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By Staff | Aug 28, 2009

Having officially attained Middle Age, I’ve decided to make some major changes. For instance, I think it’s about time I started smoking.

Yes, I know about all the implications. I know about the icky ash, the smelly clothes, the banishment to the out-of-doors. I also know that it will likely affect the way food tastes. But then again, that’s pretty much the point.

Don’t argue with me because I’ve made up my mind. I’m going to start smoking, and I think I’ll begin with a chicken. If that goes well, I’ll next try ribs. Eventually, I hope to attain the backyard barbecuer’s holy grail, that much-coveted smoke ring.

Smoking is one of mankind’s oldest and tastiest cooking methods. I don’t know, but imagine it all started when two cave guys were sitting around waiting for the game to start when one of them turned to the other and said, “Hey! How’s about we get your cow to smoke one of these cigars?”

After this initial and rather messy smoking experiment, the method of flavoring beef by exposing it to a slow, smoky fire was perfected. Despite all our so-called progress, this system has remained largely unchanged. Thank goodness!

Smoking food at home goes against the grain of today’s fast-paced, fast food lifestyle. I’m betting it will feel good to tap the brakes and eat more slowly. Plus, a hearty dose of anticipation will whet the appetite and deepen the appreciation for the critter who provided all that yumminess.

Once I had committed to becoming a smoker, the next step was deciding what kind of smoking apparatus to get.

Google revealed a wide variety of smokers that used an assortment of heat sources, from electricity to propane to charcoal. There was even a super-deluxe fast-cooking model that was fueled by plutonium.

I know a guy from Texas who made his own barbecue pit from an old 500-gallon propane tank. His outfit was large enough to accommodate almost anything, up to and including an adult rhinoceros. I could have followed his lead and built my own smoker, but figured I didn’t need that much capacity.

So I went to our local super-mega-warehouse-outlet store and purchased an offset firebox smoker. I settled on a model that uses charcoal or wood for a heat source. Tradition certainly had something to do with it, but the biggest factor was having an excuse to play with fire.

The new smoker came in a box that had “some assembly required” printed on its side. They weren’t kidding.

The assembly instructions read “Step One: find a deposit of iron ore. Step Two: smelt the iron ore, forge it into steel and roll the steel into a sheet 3 feet wide by 3/16 of an inch thick …”

It wasn’t quite that bad, but you get the idea. After just a few short hours and only a couple of skinned knuckles, I was ready to “light up”.

There are thousands of choices to be made when you start barbecuing: wet or dry, rub or no rub, beer or wine to sip as the meat cooks, and on and on. One of the first decisions involves what sort of fuel to use.

I went “old school” and opted for charcoal. Not the type that comes in artificially uniform chunks, but the lump hardwood kind. This was augmented with some homegrown hardwood firewood I happened to have handy.

There’s a primal appeal to “cooking off the grid,” to know that you could continue to eat well even if our modern infrastructure collapsed. Did I mention that you also get to play with fire?

My smoker was soon smoking, a wonderful bluish plume rolling lazily from its stack. I tossed an experimental chicken into the thing and began to wait.

And wait. And wait some more. The hardest part about smoking is the not peeking. But how can you help yourself? Oh Lordy, just look at how the skin on that chicken has turned a beautiful brown mahogany!

Cooking a chicken on my backyard smoker took just a few hours longer than going to the drive-through. But the results were worlds apart. My wife and our son agreed: the chicken wasn’t just good, it was excellent!

Encouraged, I next threw a rack of baby back ribs into the smoker. When they were done, I let my wife sample them.

They were so good, she fell into a swoon. Now that’s how to sweep a gal off her feet!

So now I’m scouring the house, searching for my next smoking challenge. There isn’t much left in the freezer and those old sneakers behind the couch are beginning to look pretty tempting.

And perhaps the most important lesson I gleaned from this experience is: friends don’t let friends cook with fossil fuels.

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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