User menu

Main menu

Four Days in Barbecue Bliss

courageUnderFire_article01.jpgBehind Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que stand a pair of charred, metal silos. Several times a day, a worker deposits a four-foot-high stack of mesquite logs into one of the drums, then blasts it with a gas torch, sending flames 10 feet into the air. This is where the sacred art of barbecue begins.

I’ve come to Cooper’s to learn the secrets behind one of the great mysteries of American cuisine, in a world where the tricks of the trade are closely guarded. In the hands of an expert pit master, tough, chewy brisket becomes succulent and flavorful; dry, mild pork, moist and savory. My question is: How? To find out I’ve persuaded the proprietors at Cooper’s to make me their first-ever barbecue apprentice.

It took a little cajoling. Though Cooper’s is basically a hut in the middle of nowhere—about 75 miles northwest of Austin in the tiny city of Llano, Texas (population: 3,325; stoplights: four)—it is a legendary meat mecca, routinely hailed as one of the country’s best barbecue joints. Founded in 1953, it’s become a destination stop across the South; the restaurant keeps a van at the local airstrip to shuttle in 50 private planeloads of meat-seekers each week. It’s even President Bush’s favorite joint.

Naturally, the men of Cooper’s aren’t too eager to expose their time-honored methodology to imitators and impostors. But once I convinced them I wasn’t a spy sent by a competitor, they agreed to grant me a four-day crash course in manning their hallowed pits. Standing before the silos, the blast of heat instantly baking my flesh, I began to wonder if learning about barbecue would be worth losing my face.

courageUnderFire_article02.jpgDay One: Seasoning
At 8 a.m. I’m met near the restaurant’s outdoor barbecue pits by Terry Cooper, 40-year-old son of the restaurant’s founder. “You’re not wearing any clothes you mind getting ruined, right?” Terry asks. He hands me a pair of thin plastic gloves and, without any perfunctory speeches—no tour, no list of dos and don’ts, no overview of the curriculum—ushers me to a bare metal worktable. He plunks down a plastic tub of mystery seasoning. Next to it, he drops another tub full of freshly cut, two-inch-thick pork chops, Cooper’s signature item.

Where’s the Beef?
Cooper’s owner Terry Wootan explains how to make Texas brisket on the grill.

Step one: Seasoning
Coat the brisket in salt, pepper, and a bit of garlic powder. “Salt brings out the natural juices,” notes Wootan.

Step two: Searing
When the grill hits 275, slap the meat down. “The coals will be popping,” Wootan says. Flip every 10–15 minutes.

Step three: Cooking
After an hour, the meat should be browning. Cook and flip three to four more hours, dropping the temp to 250.

Step four: Testing
To see if your brisket is done, jab it with your barbecue fork. “Twist the fork,” Wootan says. “If you let go and it doesn’t move, it’s done. If that fork moves, it’s not.”

With his left hand Terry grabs a raw hunk of pig flesh, electric pink and gloriously marbled. With his right he scoops up a fistful of seasoning and toggles his wrist. The speckled mixture sprinkles out in a delicate shower, evenly coating the pork. I comment that the seasoning basic­ally looks like salt and pepper. “Basically,” he replies. When I ask what else is in it, I’m met with a slightly disturbing wink. Learning the secrets might be a bit tougher than I thought.

When my turn comes, I realize immediately that plastic gloves are no protection from the stabbing pain of meat-locker temperatures and jagged bits of bone. I shake out a fistful of sea-son­ing, but not to the desired effect. My chop is spotted with gooey gray clumps. Several pit guys
start peering over my shoulder. “It’s like jerking off,” whispers someone helpfully. An hour in and I’m a disappointment and a spectacle.

My official introduction to the staff begins at that morning’s communal meal—a daily
ritual, usually at nine, in which hunks of meat are pulled off the pits for the crew before customers start rolling in. Over slices of brisket that melt on my tongue, I meet 57-year-old Terry Wootan, who’s owned the restaurant since 1992, and Kenny Oestreich, a 12-year Cooper’s vet with a Corinthian leather complexion who oversees the pits. The rest of the crew is a cast of characters only rural Texas could produce.

Chief is a full-blooded Native American with a ponytail that stretches halfway down his back. He’s not really a chief, but he doesn’t seem to mind the un-P.C. moniker. James has been nicknamed Werewolf thanks to an excess of body hair. And then there’s Wes, a.k.a. Junior, a gangly kid with a mangy goatee. For a while Junior lived in the cheap motel across the street, which gave his cohorts a clear view of the women who slipped out his door in the morning. “He actually got some OK-looking girls,” Cooper confides. “I can’t explain it.”

Day Two: Grilling
courageUnderFire_article03.jpgNo one here seems much interested in having a protégé, so I take the lead, approaching Oestreich at a freshly stoked pit for a cooking lesson. He holds one hand a few inches over the smoldering coals. “People always ask me what temperature their grill should be,” he says. “Hell, I don’t know.” At Cooper’s, temperature is measured by feel. “I count,” he continues. “One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three—if I can still hold my hand there, it’s not hot enough.”

