Way up yonder, in the northern reaches of Minnesota, a series of Weber Smokey Joe grills quietly puffed in turn beneath the whispering pines. Men plying through their coolers, and spice stashes. Other men circling about, taking pictures. Patties of ground beef delicately formed, and laying at the ready. And a light humidity hung in the air. This was the scene of the 2013 Burger Throw-Down. A gastronomic snippet of a men’s retreat. A humble tho seriously esteemed competition held in the hinter lands of Northern Minnesota, along the White Fish chain of lakes. It was there in these competitive pools, that my fellow blog host sought to ply his burger craft. Each contestant was provided 2 pounds of ground beef, 4 hamburger buns, a Weber Smokey Joe, and what ever spice and accompaniments they wish to steal from their home pantries . There would be 8 judges, each sporting a most scrupulous eye, and two hours, give or take, in which to greatly impress them.
As the Canadian Jays and Black Capped Chickadees cavorted in the white pines, and the air smelled of damp earth from recent showers, the contestants hovered over their prep areas, one and all, prodding over patties of beef, and a litany of spice and cheese. The game was on, and our fellow blog host recalls, in his own words, getting things underway, in this, the great burger throw down of 2013.
“The burger throw down was as fun as I thought it would be. I was the first one to show up knowing I would have much prep for my burgers. I had my premixed jerk rub tightly vacuumed sealed for freshness and a large can of pineapple rings. I also brought a zip lock bag of hickory chips that has been soaking since Thursday night, so almost 2 days. So, I started my coals first, as one should always do, and as they began to burn I started moving them around the bowl of the Smokey Joe. Placing them on one side of the bowl so I can do a little in-direct smoking once the burgers were fully cooked. When people saw what I was doing with the coal placement, I could hear comments like “wow, he’s got it down to a science, or this guy is serious”. I was just doing what I’m used too.”
The men henceforth got down, as men do in competitive burger making. Got down to the heady business of procuring something memorable, and pleasing to the palate. Something apt to move a judge’s tummy for the better, and put a mile on his face. The contestants were up for the challenge Everything from pesto and jalapeno to feta and Munster cheese. Our fellow patron admits to being slightly intimidated, standing alongside some of these Meat Maestros. But he sticks with his game plan, and his secret weapon – 48 hour soaked hickory chips.
“I then quickly began to prep my burgers. Now, I brought a lot of spice rub with me and I wasn’t sure how much I should use so I decided I would start mixing the rub into the meat until I could smell it. I used about half of what I brought, folding and pounding the meat until the smell joined the wet pine of the camp. I quickly shaped my patties and filled the middle with blue cheese. I sprinkled a little more rub on the cheese and laid the other patty on top of it. I finished by pinching the patties together and rubbing spice on both sides of it. I think soaking the chips as long as I did helped put steam into the meat because I know my burgers were juicy. After they were fully cooked I moved them to indirect heat and placed the pineapple over the coals. I charred them up a little and then toasted the buns. I threw everything together and mine were the first for the judges to eat. I realized at that point I forgot two of my main ingredients, bacon, which would have gone on top of the pineapple, and then some smokey bbq sauce to go on top of the bacon. I’m glad my burgers were juicy, because sometimes without sauce you get a dry burger.”
Were talking a burger here folks. One that would make even a heathen man pause to say grace. One-half pound of hickory smoked ground beef, filled with a pocket of gooey blue cheese, seasoned with the patron kick of good jerk rub, topped with a charred pine-apple ring and of course, a toasted bun. Dang! You certainly are not going to eat a whole lot better under the whispering pines nor burger shack alike. And apparently the judges thought so too, as they gave our fellow patron 1st Place honors for his Smoked Blue Cheese Jerk Burger. Well done old chap. Well done indeed.
Besides getting to sport the title of Defending Champion for a year, he also won himself a chef’s hat and an apron. If we’re nice to him, and flatter him a little, maybe we can even get him to model it for us. I doubt it, but maybe.
It was a windows down sort of day, this day last, as I was driving about town. The hum of my tires on the road, and tweety birds chirping around every bend. No trace of snow anywhere, and the green things of this world gather now, conspiring in the warming light. Spring, if we get such a thing this year, looks poised to pop here, any day soon. I love this time year. Good weather to go for a drive, and to smell the earth unfold. Which is precisely what I was up to until I noted I was within striking radius of my elder brother’s abode. It’s usually a good time over there, so I thought I’d pull in, and visit him there for a while.
I was pleased to observe he was out on his driveway enjoying the day likewise. Brother had his motor home awning deployed, lawn chairs flipped out, and much to my delight, his little Weber grill was in service, puffing away like a mired toy battleship. The boy was “dug in”, not about to waste the beautiful spring day bestowed upon him. He greeted me with a smile as I walked up his drive way, and offered me his very best lawn chair. We sat together, at his urban camp, and chewed the fat a spell, like brothers do.
I noted his little Weber Smokey Joe was putting out a commendable smoke, and queried him accordingly.
“What do you have cooking there?” I asked
“Kielbasa!” he croaked. His grizzled face brimming with a joy usually reserved for 5-year-old school girls at Chuck E Cheese.
