We’re such stoners that 4/20 isn’t just a day, it’s an entire week. And it’s not just weed we love, it’s the act of smoking and everything even loosely related to breathing in toxic fumes — whether that’s chain-smoking cigarettes, vaping Juuls, suffocating a rack of ribs, or hell, even committing arson! Welcome to our exploration of all things smoke.
From his perch in the cockpit of the big-rig truck, Kevin Johnson watches hundreds of miles of asphalt and sky fly by in a single stretch. His eyes stay on the road, but his mind wanders. Almost always, it lands on a vision of his massive Peoria Cookers smoker, cast in black steel and sitting on a two-wheel trailer.
There’s a reason why this model is named the “Meat Monster” — the smoker is large enough to fit a whole pig. And you can hear just how much Johnson loves this thing when you listen to him discuss his beef brisket, cooked for more than 12 hours and flavored by the fragrant pale white smoke that puffs from the smoker’s black chimneys. “A couple of briskets recently didn’t come out perfect. I’m thinking about how they’re positioned on the smoker,” he tells me over the phone, in the middle of a 700-mile haul. “The smoker is consistent. The cook chamber has two inches of ceramic insulation between quarter-inch steel. So even when it’s like, five-below in the winter, I can load it up with 13 pounds of charcoal, two or three splits of cherry wood and run 225 degrees for 18 hours. So the positioning of the briskets, I’m not sure… I may have not had it far enough away from the heat.”
The 50-year-old used to be a full-time trucker, making six figures and benefits while driving across the Midwest from his home in Mount Sterling, Illinois. That changed when a casual barbecue hobby turned into an obsession, with Johnson seeking out bigger and better smokers over the last 20 years. The journey has culminated in his dream machine, which still turns heads when Johnson drives down the street with the rig hitched to his pickup. Then there’s the price: the Meat Monster cost him $11,000.
“It’s my mid-life crisis. I couldn’t afford a Corvette, and I feel great about it,” Johnson says with a quiet laugh. “I can promise you right now, my grandchildren are gonna use it. It’s going to outlast me by many, many years.”
Using fire and smoke to flavor meat is a tradition that spans across hundreds of years of human history and cultures on every continent. In America, the history of low-and-slow barbecue stems from communities of enslaved Africans and native peoples, whose original “pitmasters” displayed an uncanny knowledge of how to coax flavor out of fire. The cooking and consumption of barbecue has historically been a large-scale special event, given the costliness of meat. Yet cultural shifts and the rise of a middle class in the 20th century has changed that, bringing an explosion of consumer smokers designed specifically for use at home.
These smokers come in all shapes and sizes, from offset smokers to cabinet models to the famous Big Green Egg. And while the shape and appearance might resemble a grill, a smoker is a different beast altogether. Anyone can fire up the average grill and cook a couple of burgers. Learning how to properly smoke meat, meanwhile, requires the kind of know-how that only comes from repetition, research and a keen eye. The trick is to maintain a mellow fire that holds a consistent temperature and produces a clean smoke, without strange off flavors or ashy bitterness. Unsurprisingly, this process inspires people to the point of obsession — not just about the cooking, but also about their smokers (which many men love to nickname, by the way).
You can only discover a smoker’s idiosyncrasies by bonding with it over time, as famous barbecue champion Harry Soo tells me. “Asking me which of my smokers is my favorite is like asking someone to pick a favorite child,” he says. “A lot of people, they start with one and end up having a stable, as if they’re sports cars or something. And you see these different cliques form in the community. There’s the ugly-drum smoker crowd. There’s the pellet smoker guys, and so on. The equipment doesn’t really matter in the end, though, because no matter what, you need to manipulate smoke, meat and fire. But people take their preferences seriously.”
The men who fall in love with their smokers profess that these simple vessels have changed their lives in big and small ways alike. Some fall so hard that they end up switching careers, like Johnson. For others, the smoker symbolizes an empowering way to escape from a joyless day job and live out an alter-ego as a skillful pitmaster. Johnson still remembers the first batch of ribs on his very first smoker (“The worst crap you ever tasted in your life!”). It motivated him to learn how to do things right, and culminated in him and his wife opening a barbecue business in Mount Sterling two years ago.
“It’s a challenge to use a smoker, every single time you do it,” he concludes. “But when you get it right, and you see the look on peoples’ faces when they bite into your food and you know it’s perfect — well, it’s better than doing drugs.”
A smoker can be an unforgiving animal, and the horror of wrecking a cook is something that imprints on every aspiring pitmaster at an early stage. The very first time Will Streff, a 32-year-old agency recruiter in Chicago, used a cheap electric smoker, he ruined a pork shoulder. It was a rookie mistake, too: He forgot to burn off the chemicals left on the smoker at the factory, infusing the pork with an acrid, metallic flavor. Like Johnson, the fiasco piqued Streff’s curiosity about what to fix the next time around. “It’s empowering,” he says. “The idea of taking a piece of meat that cost $1 a pound and turning it into something that could blow someone’s mind by putting in enough time, effort and skill just spoke to me.”