This method—cooking over live coals—is highly unusual in Texas. Here “barbecue” refers primarily to meat that’s been smoked—cooked by heat that’s pumped into the pit from an adjacent, fire-burning chamber. Yet at Cooper’s, the meat is grilled. While purists argue it’s nothing more than a glorified version of what average Americans do in their backyards, Cooper says the technique is rooted in tradition. “Think of a bunch of cowboys sitting around an open fire,” he says. “We cook the Old West way.” The advantages, Cooper says, are twofold. One, everything cooks much faster; two, fat that drips down onto the glowing mesquite shoots back up to flavor the meat.

If this is fast cooking, I must be in a black hole. Pork chops take an hour. Chickens take an hour and 15 minutes. Prime rib takes two hours. The whole time, I’m just standing…waiting. One of the best-kept secrets of barbecue, it seems, is that it involves long stretches of excruciating boredom. These are punctuated by short periods of acute discomfort—flipping the meat as searing smoke stings your eyes.

As time passes—barely—Oestreich explains the different signs that a cut of meat is done. Pointing at a half chicken, he orders, “Pick it up and twist the leg.” If the bone swivels easily in its socket, the bird is cooked. For pork ribs I jam a fork between two bones and twist it—if the ribs separate easily, I pull the slab off.

The famous pork chop requires closer examination. “You can tell it’s done when the blood comes to the top,” Oestreich says. “It’s white and looks like fat.” In fact, it really looks like a collection of tiny tendrils poking through the meat’s surface. They remind me of worms, but they’re part of what makes the pork burst with salty juices in every bite. After a few sandwiches of sliced chop on white bread, the sight of those worms makes my mouth water.

courageUnderFire_article04.jpgDay Three: Brisket
I’ve given up showering before work; there’s no point when you’re about to spend the day bathing in smoke. Today I get to add to my aroma by sloshing around in beef juice.

Each raw, 41/2-pound brisket comes vacuum-sealed. Following Chief’s lead, I slash the packaging with a razor blade, then work my fingers into the cut, tearing the bag open and letting the wet meat flop onto the worktable. Murky reddish liquid splashes out with it, pooling on the table and overflowing onto my jeans. As the stack of marbled beef grows—50 briskets, unpacked and hefted till my wrists are sore—the juices flow in a gory river toward a drainage hole cut into the table’s far end.                                                  

Chief starts grabbing briskets off the pile and dunking them in seasoning. Then he shoves them into the cooker to roast for five hours—half the time it takes to smoke a brisket. “Everything you hear and read says you have to cook a brisket 10, 12 hours,” says Wootan. “We’re just the opposite. We cook it fast to sear in the juices.”

To see if the meat is done, I’m once again instructed to do it by feel. “You check briskets with a fork,” Oestreich says. “It’ll just slide right through them like butter.”

A few hours and several brisket samples into the day, I actually feel drunk off the heady aroma of smoked beef. Maybe I’m starting to drift into some kind of meat coma. Or maybe I’m just starting to lose my mind.

Day Four: Hell

courageUnderFire_article05.jpgThe weekend has arrived, and we gather for my final communal breakfast. Today it’s sirloin, rare, dipped in the restaurant’s signature sauce—a thin, tart tomato-and-vinegar potion that’s simmered over the coals in giant vats while excess fat from grilled sirloins is tossed inside to percolate.

I’m told the Saturday lunch crowd is monstrous—we’ll be serving about 1,000 people. While I’m eager to pitch in and man a pit, my friends at Cooper’s have a different task in mind: moving embers from the burn silos to the pits. They’ve saved the worst for last.

Coals are transported using an eight-foot-long metal pole with a wide shovel secured to the end. Holding the pole and trying to control the shovel is like trying to dial a phone with a sledgehammer. I grasp the staff at the halfway point for leverage, but that presents a whole new problem: My grip puts me just four feet from the embers. Five seconds in, my face feels like it’s actually melting Raiders of the Lost Ark–style and dripping down my cheeks. I rush to a bathroom mirror, sure I’ll see blisters bubbling up. But nothing. I look completely normal—if normal means soaked with sweat, covered in soot, and like I’m about to cry.

Barry Cooper, Terry’s brother who’d been out of town earlier in the week, comes over to check on my progress. As we chat, he gives voice to what—after four days of labor—I have come to decide is the true secret of America’s most hallowed barbecue halls. “I’ve got a neighbor with a smoker,” he begins. “He’s so proud of it, because by gosh, all you do is put on a little seasoning then come back four hours later and it’s done. But you know what? It’s the worst stuff you’ve ever tasted. It can’t be that easy. If it were, everyone would be doing it.”

Barbecue, as I’ve come to learn, is seasoned by sweat and discipline as much as by any dry rub. “It’s hard work,” Barry says. “It’s hot and cold. People do it for a while, then they get tired. They get sloppy. They get lazy. You’ve gotten a little taste of what it’s like behind the scenes here. Now think about doing that 363 days a year. There’s nothing easy about it.”

He’s right. After my shift I happily turn in my apron. I’ll enjoy barbecue for the rest of my life. But I never need to cook it again.