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Q story I sold a couple of yrs ago, never published. Sorry for the length


 

This story was posted on the BBQ Forum

Posted by DTM on June 22, 1999 at 16:23:57:

In Reply to: What was the best 'Q you ever ate? posted by Sooner on June 21, 1999 at 14:36:34:


Holcomb's Perfect Brisket

When I was a kid in central Texas I sometimes worked part time for a roofing company that also had a sheet metal shop. Occasionally I was assigned to help a man that had worked in that shop for many years. In Texas at the time a sheet metal worker was called a "tinner" and that was Holcomb's job description, tinner, period. Now Holcomb's full name was W.D. Holcomb but everyone including his wife called him Holcomb and no one, probably including his wife, knew what the W. or the D. stood for. In the back of my mind I knew that the W. D. must have been initials for some ridiculous names branded on Holcomb at birth, but of course no one, and especially me, ever asked .

Holcomb was a perfectionist which was very evident when you took a look at his work space. Each tool had it's designated place with an outline on a tool peg board defining that place. All of his tools were arranged in exact sequence based on size and I'm talking hundreds of tin snips, soldering irons, hammers,
etc. The shop owner said Holcomb was the best tinner he had ever known and consequently there were always jobs demanding his artistry. Most of the jobs required day trips to some surrounding little burg and it was on these road trips that Holcomb pursued his true passion, the perfect barbecued brisket.
Now every little town in central Texas has at least one BBQ joint and usually more. If it is more than twenty miles between pits a state law goes into effect mandating the construction of a barbecue shack equidistant from the two closest pits. So you see Holcomb was in fertile territory to search for his barbecue Valhalla. On Saturdays I would sometimes be recruited to be Holcomb's flunky which was great duty because only Holcomb could do anything to his satisfaction so as his helper I just stood around and watched him do everything, even rolling up the extension cords (he had a very complicated looping procedure where you just pulled one end and the whole thing instantly unrolled). The highlight of those Saturdays was lunch. We always went to Holcomb's most recent barbecue discovery in pursuit of the ever elusive perfect brisket.

One Saturday Holcomb and I were on the way to a job in Erath, Texas about thirty miles or four BBQ joints away. Now our conversation consisted primarily of two topics, the ugliness of a coworker's wife, and the perfect brisket. Possessing a rather colorful vocabulary, Holcomb always had some rather unique comparisons regarding the first topic but most of the time we spent discussing the attributes of a perfectly barbecued brisket. Texture, fork tender but never mushy or crumbly. Moistness, neither dry nor soggy instead it must be the perfect level of "juicy" and I truly believed Holcomb's palate could detect moisture levels to the hundredth of a per centage point. The cut shouldn't be too fatty, but does require some fat to achieve the correct texture and moistness he had descibed. The smokiness, now that was a very broad subtopic. These were the days before mesquite was in vogue and it was Holcomb's opinion that some blend of pecan and oak yielded the perfect degree of smokiness. We even discussed what the ratio of the two woods should be and how the taste of the brisket changed as the pecan to oak ratio changed. We also carefully considered how the slices of brisket should look on your plate which I guess is now referred to as "presentation" at barbecue competitions. I remember thinking that with his quixotic barbecue ideals Holcomb would probably never be satisfied with any brisket. So it was a real revelation that Saturday morning when Holcomb told me we would have the best brisket he had ever tasted for lunch that day.

Finally noon time came and we piled in the pick up and Holcomb said we were going to Baby's BBQ for brisket. It seems to me that Baby's establishment was located a little ways outside of Erath and I was getting anxious until finally Holcomb pulled into a farmstead driveway. The first question you ask yourself when you pull up to Baby's is, "Where is it?" The only thing you see at first is a farm house. But as you get out of the truck you notice four sheet steel barbecue pits kind of off to the side of the house. The pits were about four feet wide by four feet deep and maybe eight feet long with a chimney off one end that extended up through an awning that topped the whole pit area. Each pit was covered with a hinged metal lid and there was a cable attached to the lids that ran up over a pulley and then down to a cinder block counter weight. I am not sure exactly what Baby's cooking techniques were since I was a high school kid at the time who was more interested in eating than cooking. As I recall Baby had the coals on the bottom of the pit at one end and there was a rack about three feet or so off the bottom at the other end. The rack was only six feet long so the space directly above the coals was open and a flue was vented out the opposite end.

Now Holcomb's search was for the perfect brisket and it was to be judged served on a plain white bread bun, sauce on the side along with pickles and onions. It was an affront to Holcomb's barbecue principles to have the brisket sandwich served with anything on it. Clearly it was up to the the diner to decide what condiments needed to be added to each particular presentation. It was never stated but I believe that Holcomb was looking for the perfect slice of brisket that stood absolutely on its own needing no additions whatsoever. Needless to say you knew you were nearing barbecue heaven when Baby swung open one of the lids and the smoke and meat aroma rolled out. Baby didn't have menus he just ask you what you wanted; brisket, ribs, chicken, or sausage? Holcomb asked Baby for two brisket plates with buns. The next problem you had was figuring out where to go next, I mean all you saw was someone's house. At Baby's direction of, "Ya'll go on in and set down and I'll be brang'n your meat in directly," we walked in the front door of Baby's house. Once inside it was evident that the wall that had separated the living room from kitchen had been removed. Mrs. Baby told us to have a seat at one of the four picnic tables that filled the living room. She was standing at a stove in the kitchen stirring a huge pot of beans. Next to the kitchen was an area with a couch or two, a couple of recliners, and a TV and I realized that this was the Baby clan's family room. Now you see the family room was open to the kitchen and the converted dining hall so the whole shebang was just one big open room. The reason I figured out that the TV space was the family room was because the entire family was there watching Saturday morning cartoons. In all I remember three or four kids, a granpa, and a couple of people I assumed might be aunts or uncles or maybe one of each, I couldn't quite determine their genders. Mrs. Baby was watching cartoons from the kitchen as she kept an eye on the simmering side dishes.