“Yup” he continued, “You have inspired me to try smoking. It’s been smoking away for about a half hour now in fact”
“Very cool”, I said, “The smoke looks a little funny tho, what sort of wood are you using?”
“”No idea”, he blurted.
I shook my head. Did he not know that the type of smoke wood was his leverage on poetry, his step stool to bragging rights, not to mention governor of the subtle effects it might impart upon his sausage.
“Well, where did you find this wood?” I queried again.
“Along side the road”, he belched.
My eyebrow raised. For all he knew, which admittedly wasn’t much about smoking, he could have tossed in some chips hewn from a manure-encrusted Lilac log , or worse yet, a pressure treated 2 x 4 or the like. The potential to defile his beloved Kielbasa hung in the balance. I just wanted to take over his cook, and land this plane.
“Well at least I soaked the chips”, he said. “That’s what you taught me to do!”
We milled about for a few more minutes in brother’s serene BBQ camp, and I gradually ebbed from critiquing his grill craft. For it was obvious, amid the afternoon sunbeams, that the man was clearly delighted with himself. I remember those heady days too, new to the smokey arts, where every thing I did was magic. Even if it was wrong. For in the BBQ and smoking sciences, there is a certain thrill undeniably embedded into the first portions of the learning curve. The first time you smell a cloud of mesquite wafting over your patio, and look upon those golden rays of sun slanting through it. Or the maiden voyage of a new smoker. Or your first 12 hour pork butt, when you had no idea what you were doing. Or the first time you try the minion method. The list goes on. Giddy times we old timers to the smokey arts look back on, in recollection, and smile. A smile kind of like what my brother had painted across his face today, whilst basking in the dubious aromas of an unknown smoke cloud. Pining for a smoked Kielbasa. Lost in the rapture of ignorance. Amen.
I am not a sun worshiper, I do not seek out the sunny areas of the outdoors and bask in the sunshine, I do not try to tan my skin or even want too. But having said that, I have to volunteer, somewhat discreetly , that yesterday afternoon I lavished in the golden sunbeams. I lay willingly in the warm sometimes hot caresses of that fiery orb that is the center of our solar system. I paid homage to the sun and all the good things that it brings.
The warm breeze swept across the ice-covered lake, mingling the hot and the cool air like I love so much. In the northern climates, a day like this is not wasted, it is seized and every drop of enjoyment is squeezed out of it. Motor cycles come out, bicycles, dogs and the people who walk them. Minnesotans find things to do outside, and for some of us, that means lighting up the grill…
It has been six months since I last started the big grill here at the cabin, and I am still a bit intimidated by the hugeness of the thing. I got it for free, someone left it down at the end of their driveway, a piece of cardboard hanging on it swinging in the breeze, scratched with magic marker saying “FREE”.
I kind of see why now, after using it last summer.
They could not afford to fill the thing.
This grill is the GMC Suburban of grills. You can fit an entire turkey in the thing and still have room left over for a few bratwurst and hamburgers for your close friends. The thing is huge. My little Weber grill back home is twelve inches in diameter. At the start of a grilling session, I have only to put five to seven pieces of briquettes on the leftover coals from the last cook. That is all it takes to make the Weber Smokey Joe run. My little brother calls it the Honda Civic of grills. You get a lot of mileage from those little black chunks of coal.
My big Suburban grill at the cabin likes coal, like a sailor likes his rum. I toss four to seven pieces of charcoal into its vast maw and they drop into the abyss. Like dropping rocks into a well. You can hear the things bouncing off the sides on the way down, and they disappear as they reach the darkness at the bottom. Back home, on my humble Weber, a small bag of charcoal will last most of the summer. The largest bag of charcoal I can buy will barely get me three cooks on this behemoth. And worse, because the lid does not fit tightly, they burn all the way down each time, forcing me to replenish the whole pile with each session.
After the grill is lit, and the flames have settled down, ( or stabilized as my brother would say) I feel somewhat awkward placing my single hamburger patty and two Bratwurst on the immense grate. They only take up a small portion of the vast area under the lid. It made me think of being at a baseball game where only you and two of your best friends are sitting in the stands cheering the team, the rest of the huge stadium empty.
I swear, the sizzling hamburger patty had an echo.
In spite of my brother’s influence, I have never been very good on the grill. A piece of T-Bone steak, seasoned with garlic salt is the epitome of my meager talent. I bow to my little brother, who is the proclaimed “Patron of the Family Pit”. I have of course been reading his blog and like you followers out there, I feel inspired to try my hand at the craft. But , I know my limits. . .
I have never grilled fish on a cedar board, and more than likely never will, but give me a pound of hamburger, or some hot dogs, and I am in my glory. Simple tastes for the simple-minded I guess.
I read with awe how my brother put together Apple Wood Spare Ribs, or the Smoked Brisket. I have actually tasted his Hickory Smoked Rib Sandwiches. If I am in the right place, at the right time, an occasional chicken wing will come my way. But, and I will be honest here, I have about as much chance of making his Smoked Honey Tainted Pork Chops as I would making a slam dunk with a basketball.
I thought about these things as my Suburban grill at the cabin did its thing with my three pieces of meat . I knew I was not going to impress my woman with such a scanty offering, but hey, we were out in the middle of nowhere looking out over a frozen lake. Where else was she going to get food?
-The Patron’s Brother