AN EVENING of smoky pleasure was about to unfold last Friday when the skies opened. A heavy, drown--the-frogs rain pelted the barbecue cookers set up outside the Baltimore Museum of Industry on Key Highway. Lesser types would have turned tail, but the crews manning the smokers held their soggy ground.
"Hogs don't mind rain, they wallow in it," said Bill Eason, pit master of the Little Red Pig from Marshville, N.C., one of the three barbecue teams that were feeding the 'cue-craving crowd gathered in the museum. Moreover, his hogs, two free-wallowing beauties ordered from the Niman Ranch of Oakland, Calif., had been cooking for almost a day before the first raindrop fell.
So the barbecue, a fund-raiser for the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) went on as planned, and the ribs, chicken, pork butts and whole hogs went on the buffet tables. Inside the museum, 300 folks who had paid $85 a ticket lined up and piled their plates high with smoked bliss.
Meanwhile, in a tent attached to the museum, six celebrity chefs, seemingly oblivious to the storm, performed wondrous works on pork tenderloins. As thunder rolled and rain water dripped from the tent ceiling, Jacques Pepin, Steven Raichlen, Bobby Flay, Bruce Aidells, Jose Andres and Baltimore's Cindy Wolf calmly worked over high-heat and big-ticket gas grills. It was a half-serious grilling competition, and it was won by Raichlen, a graduate of Milford Mill High School, host of the Barbecue University public television show and author of a number of cookbooks, including The Barbecue Bible. He whipped up a coffee-crusted pork tenderloin with grilled bananas and mango slaw on the side.
The evening was proof, I thought, that neither thunder nor rain nor wet feet can keep a dedicated barbecuer from making magic with pork rounds.
That was one of the things I learned last week while hanging out with the culinary crowd, the 1,400 IACP members and their posses who attended the organization's conference in Baltimore. Here are a few more things I picked up.
I learned to rotate the wood chips on my barbecue cooker. Chicken prefers a mild smoke; pork ribs can handle a heavier dose of hickory. That is what Kevin Cowan, head cook for the Burning Desire barbecue team out of Spartanburg, S.C., told me as I watched the racks of chicken slowly rotated in a massive, air-insulated, Jebmaster cooker outside the Museum of Industry.
Poultry takes on the flavor of smoke more readily than pork, he said. He varies the type and ratio of wood chunks he places on top of his base charcoal fire. For example, when cooking chicken, he favors a 3-to-1 ratio of apple-wood chunks to hickory, he said. Fruit woods, he explained, give off gentle smoke that chicken takes kindly to. But pork absorbs smoke at a slower pace, so his rib-smoking ratio is the opposite of chicken's, the three chunks of hickory on the charcoal and one chunk of fruit wood.
I also learned that soft-shell crabs are being raised by robots in Australia. During a panel discussion, John Sussman, general manager of FishBizz, a seafood marketing company in New South Wales, showed slides of a high-tech soft-shell crab operation in Australia. There, he said, blue crabs are grown from eggs to marketable soft-crab status in 100 days. Instead of being watched over by watermen, these down-under crabs are kept in individual watery apartments that are monitored by robotic electronic devices that regularly sweep overhead and report any changes, such as shedding a shell, to authorities. Now operating on a small scale, such crab-farming, Sussman said, is the wave of future.
I learned that a variety of crabs - blue, mud, spanner, coral and sand - is eaten in Australia. But when I asked Sussman what type of crab he would choose for his final meal, he picked a blue crab boiled in sea water. Another member of the crab panel, Nick Furman of Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, said his final meal would be a boiled Dungeness crab, eaten while the crab meat was still warm. Mine, I decided, would be a Chesapeake Bay soft crab, raised by watermen.
I learned that if you pinch your nose you can't taste the jelly bean you are chewing. This was one of the experiments that Marcia L. Pelchat of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, had audience members conduct during an early-morning session on how food memory works. The point of the hold-your-nose-and-chew drill was to show that odor provides most of the information about flavor to the old reptilian part of our brain. I am not entirely sure that was the point. All parts of my brain are lower than a snake in a wagon rut until I have four cups of coffee.