The English Pit Master

Last year, on my 34th birthday, Faith stealthily organised a bunch of my friends to contribute money to buy me a big gift: a smoker...

Let me clarify: a big, beautiful BBQ with a smoking chamber on one end. You build a fire in that chamber and sprinkle woodchips on top, and put your meat in the barbecue and let it smoke away for hours.

(I’m slightly suspicious that Faith, being from the deep American South, bought it as a selfish gift, because she misses North Carolina barbecue and wants the boys to grow up eating it like she did. But never mind.)

In the year since I got it, I’ve mostly smoked pork shoulders on it. I’ve read barbecue blogs and watched YouTube videos of Pit Masters (that’s what the American guys call themselves), and I’ve researched the best rubs and the most proven smoking techniques.

The results of my foray into the meat-smoking world have been varied. I’ve had some delicious smoking victories, and some…less victorious tries (like the time we invited friends over for smoked pork and didn’t eat until 10pm, because I started too late).

I turned 35 a week ago, and I thought it appropriate that on my birthday, one year after the Year of the Smoker, I invite all the friends who bought it for me last year over for a barbecue. I bought three pork shoulders (I thought we should get four, but Faith disagreed).

The true sign of smoking success is for your pork shoulders to be so tender that you can “pull” them – it’s what Faith misses about North Carolina BBQ, the pulled pork. The Pit Masters tell me it takes at least 12 hours at less than 100 degrees, which I haven’t managed yet. But what better time to try than when I had invited 15 friends over to my house?

I lovingly rubbed the pork shoulders with mustard the night before and let them sit in the fridge overnight. I had to go to work in the morning (I know, what a bind), so I fired up the smoker at 7am and carefully instructed Faith and the boys on when to add more coal and woodchips and what temperature the thermometer should read at all times (Faith may or may not have rolled her eyes – but the boys were all about it).

I’d managed to finish work at lunchtime, and when I returned home, all looked good. The smoker had been puffing away for six hours already and was at a warm 100 degrees. So I opened a beer and let Faith off smoker duty while I took my place as the rightful Pit Master of Big Si’s BBQ.

When all our guests had arrived and the pork was finally done, we were pleased with the outcome: the pork was smoky and tender (although not tender enough to “pull”…we’ll just have to try again). My boys took their places at our outdoor table and watched as their very Southern American mum explained to everyone how to make a proper North Carolina Barbecue sandwich: bun, pork, BBQ sauce (different in eastern North Carolina than it is in western, and don’t you forget it), coleslaw, bun.

Our friends and our boys dug in, and the pork was gone way too fast (it turns out I was right – we should have got four).

This is Faith’s heritage, but it’s the boys’, too. They’re familiar with fish and chips, and cups of tea in the afternoons at Nanny’s house, and Victoria Sponge cakes, because I’m English and they’re growing up in England. But the things Faith took for granted as a child – like knowing how to make a barbecue sandwich – we have to be a little more intentional about teaching them.

They’re our boys. They are English and American. And one day, if we’re lucky, they’ll be much better Pit Masters than us.


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