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Becoming a Pitmaster: A whole cow bbq (Gumbo Jubilee: II of III)

Being titled a pitmaster, has to be earned, it is not just a business card title or won from winning a competition bbq contest!!! Becoming a pitmaster and why I wanted to cook a whole cow in hindsight was crazy but it was important for bbq, past, present, and future in making sure the credit of who perfected American BBQ, is accurately recorded. It was spurred by the notion that history books stated my ancestors cooked whole cows in pits similar to pigs but larger, while following the insight in my journey to solidify my oral knowledge with written data. I should not have had to solidify the oral history in bbq, but my educational training as a PhD said I owe the culture the rigor to be thorough in my approach to the craft. It was also spurred by the notion that my wife whom is from Wisconsin, said I can’t be considered a whole animal pitmaster instead of a whole hog pitmaster unless I cooked a cow. Therefore, I recognize the only way to gain the knowledge and respect of a true pitmaster, I knew I had to pitcook a whole cow in a similar fashion to the literature for the culture.

The cooking of the cow was a major challenge due to size of the animal and being able to actually handle it once it start cooking. So 6 months prior to Gumbo Jubilee, I started the design process for designing and building a pit or apparatus to help in the handling of the cow. In this process, I took what I learn in becoming a rocket scientist and apply it with everything I knew about cooking whole hog bbq. Over months, the designs were very complex and it became clear of the solution once I went home in early August of 2018, and my father and I put a small piece of steel in a metal brake on a Sunday morning, and the solution was revealed. I knew then we had the engineering piece solidified and the only thing left to do was build, in which my father took 100% control with 45 years of welding experience. We had a solid proof of concept and I had design elements of features needed, from the previous 4 months.

In September, I return back home to the shop to continue building and help with some intricacies. Just know when you design and build something new, two heads and a 4 hands(two people) are better than one head and two hands(one person). We solidified the rotating mechanism and tested it with using 4 tractor weights for verification that simulated the weight of the cow with point loads specifically at the shoulders and hams. So at this point, I knew we had a solid cooking apparatus that only needed to be incorporated into my pit in New Orleans. However, to eliminate an extra trip to New Orleans, my father incorporated this apparatus into a full new BBQ pit.

The next thing is how do you cook a whole cow especially since there were no one that I knew that used the approach that I was planning on using. I used the approach that was proven over my life time, passed down orally in my community for hundreds of years, and further supported by the literature. However, from the people I learned to cooked from, there were no one I could consult that cooked a cow like this so I had to go from my own experience. My experiences include cooking on various types of pits, whether refrigerators, welded sheet metal, old fuel tanks, cinders blocks, an old wooden table, and last but not least, a real earth dug bbq pit. In all of these cooking devices, I did not have any fancy equipment to control temperatures but my hand, a shovel for coals, and the trusting of a process which was passed down, which I trust and proved it is time tested over my life. In addition, I cooked every domesticated farm animal grown on farms in the American South before Gumbo Jubilee, chicken, turkeys, hogs, lambs(or sheep), and goats. I have even cooked deer, fish, squirrel, and rabbit. In cooking these various proteins, I have learned so much and even my father had to trust me in the cooking process on the cow and lamb this year, but what I did was reflected on the technique that he shared with me freely and open, including the opportunity to take ownership in cooking as kid. I have cooked in various locations, Denver, CO, Detroit, MI, New Orleans, LA and Trinidad in various conditions that helped prepared me for this undertaking but I was never 100% sure. I treated the pitcooked bbq cow as I treated every other cook, I humbly thought of this like my very first animal and gave it the proper focus during the cooking process as I could not afford to do a dry run on animal that would cost a few thousand dollars. I am not describing the process here but it was something to undertake.

Photo by Eric Waters

The final thing of importance for me in cooking this cow, was cooking with an all black team of pitmasters, my father, and having my black farmers present. The all black cooking team including the black farmer was important as this was representative of what it would be on a plantation but without the oppression of a plantation owner. The Pitmaster team as captured by Photographer Eric Waters included Dr. Howard Conyers, Harrison Conyers, Sr., BJ Dennis, Chris Hayes, Marcus Middleton, Moteh Jaiteh, and last Farmer Ben Burkett(note Farmer Terry Price was absent). While, I love the craft so much that I would stay up the time to cook the cow but I did not because my wife said I had to sleep 2 hours, which was very difficult. I wanted to cook it with a team of people I respect and admire for what they do. Even though I had a team of chefs to help, I literally watch every shovel of coals go underneath that cow and I knew the placement was critical for perfection. I developed my final game plan for cooking the cow 2:00 am Friday of cooking the cow, while all probably were sleep.

Before the evening of Gumbo Jubilee, I thought I could be a pitmaster but up in the night on Friday, I believe I was paying my dues of what it meant to be pitmaster as I lead this group of black men, including my father on this unique experience. On the Saturday of Gumbo Jubilee, I showed what engineering excellence was with my father as we flipped the cow so the crowd could see the whole cow and how easy it rotated. I became what people say they are in a pitmaster today, when I pulled the beef from the cow and observe perfections going through my hands with using a technique well over 100 years old perfected in the American South on plantations by enslaved Africans whom I am descended. I pulled the meat with gloves and pulled out a shoulder blade, that was clean which indicated the bbq beef was cooked to perfection and it was also moist and well-seasoned. As I pulled the meat, I knew that I was part of a team that produced what the history books described as the best bbq ever in the modern era, over whole hog and I knew it was true. As I worked my way down the cow in pulling perfectly cooked meat without any instrumentation on a pit that I never cooked on before with an animal I never cooked, I cried because I learned what was meant by Blood, Sweat, and Tears. I bleed a few years prior when I cut my hand which required stitches before cooking 2 ½ hogs for Dinner Lab. Every time I cook bbq, I sweat a lot during the process which cause me to drink Gatorade and a lot of water. Finally tears of joy as I pulled the perfectly barbequed whole cow at the first attempt of cooking, because at that moment I became what America deemed a pitmaster after 30+ years of cooking myself and being around it my entire life. Many other people called themselves pitmasters with a lot less experience.

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