Now if you had to chose one word to describe Baby and his family without a doubt the first word that would pop into your mind would be fat. I mean really fat. We estimated the average weight of a Baby family member to be about 280 pounds and that average will definitely increase when the eight year old gets past the low 200's and the ten year old boy gets out of the 250's. We really felt that the family's corpulence was a good omen for the brisket to be.
Mrs. Baby had just set a quart sized glass of sweetened ice tea (no NutraSweet here) in front of each of us when Baby banged through the screen door with half a brisket impaled on a meat fork. He supported the bottom of the brisket with his other hand and a kitchen towel to catch the dripping juices. Baby plopped the chunk of meat down on a big wooden cutting board that was mounted on the remaining kitchen counter. Holcomb stood up and walked over where he could watch Baby slice off thick, juicy, half inch slices. Baby deftly trimmed out most of the center fat seam and asked Holcomb if he wanted the crust trimmed off. Holcomb responded that the crust was the best part of a brisket so our slices, with crusts intact, were piled onto heavy duty paper plates. Next to the brisket slices Baby set a white bread hamburger bun and added some dill pickle and thick onion slices on the other side. Mrs. Baby labeled out a big spoon of beans into the plate section with ridges to keep the bean juice diked up. From another pot Baby spooned some barbecue sauce into a couple of white institutional coffee cups. I tell you I was all but drooling by the time Baby carried the plates to our picnic table and Mrs. Baby followed with the coffe cups of sauce and our silverware wrapped up tightly in those really thin lunch counter paper napkins.

Well this was it, the point of no return as I pulled open my bun and forked on a couple of juicy steaming slices. The pink smoke ring extended well into the meat, at least three quarters of an inch. I reached for the cup of sauce but quickly withdrew my hand as Holcomb announced that even though it was mighty fine barbecue sauce a man shouldn't be covering up his brisket slices with it. So I put on the only acceptable condiment to Baby's brisket sandwich, the top of the bun. Finally I sank my teeth into that sandwich and knew that Holcomb had indeed found a barbecue Mecca. I just sat there savoring each bite as Baby and Holcomb started discussing the art of barbecuing a brisket. I did pour on a little sauce when they were absorbed in their conversation and not watching. The sauce was like rare fine wine, a smoky, meat stock based elixir with the perfect balance of sweet and tart and just a hint of smoky hot chili taste that left my mouth pleasantly warm. The brisket slices were very tender but not the least bit mushy. The juiciness was perfect, just enough to keep the meat moist with just the occasional drip but not so much as to turn my bun soggy.

As I continued to stuff my face Baby was telling Holcomb that the important point of selecting your smoking wood was the dryness of the logs. If your wood is too wet you get a black smudgy smoke with too much "wood juice" taste. I had never really thought about the concept of "wood juice" before. If your wood is too dry and all cracked to the core you get smoke that is too hot and bitter. Baby allowed as a man should know just the right mix of medium dry logs to use for his barbecue. Here was a whole new variable, not only what kind of wood you used but did it have the right moisture content for superior barbequing. I remember Baby telling Holcomb that, "Them logs has got'ta be mediums dry to get a nice mell'er smoke".

When Holcomb was about three quarters of the way into his sandwich I noticed he was taking an occasional bite of pickle. About the next to last bite he even spooned on a little sauce and even though this was by far the best brisket I had ever eaten I knew in my gut that it was not perfection for Holcomb. I didn't have a clue what the fault might be. I mean it tasted so good to me I thought I was having a sexual experience. Baby sermonized on about the exact amount of fat a raw brisket needed and how firm that fat should be before barbecuing. Yep, another variable, fat firmness, but I could tell that Holcomb was thinking about some molecular level deviation from that perfect brisket he had created in his mind.

I remember being absolutely stuffed as we paid up and headed toward the truck. I was glad I was Holcomb's flunkey and hence couldn't be trusted to perform any task correctly so I didn't really expect to do anything that afternoon but watch Holcomb work and digest my food. I told Holcomb that Baby's brisket was the best I had ever tasted and he agreed that it was pretty good. "Pretty good! What do you mean pretty good? It was the best," I countered, because I knew if I asked him directly what was wrong he wouldn't tell me. You had to lead Holcomb into a discussion to pry out what he was really thinking. Readjusting the railroader's hat he always wore, Holcomb critiqued, "You heard me tell Baby that the crust was the best part of the brisket and it is. That's what makes the brisket, a good crust, and it has got to be the same all the way down the slice. Well sir at the end of my slices Baby's crust was too light."

I couldn't believe it. He told me it was the best brisket he ever had but he wouldn't admit it was perfect and besides I didn't even know what he meant by "too light". All that afternoon and on the way home we talked mostly about the complex qualities of the perfect brisket crust. The color, dark mahogany. The texture, crispy-crunchy on the outside edge, not tough and without any kind of rind forming. A balanced spiciness from a properly blended rub composed from an esoteric mixture of herbs, spices, and other secret ingredients. The rub must be carefully hand massaged onto the brisket at least 24 hours before the meat gets even a whiff of smoke. Exactly how smoky the crust should be, which Holcomb considered an entirely different trait altogether from the smokiness of the brisket slice as a whole. I guess we must have talked about brisket crust for the better part of five hours and I started to understand that the perfect brisket was still out there.

It was probably when we were about half way home that evening with a few hunger rumbles emanating from my gut that I started thinking maybe, just possibly, that perfect brisket was just ahead.

" Hey Holcomb, you ever stopped at that BBQ joint up round this next bend?"

DTM
12/05/97

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