Fire + Meat = Church
Smoke filled lungs expelled tear-filled coughs and stinging winces of singed forearms.
Don’t worry! I wasn’t tortured over the weekend for my faith or something admirable like that. I smoked a brisket. If the South has taught me anything it is a deep respect and appreciation of smoked meat. Let’s be real - the only BBQ California had to offer my childhood was Tony Roma’s. Onion loaf notwithstanding their ribs were laughable (sorry Dad). Under the tutelage of mentors like Memphis, Mississippi, Alabama, and Chattanooga I am being educated in the ancient formula of fire + meat = incomparable satisfaction. Saturday was one of those rare combinations of an actual day completely off, a gorgeous forecast of sunny skies in the lows 70’s, and a brisket flat calling my name from the freezer.
As soon as the first kid jumped into bed I made my escape to the smoker and lit the kindling I’d prepared the night before in preparation of the big smoke. The brisket was massaged with my proprietary rub and awaited the smoking sauna outside. As soon as the fire was stoked and the smoke beginning to tempt the waking neighbors I lifted the lid, inhaled the thin blue smoke of smoldering oak and gently placed my prize on the sticky grates. Stacking wood for the sacrifice next to the firebox I admired the burning perfume already intoxicating my clothing.
From pork butt falling apart, to ribs sliding off the bone, to moist slices of brisket bending beneath its own weight over a fingertip smoking meat is an art form requiring incredible dedication, patience, endurance. For you novices out there, the key to the best BBQ you’ve ever eaten is the perfect combination of correct temperature of smoke and fire over the perfect amount of time combined with a balanced blend of seasonings. My job was to crack the combination and deliver a brisket that would make my father-in-law weak at the knees.
From 7:42am to 4:12pm I babysat that brisket. Every 20-40 minutes I would carefully select the next victim to be burned in the firebox in order to keep that temperature as close to 230* as possible. Each time I opened the firebox I was met with a gust of smoke invigorated by the sudden burst of oxygen that made me turn away, cry, and swear. As I placed the next piece of oak in the best position for combustion my forearm would glance the scalding metal and leave a battle scar. I was constantly, almost paranoidingly (< not an actual word), checking the thermometer resting in the heart of the flat to make sure it was warm, comfy, and progressing in the quest for sacred perfection. Foil wrapped and resting nestled in a beach towel I anxiously prepared for the moment of truth when the dedication to temperature control, the patience of an entire Saturday, and the endurance of the black lung pop would be revealed.
The brisket turned out ok. The smoke ring was solid but it was a bit tough. Honestly, it could’ve used another couple of hours at a lower temperature. It also didn’t help that it stalled at 150* for a couple hours in the middle of the day. Every BBQ veteran knows that brisket stalls for a period of time but the more you can limit the stall the better the end result. As my smoke-saturated beard caught dripping sauce I reminisced on every mistake I made during the day. I thought about improvements I would make for the next session to avoid the stall. I questioned choices and planed to make adjustments to time and temperature for the next smoke.
Sunday morning I discovered a strong connection from the smoker to the synagogue. To start a church is to commit to resolute dedication, patience, and endurance. Bridge City Community is almost three years old and I have fought off smoke induced coughing attacks clouding immediate decisions and future outcomes. I have been burned time and time again - some felt like a singed forearm while others appeared to catch everything on fire. Looking back I question some of the decisions I have made or improvements that should have been implemented. I wondered what was giving me the feeling that we are stalled, stalling, hopefully not stalling out.
Fire + Meat = Church
Low and slow is the BBQ mantra. Why do I entrust myself to that strategy enveloped in smoke on a Saturday but question it’s legitimacy for our church? Hot and fast works for steaks and chicken breasts but not for pork butts and brisket. These tougher cuts of meat need time to break down well-worked muscle and render pockets of fat in order to result in a satisfying meal. High temps and short cook times turn these huge pieces of meat into inedible bricks too tough to digest. Dedication to cooking all day is necessary. A willingness to patiently endure stalls is unavoidable.
The same methodology applies to urban ministry. We have decided to tackle a cut of the community that never had the luxury of a little worked muscle group. The fibers of our neighborhood have been worked hard from childhood. Our community isn’t marbled with the fat of privilege that is best served medium rare. The systemic challenges faced here need time to break down - low temps to induce tenderness. We did not try to come in quick and hot. We have committed to methodically eyeing the thermometer of the neighborhood, carefully placing splits to offer the best chance to catch fire, and waiting decades for the deep satisfaction of observing inequity break apart and fall of the bone of injustice.
If you think you can’t sear a rack of ribs and expect it to be edible then you don’t understand the pursuit of justice and the love of mercy. If you think you can toss a brisket on the smoker and not pay close attention to it then you don’t understand how necessary it is to make small changes over a long period of time to see transformation occur. That’s what BBQ is - transformation of a tough cut of meat into a moist delicacy with a little fire and time. In a weird sort of way that’s what Bridge City seeks to accomplish too - transformation of a demeaned pocket of the community into a respected, enviable neighborhood with a little fire and a lot of time.