UPDATED 9:26 a.m. on May 16, 2018: This story was originally published in February 2016, but we're bringing it back to celebrate National BBQ Day.
Tell any barbecue enthusiast you’ve spent two days at Camp Brisket at Texas A&M University, and the reaction will be unanimous: Take me with you next time.
If only it were so easy.
The $495 class last month sold out online via Foodways Texas in 10 seconds. The yearly event has gotten so popular since it started in 2013 that folks from nearly every corner of the U.S. – Seattle, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Buffalo, N.Y., and many points in between – traveled to College Station to hear Texas’ most notable barbecue experts share secrets.
Since its inception, only 200 people can say they’re Camp Brisket grads.
Camp Brisket won’t get any larger or more frequent, either. Classes in an aging Texas A&M room max out at about 60 people each year, ensuring the high-priced boot camp feels like an exclusive two days spent tasting and talking about Texas barbecue’s most famous cut: brisket.
“If we had chicken fried steak camp, no one would come,” jokes Jeff Savell, a professor who specializes in meat science at A&M.
Yes, brisket is the reason Central Texas barbecue has become a worldwide curiosity, with restaurants opening as far away as Melbourne, Australia, emulating the Lone Star State style.
Camp Brisket, then, is barbecue church camp.
Down in the pulpit were panelists Wayne Mueller, owner of Louie Mueller Barbecue in Taylor; Bryan Bracewell, owner of the 134-year-old Southside Market & Barbeque in Elgin; Russell Roegels, owner of the new Roegels Barbecue Co. in Houston; Daniel Vaughn, barbecue editor of Texas Monthly; a team of meat scientists at Texas A&M; and the biggest celebrity of them all, Aaron Franklin, owner of Franklin Barbecue in Austin and one of the world’s most revered brisket experts.
“Here comes barbecue Jesus,” someone whispered as Franklin walked in during the first session of Camp Brisket.
And the revival had begun.
Cornering the barbecue obsession
Eager students at Camp Brisket were required to introduce themselves – to explain themselves, maybe – when the first class kicked off. One man said he was there “to justify the massive expenditures of barbecue equipment.”
He makes a good point: The steep $500 admission fee to Camp Brisket is nothing compared with the thousands of dollars that can be spent on a smoker, then on each $100 brisket, some of which might endure 15 hours of low, slow smoking only to turn out mediocre and land in the trash. (No telling how much Domino’s and Pizza Hut have made after failed barbecue attempts.)
Most had ambitions of opening a barbecue joint when they retire, or when the oil and gas industry finally tanks, or when their wives would let them quit their day jobs. Each shamelessly loved barbecue and desperately wanted pitmaster secrets.
“It’s pretty interesting to ponder why we do this to ourselves,” said Robb Walsh, a Texas food writer and speaker at Camp Brisket.
Smoking brisket is an art and a science that’s nearly impossible to perfect. It involves stoking a fire in a smoker located outdoors, then keeping the temperature consistent for more than half a day while the fatty piece of meat inside cooks slowly and develops a peppery bark and smoke flavor.
No wonder barbecue enthusiasts develop such a relationship with their smokers.
“You pray to it. You drink beer with it,” said Kevin Kolman of Weber. And you sit out there – for a long time.
There are no clear answers
There’s no one-page cheat sheet handed out at Camp Brisket, no hard-and-fast rules that every barbecue hopeful should follow.
In fact, when a crew of five notable Texas pitmasters was asked a very simple question, “What’s the perfect internal temperature for a finished brisket?” nobody agreed, and several didn’t even give a number.
“Trial and error: That’s all barbecue is, anyway,” Franklin says. He has a lot of practice: His Austin restaurant smokes 100 briskets a day.
But to the novice barbecuer, the answer was discouraging. Sure, it makes sense that Mueller and his crew don’t check temperatures because they handle briskets by the dozens. Must be nice that Franklin knows “by feel” when a brisket is done.
For the rest of us, is there any hope?
Maybe: Franklin said he bought his first smoker at Academy Sports and Outdoors for $100 and began a years-long process of experimenting with fire, wood and smoke. “As one would guess,” he said, “my briskets were pretty bad.”
Fast forward many years and Franklin is the winner of a James Beard Award for being the best chef in the southwest region in 2015. No barbecue pitmaster had achieved that culinary honor in history.
“You don’t have to go to culinary school to cook barbecue,” pitmaster Wayne Mueller reminded the amateur group.
All you have to do is spend a lot of time studying meat, temperatures and flavor. And if you’re the religious kind, prayers can’t hurt.
The ‘golden age of barbecue’
Bracewell was born into a barbecue family that reaches back to the late 1800s. For most of those decades, barbecue wasn’t “cool.” Of course, it wasn’t new, either: Cooking meat over fire is one of the oldest cooking traditions in the world.
“We’re not inventing anything, we’re just improving it,” Mueller says.
And yet, barbecue has become one of the buzziest cuisines over the past few years, especially in Texas.
Mueller says we are now in “the golden age of barbecue: It’s never been so popular, it’s never been so ubiquitous.”
Students at Camp Brisket, after 48 hours of brisket learning and eating, better understood what well-smoked brisket looks like and tastes like. Their two days were intensive and geeky studies, not some blowoff class with free lunch.
Still, by the end, some appeared more confused than when they started. They had pages of scribbles. (Here were mine: Season pits with tallow first. Trim at least 30 percent of the fat off of a brisket before you rub it. Check briskets often, but not as often as Franklin – who does so every 10 minutes. When does he sleep?)
Now, the beef-obsessed students were faced with the prospect of going home, putting on a heavy coat and wasting an afternoon or an evening – or three – by a fire.
Making the perfect brisket might be impossible; that’s the first lesson in the gospel of Camp Brisket. It’s an outlaw sport, too, one for people with patience, passion, grit and a steady supply of beer.
“Barbecue is the Wild West of the culinary world,” said one pitmaster.
Mueller challenged: “If you’re into barbecue? If you’re gonna do it? Now’s the time.”
Follow Sarah Blaskovich on Twitter at @sblaskovich.
The real question: How to get in to Camp Brisket?
Texas A&M University and Foodways Texas host Camp Brisket every year. (They also host a second class, Barbecue Summer Camp, for the same price.) Attendees to future barbecue camps will be chosen via a lottery system.
Here are the best steps if you want to attend Camp Brisket:
- Become a Foodways Texas member in June. Yearly memberships cost $25 to $500; individuals will pay $75 to $100. Only Foodways Texas members are eligible to apply for barbecue camps, and you have to have a membership before the Camp Brisket application becomes available.
- Sign up for Foodways Texas' e-newsletter.
- Look for an email in July with instructions to apply for the Camp Brisket lottery, and submit your application when asked. If you’ve been a member for more than a year, your application will have a multiplier on it, which means you have a better chance of being selected.
- Members from Foodways Texas will contact you in August if you were selected via randompicker.com.
People from all around the world – from Mexico City, parts of Canada, even Kazakhstan – are Foodways Texas members solely because they want a coveted spot in a barbecue camp, says Marvin Bendele, executive director of Foodways Texas.
Where does the $495 go? Half of the ticket price is doled out to Texas A&M University’s meat science program and half goes to Foodways Texas, which makes films and oral history archives to preserve Texas food culture.