What’s a New Yorker who wants top-quality smoked brisket at home to do?
There’s only one real answer: bring it back from Texas. Which is exactly what the Brooklyn-based food blogger and online video host Daniel Delaney did after SXSW this past March.
But we’re not talking a take-out plate from Franklin or JMueller. While he was in Austin, Delaney bought himself an eighteen-foot long, 200-pound capacity smoker, which he then towed back across the country in a Budget rental truck he’d filled with post oak.
It’s for a project that Delaney’s calling “Brisket Lab,” a way for him to hone his pit skills with a series of subscription-only supper clubs he’ll hold this summer (which is likely to be followed by a full-time restaurant).
Memberships were made available to people online for $25 per pound. Given Brooklyn’s current artisan food craze, the country’s growing BBQ obsession, and Delaney’s skillful use of social media, it may not even be surprising that he had to stop the sign-ups when he reached 4,300 people and 2,500 pounds of brisket (light eaters).
Delaney, who in addition to his “Hungry Nation” videos has organized a variety of food events (including the Squarespace truck at SXSW), says he’s eaten at over 120 BBQ joints during his travels, from Franklin to the Cozy Corner in Memphis.
But it was Wayne Mueller of Taylor’s Louie Mueller BBQ who provided him with his original epiphany, at the Road Food Festival in New Orleans.
“I guess I kind of talked to him bit, and he had some barbecue for me, and I ate that and I was just floored,” Delaney recalls. “I had never tasted food like that. For me, it was the king. It trumped any other piece of barbecue that I had ever put in my mouth. It was the best food that I had ever put in my mouth. It was just mind-f–king.”
After that, Delaney could no longer be happy with the options that he had in New York City, especially from joints that served a lot of different styles. You wouldn’t want Chinese food from a pizza place, so why would you want Memphis-style ribs from the same kitchen as a Texas brisket?
“It’s frustrating, and I think it’s a little disrespectful,” Delaney says. “If there was like, food racism, it’s what they’re doing. They’re generalizing. They’re not honoring the cooking tradition.
“The thing is, I don’t want to be an asshole because these people work hard. It’s not that they don’t work hard. But [the barbecue options in New York] weren’t satiating that primal nerve that the likes of Louie Mueller does for me.”
Delaney doesn’t consider himself a chef by any means, but suggests that smoking meat is more like roasting coffee, or working as a butcher.
“It’s much more craft-driven than improvisationally-driven. It’s much more about working your ass off to refine something than it is to be a jack of all trades. The pit master is the master of one trade.
“And I think I also have an emotional side to it, which is the more I got into it the more I realized how important it is in terms of our culture in the United States, in terms of it as our first food form. Like jazz is our original music.”
And, to extend the metaphor, brisket is Charlie Parker (or maybe Ornette Coleman).
“I mean no disrespect to other regions of barbecue,” Delaney says. “But only an ignorant person would argue with the fact that brisket is the hardest piece of meat [to cook]. Like, okay you can do pork shoulder. I can ride a tricycle. You know? Big deal. The brisket is so much more complicated.”
Delaney is simultaneously confident and humble about his supper club, which he named “Brisket Lab” to make it clear it was a experiment.
“I have no interest in pontificating or professing that I know something that I don’t know,” he says. “Like, I’m green. I’m going to keep my head down and work my ass off constantly and do nothing else.”
He feels he knows what he’s doing, but he also knows that the difference between making brisket that is 95 percent there versus making brisket that is one hundred percent there is what will make or break his meat.
“I want to have the opportunity to hold myself to my own standard,” he says. “I want to produce a product that is of the quality of a Louie Mueller, or Franklin, you know? What I’m trying to do is honor (those) guys. I’m trying to stick to the tradition. I’m not going to put chile peppers or galanga root or anything like that on brisket. I’m just gonna try and honor the traditions that have been established.
“And I know that I’m the Yankee and I know that I’m already cast as an outsider, but I think that I can do it. And maybe I won’t be able to replicate or trump the greats but I’m going to work my hardest to not disrespect them.”