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Hearth & Home July 2014

Professor Jeffrey Savell, Ph.D, Texas A&M University.

BBQ – 101

By Lisa Readie Mayer

Colleges now offer barbecue classes and – surprise! – those courses are very popular.

There’s a cardinal rule among college students: Never take a class that meets on Friday afternoons. But that doesn’t seem to bother the students in the class Professor Jeffrey Savell, Ph.D., teaches at 4 pm every Friday of the Fall semester at Texas A&M. In fact, the students usually arrive early, stay late and even volunteer to return the following year to help with the next group of students.

The class, “ANSC117: Texas Barbecue,” or “BBQology” as it’s more commonly known, is one of the most popular classes offered as part of the university’s First Year Seminar program to help freshmen transition to college life. In his class, Savell, a University Distinguished Professor, Regents Professor and leader of the Meat Science section in the Department of Animal Science, teaches the chemical, cultural and historical aspects of barbecuing.

Working on their college degrees.

Enrollment has grown from 15 students when it was first offered in 2009, to 24 with a waiting list for the upcoming Fall 2014 semester. It’s as popular with female students as males.

“I could fill many more barbecue classes each semester,” says Savell, an avid barbecuer himself. “But I wouldn’t be able to teach any of my other classes.”

The required textbook is “Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook” by Robb Walsh. The syllabus includes “real” school stuff like learning about the chemical reaction that occurs in the creation of a pink smoke ring in meats, the science behind the Maillard reaction responsible for browning and crust development, and the technical low-down on how marinades chemically break down and tenderize meat. But mostly, the course delves into the fun and flavor of barbecuing, with some guidance counseling on the side.

Equipment is explained in the first lecture (the group cooks on four Weber Kettles and four Smokey Mountain Cookers). Subsequent units cover wood and charcoal fuels; methods for lighting and maintaining a fire; seasonings such as marinades, rubs and salts; techniques including direct- and indirect-grilling, barbecuing, smoking and rotissing; different cuts of pork, beef, lamb, poultry and even goat; as well as other fine points of barbecuing. Guest speakers have included a Texas food historian and an expert on Brazilian-style barbecue.

The class is graded and there is homework, including weekly reports on the material learned. Students are also required to obtain seven recipes for compilation into an end-of-the semester cookbook. For the final “exam,” students are invited to a luau in Savell’s backyard featuring a whole pig, spit-roasted in his hand-built cinderblock pit. Mrs. Savell prepares the sides.

“She makes a mean banana pudding,” he says.

“The original goal behind the class was not to create future pitmasters,” says Savell, “but to build confidence, nurture and mentor these young students as they adjust to college life.” However, as the Aggie freshmen bond over brisket and soak up Savell’s life lessons, they become pretty savvy outdoor cooks in the process.

For the past four years, sophomore, junior and senior graduates of the class have manned the “Barbecue Genius Counter” at Texas Monthly magazine’s annual BBQ Festival and other events. A take-off on the “Genius Counter” at Apple stores, the Aggie barbecue “geniuses” answer questions and offer outdoor cooking tips to backyard barbecuers attending the festival.

“It’s a great way for the students to share their knowledge and experience,” says Savell, who also runs barbecue instructional camps for adults. “Interest in barbecue is crazy.”

Texas A&M is not the only university with a barbecue class on the curriculum. Since 2012, Ohio State University has offered “Bar-B-Que Science” through its Meat Science Department in the College of Food, Agriculture & Environmental Sciences. Taught both fall and spring semesters by professor Henry Zerby and associate professor Paul Kuber, it has become one of the most sought-after classes on campus, so much so, the university now restricts enrollment to meat science majors.

Each semester, about 30 students attend the class at the university’s main Columbus, Ohio, campus, and 30 more participate simultaneously via live-stream video at the Worcester, Ohio, campus.  

The class covers equipment, food safety, how to maintain temperatures, determining degrees of doneness, and various grilling and smoking techniques for all types of meat, poultry, pizza, fruits, veggies and desserts on both gas and charcoal grills. Students attend one day of lecture and one three-hour hands-on “lab” each week. For the final exam, the class is divided into teams to compete in a cook-off, with each team preparing a three-course meal on the grill.   

The meat used in the class is raised by the university’s agriculture students, and the grills –10 gas and charcoal models – have been donated by Weber-Stephen Products Company. Kevin Kolman, Weber’s on-staff grill master, serves as chief grilling instructor, traveling to Columbus to help conduct the hands-on labs.

“We are involved because we are interested in building a network of people and inspiring them to barbecue better,” says Kolman. “These students might go on to be farmers or work in the meat industry and through this class they are learning the practical application of how meat is used for grilling and barbecuing. On top of that, this class is just a ton of fun!”

The BBQ Boot Camp at North Dakota State University began in 2008.

