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Junk Food

Making a Backyard Smoker Out of a Trash Can and High Hopes

The City Paper Smoker-Camô

Sizzlin Summer 2007

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By Lee Gardner | Posted 5/23/2007

I'm not sure when I first became obsessed with making a barbecue smoker out of a trash can. I remember seeing an episode of the Food Network's Good Eats a few years ago in which host Alton Brown smoked some salmon using a foil-lined cardboard box and a hot plate. That was pretty nifty. Then, in May 2006, ReadyMade magazine ran a design for a smoker made out of a metal trash can. Eventually Google led me to blogger Michael Pusateri's Cruftbox.com, wherein he had put up his own design, complete with tips and helpful photographs. Cruftbox seems to be where the ReadyMade folks gleaned the idea for their smoker; Pusateri says on the blog that he got the idea from Brown.

The deeper question behind this feedback loop of ad hoc outdoor cooking, of course, is why anyone would want to build a smoker out of a trash can? Most people are quite happy with a gas or charcoal grill for their summertime cookouts, and reasonably so.

This is the point in the story where a writer might muse on the inexplicable connection between men and fire and food, Mom cooks inside and Dad cooks outside, all that. I'm not that interested, and I bet you aren't either. What I can tell you is that I grew up in the South, eating barbecue. More specifically, I lived in Memphis for a while, where I encountered many a man who had bought, commissioned, or built his own barbecue smoker--sometimes hoity-toity backyard brick affairs, sometimes massive blackened metal monsters mounted on trailers, taking up every bit as much driveway space as a powerboat. But sometimes these smokers were just crude enclosures banged together out of some kind of old metal drum, and these seemed to me the closest to the spirit of the endeavor. After all, the guy who made the best `cue where I grew up purportedly cooked it in an old washing machine tub with the galvanization worn off, proving that something this atavistic shouldn't be that complicated or expensive: wood, heat, spice, meat, and time.

Over the course of a couple of weeks, I picked up what I needed from hardware stores and garden centers: a 20-gallon metal trash can with a lid ($29.99); a cheapo electric hot plate right out of a Tom Waits song ($19.99); a metal smoker box to hold the wood chips, one of the few things I bought that was designed specifically for smoking ($6.97); and the chips themselves, hickory ($4.79) and applewood ($9.99). (You can use hardwood sawdust if you really wanna live off the grid, as long as you make sure it didn't come from treated lumber, which emits poisonous fumes when burned.)

The trickiest part was finding a grill that would fit inside the trash can; I eventually settled on a grate designed for holding coals in the bottom of a Weber grill ($18.99) that nestled inside the can about an inch and a half from the top. I took a hammer and screwdriver, knocked a hole in the side of the can near the bottom, and widened it enough to thread the hot plate's electrical cord through to the outside. Finally, I bought a three-pound pork loin; the shoulder is the traditional pulled-pork cut, but shoulders are mighty pieces of meat. I wanted something that would fit easily in my contraption and be simple to salvage in the event something went wrong.

I had consulted a friend who's traveled the more traditional route, spending some bucks on a factory-built backyard smoker and diligently tinkering with the wood and spices. We met for lunch at, what else, a barbecue place (JD's Smokehouse--decent 'cue in Canton, who knew?), and right away he expressed concern. Without an actual fire, he worried, my folly would never build up enough heat to keep the meat around the ideal 225-230 degree slow-cooking range. Without enough heat, I might spend many hours fussing over the can and end up with a smoky-tasting piece of half-raw flesh.

Regardless, on a recent Sunday, I hauled the trash can out to a sunny spot in the backyard and ran an extension cord out the kitchen window. I had soaked a mixture of the hickory and apple chips in water for about a half hour (straight hickory, my friend had informed me, was too monotonous to imbue prime flavor); the pork loin had spent several hours rolled up in plastic wrap with a spice rub (cayenne, paprika, dry mustard, and salt). I dumped some damp chips in the metal smoker box, perched it atop the hot plate in the bottom of the can, set the plate on high, popped the grill in the top of the can and the loin on the grill, and waited for the magic.

Part of the appeal of smoking, my friend had opined over lunch, was the fact that it takes so damn long. Smoking a big hunk of meat can take hours, but you can't just leave it and run errands. You have to check the temperature periodically, and the chips burn out and need changing every half-hour or so. (You'll need a metal something to dump your smoldering ashes into, by the way.) You can do little chores around the house if you must, but in a way, smoking forces you to do nothing else substantial with your day. There are worse ways to spend a sunny weekend afternoon.

Within minutes, tendrils of smoke had started to creep over the edges of the can; on went the lid. Before long, the whole backyard began to smell like fine furniture on fire. It was tough to resist popping the top to check on things, oh, every five minutes; the first time I did check it, a cloud of fragrant smoke pwoofed out and the thermometer I had swiped from the oven in the kitchen read 250. At that encouraging sign, I went ahead and invited some neighbors over for dinner, though I got some chicken ready to grill on the propane just in case.

Minutes, then hours slipped past. Check the temp, get the grill out without searing myself (not always easy), dump the ashes, replace with fresh chips, put some more chips in a bowl for soaking. Repeat.

After the first two hours, I poked a digital thermometer probe into the glistening brown loin: 140 degrees. For pork, you shoot for at least 160 degrees for full doneness, so good news there. As more time went by, the temperature continued to climb, but more slowly. After four hours, it stalled at 150. Fresh chips boosted it to 152, then 154, but it eventually slid back to 152. By this time, it was 5:30 and the sun that had been hitting the can at 2 p.m. had long since sunk behind the surrounding houses and trees and the temperature had dropped in the shade. As the clock crept toward 6 and the neighbors arrived, I caved and threw the loin on the grill with the chicken and closed the lid for a few minutes until the digital read 160.

Tearing apart my method, I can only assume that the sun helped out early on, heating up the smoker Cool Hand Luke-style, and the lack of sun and ambient heat worked against it in the late going. Maybe it would have been fine had I had the patience to leave it, maybe not. Tearing apart the loin with a couple of forks after it had rested wrapped in foil for a while, I found fully cooked flesh, steaming and suffused with smoky tang. Dumped into a dish and drizzled with a little store-bought Memphis-style sauce, the 'cue soon took pride of place on the picnic table. Some of the chicken got eaten, but once we started piling the pork onto potato rolls and slathering on a little more sauce, well, the only reason there were leftovers is that I didn't invite enough neighbors.

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