TMBBQFest, “23 Pitmasters in 23 Days:” Baby J’S Bar-B-Que & Fish
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Editor’s Note: Just five more days until the Texas Monthly BBQ Festival! As you surely know by now, we’ve been interviewing all the featured pitmasters, with questions from TM staffers, esteemed BBQ experts, Twitter followers and you, the readers of this blog. Today we’re featuring Jeremiah McKenzie, 39, of Baby J’s Bar-B-Que & Fish in Palestine. For more info, visit their page on TMBBQ.com. Describe the scene at Baby J’s. I have a little joint where you walk in and feel at home. It’s real colorful. My board’s black; it’s got “Baby J’s” on it with a homemade piece of cobbler. When you go out, it’s “Nothing Baby About It,” with two babies, a boy and a girl. What type of wood do you use? Pecan and a very little amount of hickory. Who did you learn your craft from? Did you work previously for another BBQ joint, learn it from family, or did you just learn it on your own? My brother-in-law and my dad like to barbeque a lot. I was in the oil fields workin’ and I got fired, because I’m kinda heavy-set. I said, “I’m never going to get fired again. I’m going to start my own business.” And I started barbequing and being successful. You must feel pretty good now. The same guy that fired me came back and gave me a bunch of catering. What’s your signature meat? Our customers say the ribs. We use baby back, and they’re real tender. I believe in using the old-fashioned rib. We slow cook it, we don’t boil it, and it’s tender and juicy with good seasoning. We dry rub it, and it falls off the bone. Sauce or no sauce? I don’t put sauce on mine. We make our own sauce, black Kansas City-style barbeque sauce. I don’t want sauce. Good barbeque doesn’t have to have sauce. Our ribs aren’t dry. Slow and low or high and faster? Slow and low. We cook our brisket about eighteen hours. Don’t get in a rush with it. What temperature do you try to maintain? About 175, not over 200. It’s so tender, you gotta let it cool off to cut it. What non-secret ingredients are in your spice rub? I love a lot of onion powder. I like garlic powder, those two are very healthy for you. We use a lot of black pepper, the good, restaurant kind. Do you start a new fire each day or do you keep the same one going? We just keep it going. I come in the morning, rake a little coals and throw wood on. Leave the door about five minutes, got a fire goin’. We put our meat on everyday about 4:30 or 5 o’clock. Every couple days we restart, but most of the time we just rake it back and go. You don’t have to use lighter fluid or charcoal, so I think it makes the pit taste better. There’s no chemicals in it, it’s just natural burning wood. What should the home smoker look for when picking out a side of brisket from the market? I look for it to weigh about thirteen pounds, not much fat. I want a lean brisket. On the fat side, I want to be able to see some lean meat through it. Is grade or quality important or does smoking render them all equally delectable? Yeah, it is. I hand pick mine every night at Walmart. I don’t buy off of trucks. I personally check out every piece of meat. I don’t send my wife, I don’t send nobody. I want to see how they look. What’s the one other piece of advice you’d give to someone smoking a brisket at home? Get a good thirteen pound brisket. Don’t always pay the cheapest price. Get you a good dry rub; if you can’t make one buy one. Rub it down heavy, put your garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper on, and slow smoke it. Don’t get in a hurry. That brisket should always, if you don’t rush it, have water on top of it. The juices from the brisket will pile up on top of it. How many pounds of meat do you smoke in a week? Lately, we’ve been doing a lot of oil field catering. We’re going through probably sixty slabs of ribs a week, probably fifteen pull porks a week. Pull porks average from ten pounds to twelve or thirteen pounds. We’ve been running through probably 150 to 200 pounds sausage in a week. Do you use or have you considered using a gas- or electric-fired smoker? We use all wood. I had a Southern Pride for about two months, and I had some brisket cooked on it and some on my friend’s pit, and I said, “Tell me which one’s the best.” He said, “I’m going to get my pit and leave.” It’s interesting that you gave it a try. A kid could barbeque on that. That’s why I don’t call it real barbeque. Here, you know how to gauge your pit, you know how low to keep your temperature, you gotta know how much wood to put on it. It’s art. I don’t want something everybody can do. Ever have any Texas barbecue outside of Texas? Yeah, Louisiana. It was okay, I got ribs and they weren’t smoked; they were boiled, and I didn’t like it. They had no color to ‘em, no smoke color to ‘em. That’s not the way I do it. I do it the old-fashioned way: the meat’s going to look dark, the brisket’s going to look black, but inside it’s going to be pretty and pink. Favorite BBQ in Texas other than your own? My wife’s ribs. She can get down. No joke, I’m for real. She marinades hers overnight and seasons it, and it’s real good. Do you guys ever get competitive about it? We do, we have fun. She spices her up, hers got a little kick to hers. A lot of people that like spicy, they like hers. I like to keep it simple. (Questions by Jason Cohen, Andrea Valdez, Pat Sharpe, Katy Vine, Sonia Smith, Daniel Vaughn, Jim Shahin, J.C. Reid, @stewlevine & @JoePerryinTX.)