Saturday, May 9, 2009

BBQ 801 - Commercial Smokers

This entry concerns the merits of commercial smokers currently used at BBQ joints across America. Homemade brick smokers and anything with Weber written on the side of it are outside of the realm of this discussion, but we will discuss how a tricked out breadmaker contributed to the tasty delights we all get to enjoy these days.

As modern health codes emerged in the 1900's, the use of an open pit in the ground for smoking meat became a thing of the past. In their place came brick smokers custom built for their establishment such as those found at Smitty's Market in Lockhart, or later on, rotisserie smokers fired by wood, gas or electricity. John Morthland wrote in Texas BBQ about gas-fired smokers that produce the same batches of meat every time. He explains "those 'exact same results' lack the deep, smoky, primal flavor of real barbecue - in fact, the stuff tastes suspiciously of roast beef." I couldn't agree more, and the main culprit are the commerical smokers sold by Southern Pride, and to a lesser extent Ole Hickory pits. These smokers are gas-fired with wood added just for flavoring. They are designed to need very little attention during the cooking process, and are made for producing high quantities of consistently, albiet sometimes blandly, flavored meat. Even SP's website declares that "12 of the top 14 grossing BBQ chains use Southern Pride equipment". Notice the emphasis on quantity. Can you put the highest grossing bbq joint in your town into your personal Top 5? Unless you're somewhere in small-town Texas, the answer's probably no.

On the other end of the spectrum are 100% wood burning pits invented almost simultaneously in Texas by Herbert Oyler and Leonard McNeill. Robb Walsh beautifully recounts the story in his book Legends of Texas Barbecue. He writes, "IN 1949, A HOUSTON MACHINIST named Leonard McNeill won a tiny restaurant near Lenox Street in Houston in a game of craps. He renamed it the Lenox Barbecue...McNeill prepared food at a restaurant, where he had to abide by the sanitary codes. But ordinary brick barbecue smokers couldn't accommodate jobs the size of those the Lenox Barbecue was being asked to do. So the former machinist introduced barbecue to the age of mechanization.

"McNeill bought an enormous bread-rising oven from the Rainbow Bread bakery. The oven had a rotating mechanism inside that moved the dough through a timed cycle. McNeill converted this machinery into a mechanized wood smoke rotisserie that could cook three thousand pounds of meat at one time.

"Today, McNeill's Lenox Barbecue on Harrisburg Street in Houston is run by Erik Mrok, whose father was a friend of McNeill's. The restaurant uses three rotisserie ovens of a type patented in 1967 by Herbert Oyler of Mesquite. Oyler, a barbecue restaurant owner from Mesquite, also started by tinkering with a barbecue rotisserie made from a bread-rising oven. Whether he was working independently, in competition, or in cooperation with McNeill is not known.

"Oyler's invention is a steel barbecue pit with a rotisserie inside. It has an electric carousel but no heating elements. It is fueled exclusively with wood burned in a remote firebox. The advantage of the rotisserie is that the meat gets basted with dripping fat, but it is cooked with wood smoke."

Oyler pits are still made today by J&R Manufacturing in Mesquite, Texas. The BBQ joint that Herbert Oyler once ran is still in existence today, but is no longer affiliated with the Oyler family. Unfortunately, even with the help of an Oyler pit, Mesquite BBQ still churns out some very mediocre 'cue. Ironically or fittingly, Lenox Barbecue in Houston currently uses a fleet of Oyler pits for their cooking.

Just remember, if you see the Oyler name, there's a good chance the pit boss knows what they're doing, whereas a joint with a Southern Pride out back might just be looking for those exact same results with as little effort possible.

- BBQ Snob


PM Summer said...

GREAT info! I'll be watching for Oylers!

So I'm guessing Dickey's use Southern Pride... even though I'm not as hard on them (Dickey's) as some.

Scott--DFW said...

If I recall correctly, Back Country (on Greenville) uses an Oyler.

ribking1 said...

does anybody have any info or name of someone who builds builds brick pits in central texas?

Txbbqman & Brklynchefette said...

Leonard McNeill would, were he still with us, question the accuracy of the would his son Charles (aka: Mutt). What Lenox Barbecue and Catering have done over the years as far as both the size of the events they have served and the numbers of events with the name Lenox on the menu would impress the uninformed as well as the professionals in the field. Most of the professionals know very well the Mc Neill name. For years arguably the ultimate Barbecue Cookoff has been the one that fronts the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Leonard McNeill was the cornerstone of that event and, for many years, the chairman of that committee. You have heard the old story, say anything about me you like, but please spell my name right. For those of us who took an advanced degree in the art of barbecue at the University of Lenox, we got his name right.
Peter Cook

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy reading about Leonard McNeill. I always knew him as 'Bully'.
I spent a good part of my childhood at Lenox BBQ.
Peter Cook, thank you for your kind words!
My name is King. Bully McNeill was my grandfather.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy reading what I can find about Leonard McNeill. I always knew him as 'Bully'.
I spent a good part of my childhood at Lenox BBQ.
Peter Cook, thank you for your kind words!
My name is King. Bully McNeill was my grandfather.

Deb said...

Thank You for the GREAT information! I'll be watching for Oylers!


Each joint is judged on the essence of Texas 'cue...sliced brisket and pork ribs. Sausage is only considered if house made. Sauce is good, but good meat needs no adornment to satisfy. Each review can only be based on specific cuts of meat on that particular day. Finally, if the place fries up catfish or serves a caesar salad, then chances are they aren't paying enough attention to the pits, so we mostly steered clear.