Project Legion Update #1: Smoking Meat

Last month, I undertook a multi-pronged project to master some basic skills I had been looking to learn, and set a physical base from which to expand a few of my other goals. As a schoolteacher with a few weeks of break time in front of me, I thought it would be a good way to get started on some stuff before my two greatest projects: fatherhood and the process of continuing to improve as a teacher, got fully underway next month. My intention was to write about this process, reflecting on how much progress I made and how sustainable it was.

I have five main goals as a part of this project:

#1: Produce an authentic, ‘better-than-backyard-bullshit’ piece of Texas-style smoked brisket, equivalent to brisket at a quality BBQ establishment.DEADLINE: October 12th

#2: Produce a “thumbs-up, I’d definitely eat that again” loaf of home-made bread. DEADLINE: November 27th

#3: Produce a good-looking piece of wall art for the garage gym. DEADLINE: August 10th

#4:Produce a full ‘Scope and Sequence’ for a year long 8th Grade History Course, with the first two units complete. DEADLINE: August 10th

#5: Be able to complete 40 straight, four-count flutter kick repetitions, 25 straight pull-ups, 100 straight pushups, a 120 pound “Rolling Thunder” deadlift, a 50 pound “Blockbuster Pinch Grip Block”  lift, and a 10 mile run in 80 minutes under a 40 pound backpack load. DEADLINE: December 18th

On the whole, I am making progress, although I’ve experienced some slow-down and inertia on a few of my items. I’d like to focus today on goal #1.

Not long after I wrote my piece, one of my principal difficulties in meeting my goal here was the acquisition of a real smoker. With a baby on the way and my awesome wife already on board with funding several of my other interests this year (such as my garage gym!), I couldn’t simply go out and buy a good smoker. I resolved to learn the basics on a shitty one, and lo and behold: one appeared for free! My neighbor was about to put his (a basic cheap offset smoker) at the curb, in favor of a new Weber grill.

When he offered it to me, I enthusiastically agreed. After I wheeled the thing into my backyard, however, a few challenges became apparent, above and beyond the cheapness and poor heat retention of the smoker itself. It was covered in rust and filled with old grease and ash, and needed some modification to how it pulled smoke and told temperature. I made a visit to Home Depot after consulting Aaron Franklin’s excellent BBQ book for the material to modify the smoker and I felt reasonably confident that elbow grease would take care of the grease, ash and rust.

I was mostly correct, but a large problem soon presented itself: when I cleaned out the ash and old grease, I found that the part of the cook chamber bottom nearest to the firebox had rusted out to the length and width of about 14 by 2 inches. Ugh. This is bad. Franklin warns not to let ash sit in your cooker, nor to rinse it out with water when you decide to clean it, because it rapidly accelerates the rusting process. My neighbor had done both and left the smoker uncovered, so even though it was not “old” in years, plenty of damage had already been done.

This was an easy point to lament my lack of a lot of basic hand skills. If I knew the first thing about metals and metalworking, I’ll bet I could have had this problem solved in a heartbeat. The internet was not terribly helpful either. There was a lot of advice, most of it irrelevant to my specific problem, or offering a solution that required skills I don’t have. I resolved to ask folks at Home Depot for help. Hold the laughter, folks. Let’s just say I made three more separate trips to Home Depot, got two well-meaning contradictory suggestions, both of which only proved the ignorance of the suggestors, and am now holding a useless piece of galvanized sheet metal (when exposed to heat, galvanized metal produces poisonous fumes).

What I need now is essentially a piece of non-galvanized sheet metal that will bend to the contours of my cook chamber. The chief problem here is one of airflow– I don’t want a hole in my cook chamber because that will pull cooler air into it and ruin the meat temperature and smoking environment. So basically I just need to cover the hole with something that won’t melt when exposed to high heat. I have a metal-working store (hopefully helpfully) suggested to me by one gal at Home Depot that I will explore on Monday.

CHANCES OF MAKING DEADLINE ON GOAL #1: At this point, not sure. I’m at least a week or two behind where I wanted to be, and this one is deceptive. It’s one of the most far-off goal times, so if I’m not careful, it can be all-too-easy to get complacent and not hit the ‘waypoints’ I need to hit to achieve it.

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