The BBQ Boot Camp at North Dakota State University began in 2008 as a way to educate consumers about the state’s agriculture industry, where food comes from, animal welfare, food safety, nutrition and other topics.

“We came up with the idea of a BBQ Boot Camp,” says Dr. David Newman, assistant professor of Meat Science and a director of the program. “If we called it an agriculture program, no one would come, but everyone is interested in barbecue.”

In fact, over 5,000 people have paid $50 each to attend the boot camp, a traveling roadshow that tours the state and far beyond in a 45-ft. trailer loaded with gas and charcoal grills and smokers, and a team of NDSU professors, graduate and undergraduate students who serve as instructors.

Attendees rotate through four stations where they learn about topics such as low-and-slow barbecuing and smoking, high-heat grilling, marinades and rubs, and proper internal temperatures, all sprinkled with lessons on nutrition, food safety and farming. At the end is a feast at which campers can enjoy the finger-licking fruits of their labor.

Countless NDSU students also have attended a shortened version of the program through “Mini” BBQ Boot Camps conducted each year at living/learning dormitories, student clubs, organizations and other on-campus events.

Since 2009, barbecue manufacturers such as Weber, Big Green Egg, Traeger Pellet Grills, and Holland Grills have sponsored the NDSU BBQ Boot Camp, providing grills and other support. Besides having a captive audience for product demonstrations, sponsors are recognized on the trailer and on signage during the camp, and featured in a take-home book each attendee receives.

The BBQ Boot Camp team also works closely with hearth and barbecue distributor Andy Magnotto of Northern Plains Distributing, who helps arrange for area retailers to participate in the camps and explain about the equipment. “The exposure is awesome,” says Newman. “They have sold many grills as a result.”

An outdoor class at BBQ Boot Camp.

Extra-Curricular Barbecues

Beyond academics, there are also plenty of extra-curricular opportunities to barbecue on campus. A growing number of schools such as Goucher College in Baltimore and George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, provide grills outside of dormitories for students to use. Other schools, such as Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, and Rio Hondo University in Whittier,

California, have barbecue social clubs where members meet to learn recipes and techniques, offer catering services to other on-campus organizations, and simply have fun cooking outdoors.

The University of Denver Grilling Society hosts barbecue tailgates for students before hockey games. The Terrapin Grilling Club at University of Maryland, the self-proclaimed “biggest provider of fun times and free food on campus,” participates in competitions, festivals and charity fundraisers.

Since 2002, one of Washington, DC-based Georgetown University’s most popular social clubs is the Georgetown University Grilling Society. The club hosts a cookout every Friday, weather permitting, and is open to students “who love to grill, want to learn more, share their knowledge with others, and have a good time.” The club was named “Outstanding Student Organization of the Year” and Kingsford Charcoal recognized it with a “(Char)coal for Christmas” donation of a year’s supply of free charcoal last December.

But arguably the largest student barbecue club is the Buckeye Barbeque Club at Ohio State University. The group, which boasts 350 members and the motto “Grillin’ and chillin’ since 2006,” is the largest and fastest-growing student organization on campus. Its mission is to “interact socially, learn about barbecue culture, enjoy great food, experience organizational leadership and give back to the community.”

The Buckeye Barbeque Club has its own fraternity-like house – the “BBQ House,” has been featured on the Big Ten Network and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and set a record for the longest-running barbecue, cooking 24 hours a day for seven straight days.

While preparing for this world-record attempt four years ago, the club forged a relationship with local hearth and barbecue retailer Rob Schenz, owner of the Specialty Gas House in Columbus, Ohio. What started as a request for a discount price on propane has evolved into a mutually beneficial bond that extends well beyond a typical customer relationship.

Schenz helps the club repair their grills, and gives them discarded “perfectly good used grills” his grown-up customers want him to cart away after he has delivered new models. Schenz also helps judge the club’s annual Steak Cookoff. In return, both current and alumni club members have been “guest chefs” at the retailer’s in-store grilling classes. Several students represented the club at the store’s recent 10th anniversary celebration, and a number of them even volunteered to cook and serve barbecue at Schenz’s son’s high school graduation party.

Although college students have notoriously small budgets, Schenz sees the relationship as an investment in the future. He has sold a few grills, including a Big Green Egg and an MHP gas grill to recent graduates.

“From a business owner’s standpoint, these are smart kids who love to barbecue. The day will come when they have a house and don’t want a grill from a Big Box store, or maybe they’ll want a fireplace,” he says. “They’ll want good quality products like I carry and they’ll know they can trust me.

“But really, it’s not about any potential business,” he continues. “They are great kids, very respectful, honest and hardworking,” says Schenz. “We have a great relationship.”

Students say learning about barbecue and graduating with pitmaster skills under their belts might have more “real world” applications than any other classes they take in college. And, as Professor Savell likes to remind them, “If you learn to cook barbecue, you’ll always have friends.”

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