeque? At worst, all your clothes get smoky and your eyes sting; at best... Ahh, at best, you create a carnivore’s dream, a medley of spice, smoke and sauce – the holy trinity – and melt-in-your-mouth tenderness unique on the world of culinary creation.

By all rights, barbeque shouldn’t even be edible. You start with bad cuts of meat. You overspice them with a "rub" you’ve concocted like some mad scientist, blending sugars and salts, herbs and spices and "secret" ingredients. You then not only cook this outsized hunk of meat and connective tissue, you cook it for hours and hours and hours, up to 18 or more in some cases, and you cook it over smoke.

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