Wednesday, September 19

Lone Star Dispatch: Smoking is a Health Hazard

From the keyboard of guest blogger Daniel Vaughn, whose computer smells vaguely of brisket. 

Gary Burns doesn't let the smoke get in his eyes. Photo by Nicholas McWhirter

It's obvious to anyone who has ever received a back-of-house tour at a barbecue joint where smoke is belching from the pit that it might not be a healthy place to take deep breaths. Burning wood provides a steady stream of carcinogen-laced smoke, and those pits don’t come with filters. Some pit tenders I’ve talked to say that they develop a cough at first that goes away after a while.

Smoke stalactites at Martin's Place in Bryan, Texas. Photo by Daniel Vaughn

A summer visit to the fully enclosed pit room at Martin’s Place in Bryan, Texas, is suffocating for both the heat and the smoke. Steve Kapchinskie has spent many waking hours in this pit over the last several decades, but he says the smoke doesn’t bother him. (I question his statement when I blow the charcoal particles out of my nose as I leave the restaurant.)

A radio provides the tunes in the pit room at Chisholm Trail in Lockhart, and as I look at its tarred and mangled form, I can't help but wonder about the lungs of the pitmasters.

Wonder if they listen to a lot of Smokey Robinson? Photo by Nicholas McWhirter

In Houston a few weeks back, I was surprised to find a couple of cooks actively—and smartly—combating the effects of smoke in an industry where machismo tends to trump preventive health measures. Gary Burns at Burns Old Fashioned Pit Bar-B-Q sported some thick goggles that would be more familiar on a motorcross track than a kitchen, but a brief, eye-stinging visit to see his behemoth pit made me wish I had a pair.

Adrian Handsborough breathes easy. Photo by Nicholas McWhirter

Adrian Handsborough goes one step further at Virgie’s with a full gas mask. He was done cooking for the day during our visit, but still happy to model it for us. His juicy spare ribs were so good that I was happy for anything that could prolong his tending of the pits.

Follow Daniel Vaughn on Twitter at @bbqsnob.