Pros at Bessie Smith Strut share secrets of perfect barbecue
By Anne P. Braly
Want to barbecue like the pros?
We hit the street —; namely M.L. King Boulevard —; on Monday to get tips from the masters preparing barbecue for the Bessie Smith Strut.
The next time you light up a grill remember these helpful hints and you’ll smoke the other backyard cooks in your neighborhood:
Fuel: Most home barbecue enthusiasts select charcoal and wood chips. But for the big dogs of barbecue, huge pieces of wood are the fuel of choice.
“We use oak and hickory, and mesquite when we can get it,” said Charles Isbell, who’s been grilling for 25 years. “With a big smoker, there’s no need to soak the wood ahead of time. We start out with some charcoal and let it get real hot so that when we add the wood, it’s hot enough to really get it smoking. Then you leave the doors closed and the smoke will bounce all around in there and flavor the meat.”
Seasoning: Strut barbecue experts agree, there’s nothing more important than the right meat seasoning, and every griller has his own special favorite.
“We use a mixture of garlic salt, lemon pepper, meat tenderizer and onion powder,” said George Williamson, co-owner of M&T’s Diner on MLK. “You can overdo it, though. You’ve just got to start with a little and add more as you go along if you think it needs it.”
Basting: Aromatic wood used in the smoker gives the meat most of its flavor, but it’s often helped along with some a marinade. Erica Nowells of local caterers Choo-Choo Barbecue, said her father, E. Jenkins, uses a secret rub that he applies to the meat right before he drops it on the grill.
“Then as it cooks, he bastes it with a marinade of beer, teriyaki sauce and apple cider,” she said.
Charring: Some people like their meat so blackened, it’s hard to tell there’s meat beneath.
“When someone tells me they want a really thick steak, I char it on one side real well, then quickly flip it and char it really well on the other side, so outside it’s done and inside it’s nice and medium-rare,” said Bill Baker, who has been at the barbecue pit as a hobby for 50 years. “There are just some people who like their meat charred, like their hot dogs. People order them that way. That’s how I like them —; it adds a little crunch.”
Beware though: Some studies have shown that too eating too much charred meat can be bad for your health.
Timing: Cooking time is everything when it comes to barbecue. Too long on the grill and it’s tough. Not long enough and it’s dangerous.
Rob Jones traveled to the strut from Houston, Texas, and set up in the parking lot of Bessie Smith Hall the night before to get his briskets going.
“They’re the toughest part of the cow and they really need to smoke overnight —; at least six to eight hours to get them really tender,” he said.
Winning ribs: The secret to a good rack is to make it fall-off-the-bone tender.
Roberta Ricks and her crew had a number of items cooking on the grill in the parking lot of Bessie Smith Hall, and ribs are one of her specialties.
“The trick to good ribs is soaking them overnight in Italian dressing. That’ll make them nice and juicy,” she said. “Next morning, put them on the grill, turn them often to make sure they get done on both sides, and when the meat starts separating from the bone, they’re done.”
Rob Jones adds some of his basting sauce to brisket he has allowed to smoke overnight, getting it just right for strutters at this week's Bessie Smith Strut.
Staff Photos by Dan Henry