It’s safe to say that the local Knights of Columbus council at St. Cecilia Catholic Church engages in the latter variety.
Several times a year the group fires up its open-air cooking facility for fundraisers that turn out hundreds of Boston butts and slabs of ribs for barbecue fans who come from far and wide.
A typical event might see 250 ribs and 150 butts grilled and smoked during an intense two-day production schedule that sends clouds of hickory smoke rising from its location just off Highway 195.
“We’ve been doing it for 15 years now,” says member David Zorbini, “and people tell us they’re pretty pleased with what we do.”
The facility resembles the floor of a small factory, with rows of charcoal grilling surfaces along each side and two rows of hulking Texas smokers on the center aisle that are roughly the size of Volkswagen Beetles.
“The smokers take 12 or more hours,” says Pete Parrish. “Usually we put the butts on at around 6 p.m. A couple of guys stay overnight to keep the temperatures right, and then we take the meat off at 8 or 9 the next morning. Between 4 and 5 in the morning we start the ribs, which usually take four to six hours. The ribs are a lot more work, because they require turning.”
The chefs rely more on experience than on protocol, according to Parrish.
“It’s kind of like a mother cooking turkey and dressing. We don’t have recipes, but it’s trial and error until it comes out right and everybody likes the result. If it tastes good, it works.”
“We’re always open to new ideas,” says Frank Leurck. “Somebody says, ‘Let’s try this,’ and if it works well we do it again.”
“The basic principle is ‘low and slow,’ adds Phil Schumacher. “We could probably cook quicker if we had to, but this way just tastes better.”
Zorbini credits member Nathan Bennett, who passed away recently, with introducing the group to the fine points of the “Texas smoker” concept, which is significantly different than grilling.
Smokers have a “fire box” at one end that propels heated hickory smoke under and across the meat on the racks.
“With the fire in one place and the meat in another,” says Schumacher, “you can’t really burn it, and you don’t have to worry about the dripping causing flare-ups.”
“You can buy smaller size smokers and I’m sure they do a good job,” Zorbini says, “but our system here is hard to duplicate at home.”
Still, some of the group’s grilling techniques carry over for backyard barbecue enthusiasts, according to Robert Rigsby: “Some people are charcoal purists,” he says, “and some say you get a different taste when you cook with gas. Charcoal adds a good flavor to the meat, but you can also flavor it with different kinds of chips. We generally use hickory, or some kind of hardwood, but we’ve also used different fruit woods at various times that can add a nice little taste.”
Small nuances, big taste
“Some people let their wood age for a long period of time. If you use green wood, it tends to give you a stout, strong bark [a term meaning the crust of the finished meat] with more smoke in the wood. What it comes down to is a lot of little nuances that can make a big difference in the taste.”
“I started watching barbecue shows on TV a while back,” says Zorbini, “and what strikes me is that the experts all have different ways to do it. And the regions have their own sauces. But the main thing is that whatever you and your family like is what matters.”
What customers like most about the group’s Boston butts is the texture, the members agree.
“When you see guys with gloves taking the butts off the smoker, it’s kind of like they’re sneaking up and cradling it,” says Zorbini, “and you wonder, ‘Why is he babying that thing?’ But if you grab it, the meat’s so tender that it falls to pieces inside the foil.”
“People tell us what they really like,” Parrish adds, “is when they set their meat on the kitchen counter and it delicately comes apart for serving.”
No shortage of smoke
Despite the first-rate facility and its good ventilation, the group’s production schedule on an event day is no walk in the park.
“It’s hard work, and it gets very, VERY smoky,” says Parrish. “You can go home and shower and you still smell smoky. It can take several days to get the scent out of your hair.”
“It’s usually pretty hot for Memorial Day and Labor Day,” Schumacher says, “so we need fans. Then for SEC football and the Super Bowl we need heat. I remember one time, we cooked with snow on the ground.”
But the Knights’ hard work pays off when they see the proceeds go to the charities that benefit from it—Equines Assisting Special Individuals (EASI), the Mountain Eagle’s Christmas Shoe Fund, Hope Clinic, and many more.
“It’s really heartwarming,” says Leurck, “when we go to deliver a check to somebody and see the kinds of work they do, all the people that they help. It gives me goosebumps.”
Dale Short’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.