My wife, Gay, handed me a loosely wrapped gift this past Christmas.
Ripping off the paper, I see a picture of Santa Claus, holding a sign. It reads, “Gay and Santa cooked-up a cooker for Xmas”. And in the foreground, I see a black metal barrel. It looks to me like a barrel cooker.
“What?? Did you get that for me?” I say like an 8-year-old that just got his 10th GI Joe, except this one has Kung Fu Grip.
Truth be told, I probably don’t need another outdoor cooker. But this one is unlike anything I currently use. It’s a vertical 55-gallon steel drum. You put charcoal in the bottom and cook your food on the grate near the top. Very simple but effective.
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I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about these. This low-tech, old-school style cooker has been winning quite a few of the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) sanctioned contests over the last few years. And a couple of my friends — John Ross and Phil Morrow, both extremely experienced KCBS competitors and judges — sing the praises of these types of cookers. So I really wanted to try one for myself. Gay had been paying attention to all of the clues that I had been dropping over the last year. Lucky me!
Back to that picture. The “Santa” holding the sign was none other than Kansas City’s Jay Vantuyl, or “Snail” as he is referred to in the barbecue world. He’s a sign maker and artist by trade. But according to KCBS folklore, Snail is credited with popularizing the barrel drum for cooking in barbecue contests.
Gay is clearly pleased with herself about this gift. “Cool!” I chuckled, “Now where is it? In the garage? Can I go see it?”
“Well, not exactly,” she says slowly. “Snail won’t let you have it until you take a cooking lesson with him.”
I was disappointed for a second, until I realized what a huge, additional bonus that was. Not only did the champion of the barrel cooker build my new toy, but he’s offering to give me insights that he’s learned over years. To me, that’s the best win-win that I can imagine.
Fast forward a few weeks. It’s a crisp January morning as we pull up to Snail’s house for my cooking lesson.
We unload our cooler of meat to cook and Snail greets us in the driveway. He might intimidate people at first glance. He has an imposing stature, a chest-long beard cascading down overalls and a white ponytail that sticks out from under a cap that says “The Hogfather.” However, what you see isn’t necessarily what you get. I’ve learned over the past year or so that he’s a very thoughtful, sensitive, connected-to-the-world type of guy. He is his own man, not swayed by others to go along with the group. He has a very open and independent mind.
Although I have a lot of cooking experience, I decided that today was a day for me to check my ego at the door and be open to new ideas and techniques. More observing, less talking. And so the lesson begins.
First, trimming some pork butt. “See this line here?” He points out a line of fat in the meat. “We’re going to cut this bottom half off. Then we’re going to cook that piece to 150° and enjoy it like prime rib.” What?? Most people that I know just trim some of the fat off the butt and cook it in one piece until it hits 190° or higher so they can have pulled pork. Remember when I said Snail doesn’t follow everyone else? I wasn’t kidding.
Next is ribs. “Do you know how to trim a full slab to make them St. Louis style?” he asks. I do, but I want Snail to show me his way. “Follow this fat line right here and cut the rib tips off.” Wow, that was easier than the way that I’ve done it before. I love learning new techniques, concepts and ideas.
I asked Snail how long he had been cooking on these Ugly Drum Smokers. “Well, over 20 years I think. To me, these are more like Tandoori cookers, with the heat at the bottom and the meat at the top.” Referencing the “ugly” part of the cookers, Snail kept repeating the phrase, “It’s not how your cooker looks, it’s how your cooker cooks.” Makes sense to me.
Whole chickens and even a pizza were added to the list of items that we cooked. There was a bit of down time in the process, so we retreated to the warmth of Snail’s workshop where he showed off his collection of African violets.
Yup. African violets.
“It started as a carryover from my father, and I’ve just continued on the tradition,” he explains. “Some of these I’ve raised from just a single leaf clipping.” Various watering and lighting systems snake through his workshop where he’s raising over 250 violets, representing 6 of the 20 some different species. “Well, actually it’s over 1,500 if I count my babies” he says. Gay pages through his extensive portfolio of delicate watercolors that Snail has painted of the violets and other tropical foliage.
More topics surfaced that I wasn’t expecting. Like his reflections surrounding the Vietnam War. About how proud he is of his son, a successful businessman in Silicon Valley. And about how much he loves Indian food. “Yup, one of my favorite types of cuisines,” he says, “along with Iranian kabobs. I built a kabob cooker for an Iranian friend of mine. They are really fun to cook on.” Wow. Mind blown.
A timer goes off, marking the moment of truth. It’s time to check all of the meats and see how they turned out. We head outside to the driveway.
Chicken: Incredible. Juicy and flavorful, with a nice hint of smoke. And done without brining (which is a technique that I normally swear by).
Pork butt: We experience it two different ways — thinly sliced (later used to make Philly sandwiches) and pulled. Again, just like the chicken, the pork had great flavor and tenderness with a perfect smoke essence.
Ribs: They had an excellent blend of smoke and flavor, plus a beautiful mahogany sheen thanks to Snail’s special Southeast Asian-influenced rib glaze.
I shook my head. All of this seemed so easy. Follow some basic principles and then execute. Heck, we didn’t even measure any of the ingredients all day, including when we mixed up that rib glaze. Sometimes things don’t need to be so complicated.
This has been one of the most enjoyable times that I’ve spent cooking with someone else. And after some reflection, I realize that the fun was in getting to know someone. I think that’s one of the things that we, as a society, don’t do enough of now.
This got me to thinking about the phrase that Snail kept saying: “It’s not how your cooker looks, it’s how your cooker cooks.” That could be a metaphor for how we should interact with each other today. In this Kardashian world of social media and Internet memes, we can be so quick to judge others, especially based upon what we see from the outside. Instead, if we would spend a little time and get to know someone better, we might be exposed to a different perspective and make a new friend.
Sure, initially, I thought I was getting a cooking lesson. But what I really learned will stick with me for much longer. I think it’s one of the best Christmas gifts I’ve ever received.
If you’re interested in a Barrel Cooker and a cooking lesson of a lifetime, you can email Snail at email@example.com.
Craig Jones is a live-fire cooking expert, the Grill Mayor for Food Network (2012), and owner of Savory Addictions Gourmet Nuts. He’s also a certified KCBS barbecue judge, a student of pizza crafting and an enthusiastic supporter of the greater Kansas City food scene.