Streff’s memories of food in the family home leave a lot to be desired. He grew up with a mom who lacked any kind of cooking skill, and his parents generally didn’t want him hanging around in the kitchen at all. “I remember hating steak as a kid because my parents would just take it out of the freezer and throw it on the gas grill. It was done when it was black and dry,” he says, flatly. “They made good money, but never wanted good food.”
His own relationship with food really only changed after college, when he moved into a condominium with a patio, and ironically, received a small smoker as a housewarming gift from his parents. Streff would never have bought it for himself (“I wasn’t that into smoked meat or anything”). Nor could he have anticipated that it would kick-start a hobby that brings him more happiness than pretty much anything else, save for his dogs and the high of closing a big agency deal. Streff, though, never tires of seeing a pork shoulder emerge from the smoker, dark and glistening and perfumed with wood. He’s also started experimenting with other dishes like stuffed fish and lobster, which reminds him of how far he’s come since he was a kid, pissed off about yet another bland meal.
Streff’s pride and joy these days is a Kamado Joe, an egg-shaped ceramic smoker renowned for its quality. It’s the best smoker he’s owned, even capable of cooking hunks of meat in the frigid Chicago winter. The Kamado sits on his condo patio, secured with four bungee cords so it can’t tip over in the wind. “I’m a little paranoid with it. I’d cry, maybe, if it cracked. Every time you open the hood, it’s like Christmas morning,” Streff says. “When you see a piece of meat slowly taking on color and getting to that point where you’re so proud of it, that makes the whole process worth it. So if that thing shattered, it would be like Christmas disappeared.”
The stories of how people discovered their favorite smoker are as diverse as the personalities. Some people, like Streff, appreciate the challenge of working with a small or simple smoker. Others dream of acquiring the biggest smoker they can keep around the house. Some spend more than $10,000 to design a custom smoker with one of a number of highly regarded fabrication shops. A few take on the job of personally cutting and transforming a big metal drum into what’s lovingly dubbed an “ugly drum smoker.”
Luc Flannery has tried them all, going through eight different smokers in the past decade. The most formative jump in his barbecue education, he says, came when he bought a huge trailer smoker basically on a whim. The price of $600 was too good to ignore, even if he had to drive into the middle of the Florida swamps outside of Fort Myers to pick the rig up. “It was my most fun on a smoker at the time, but it really demanded that I learn how to use a proper pit. It took me forever to figure out how to keep a fire going in that big smoker, and what the proper exhaust setup was,” Flannery says.
The 33-year-old moved to San Diego three years ago with his girlfriend, and had to give up smoking any food for a year and a half because their small apartment restricted it. He considers it a low point: “It was a bummer, and [my girlfriend] definitely could tell I missed it, it was written on my face.” They moved after settling into new jobs, and now Flannery has easy access to what he believes is his dream smoker. It’s a custom build from Harper Barbecue, a local company in nearby Costa Mesa that specializes in beautifully rustic smokers made from worn propane tanks and steel piping. The smoker is a larger size than what you’d normally find in someone’s backyard, but that helps when Flannery holds pop-up events to serve barbecue around San Diego. Flannery now swears that he’ll never let it go, unlike his previous smokers.
A great smoker is a vehicle for growing one’s confidence, as well as a conduit for men to find a community. Vibrant online forums remain a constant resource for the devoted smoker, and many decide to take the plunge into regional barbecue competitions after a few years of home smoking. So it was with Flannery, who entered his first competition when he lived in Florida. Intimidated at first, he loosened up when he realized that other people were keenly interested in helping a newbie out. “One team came by and actually showed me how to trim a pork shoulder correctly to competition standards. A lot of people handed me some of their food, which made me realize how bad my barbecue was. That lit a fire in me to improve,” he recalls. “There’s a lot of camaraderie. I remember another time when I got a second-place finish against 30 other teams for ribs, and so many people were cheering big for me. It’s a good feeling.”
Flannery operates his barbecue pop-up alongside his career in public radio, but Johnson took a much bigger gamble when he demoted himself to part-time trucker in order to pursue smoking meats as a business. His trailer sets up shop twice a week, and he practically beams through the phone when he talks about the innate pleasure of pulling a juicy brisket off the Meat Monster and slicing it for a line of excited diners. He’s also honest about the stress that the decision to sell barbecue has had on his family, even if his wife encouraged him. “I pulled money out of my 401(k), we spend every dime we had to keep the business running in the last year and a half,” he admits.
But the cash flow has stabilized for the better, and he has no regrets. Working as a full-time trucker may have paid well, but those long drives left him feeling lonely and isolated from any real source of passion. He can’t imagine getting tired of working the smoker and feeding customers. “Getting a smoker and learning to barbecue in the long run taught me not to be so afraid of taking a risk,” he says. “It showed me that if you’re not doing what you enjoy, you’re not really enjoying your best life.”
Near the end of our phone call, Johnson tells me he still has about 500 miles to drive. I joke that it’s a long time to mull over his brisket. That’s fine by him, he replies. Even after 20 years, there’s plenty to think about when it comes to the marriage of smoke and meat.