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Sunday's Word: Smoke

In effect, this is the final weekend before football season officially begins. Tomorrow, technically, is the first day that Mountain Hawk football players will be reporting to camp, and the 2011 football season ceases to be just a theory.

To celebrate the weekend before I self-embark on yet another Lehigh football season, I decided to do something I've never done before.

That is "smoke" some beef brisket. (more)


My wife and son started the weekend with a trip to Lehigh to catch some of Eagles Training Camp this past Saturday.

As always, it was a lot of fun for all of us. Any worries I had about the Eagles' kicking game, following the departure of PK David Akers to the San Francisco 49ers, were pretty much put to rest after watching the precision kicking of PK Alex Henery in practice. Time will tell if he has the intestinal fortitude to make nail-biting kicks every Sunday, but for this day at least, he looked like the real deal.

The secondary, too, featuring a fired-up CB Asante Samuel looked in fine form after shutting down an ineffecient-looking QB Vince Young. DE Jason Tapp tipped a ball in the air and brought down an interception - and the house was brought down when helmetless QB Michael Vick came up from the sideline to touch him to prevent a pick six.

We also enjoyed the activities around the action - a "balloon helmet", this time, as well as contests, miniature golf, and various Eagles bouncers.

There seemed to be an extra buzz this year around training camp. It could have been due to the end of the NFL lockout, the additional drama of the situation surrounding DT Mike Patterson - where he had a seizure at practice this week - or even just the signing of Young, CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and CB Nnamdi ASomugha and the tag that will now always be assigned to the 2011-2012 Eagles, the "Dream Team".

But the excitement level surrounding the Eagles - the "smoke" before the NFL season officiall begins, if you will - felt off the charts. I estimated that there was more than two times the number of people at Eagles training camp this year compared to last year, when QB Kevin Kolb was the expected starting QB and a more tense Vick was busily preparing for his chance to get back to the spotlight.

It figures. On the final weekend before the focus comes squarely on the Lehigh football program, I go back up to - where else? - Lehigh. To watch some football players practice.

*****

One of my thoughts about live is that at least once in your life, you should make and eat some food that takes more than four hours to cook. I'm not at the point yet where I want to pick out the cow and butcher my own meat, but I took a step closer to that ideal when I decided to buy a tiny charcoal grill and attempt to "smoke" my own Texas style beef brisket.

At many points, though, during the course of my project this weekend, I had doubts that it was actually going to come to pass.

Start with the actual brisket.

Foolishly, I thought getting a 5-6 lb slab of brisket meat at 7PM on a Saturday north of the Mason/Dixon line would be a fiendishly easy task. Instead, I had to embark on a two hour cross-county trek - including stops at four different grocery stores, with my wife calling ahead - to get the proper cut of meat.

After finally getting home well after my son was in bed, I took some basic dry rub recipes, and came up with a proportion that seemed sensible - not too spicy, not too salty, but not bland, either. (While I have some North Carolina roots, I'm a big believer in dry rubs in general on meats. It brings out the taste of the seared meat more than glopping on some BBQ sauce filled with, say, corn syrup.)

After marinating in the refrigerator overnight, I assembled the grill. I took out a metal grill, and said, "Please tell me that this is what the coals sit on." It wasn't.

It turned out that the 5 1/2 pound slab of brisket I had wouldn't fit on the grill. It almost fit - but would have to put foil on the sides of it so the sides of the top of the grill wouldn't touch the meat. Seeing no alternative, that's what I would do.

That wasn't all. I also learned that "smoking" meat isn't as easy as putting charcoal on the bottom of the grill lighting it, throwing in some Mesquite wood chips, and you're done. It turned out I needed a metal drop pan to allow me to do the "indirect" heat method of smoking meat - which, of course, I had neglected to buy.

I found an old glass pie plate. It almost took up the entirety of the bottom of the grill, but there was just barely enough room for me to arrange red-hot briquettes ("championship" briquettes, as per the Kingsford variety I bought the day before) around my makeshift drip pan. But it worked. Barely. I put a pint of water in my "drip pan", and I finally got to "smoking" some meat.

I must have been checking the grill every ten minutes for the next four hours, much to the consternation of my wife and son. First, there'd be plenty of "smoke". Then, there would be none, though the coals were still plenty hot and on the inside of the grill it seemed like it was still cooking the meat.

Putting new "championship" briquettes in the grill required me lifting the grill with tongs on the one hand, and sliding them inside the grill - making sure they didn't bounce and land in the water of the drip pan, which was the fate of far too many of the briquettes.

But I thought we'd be still in the clear of having dinner done by 5 O'clock - four hours to "smoke" the meat, then half and hour for the meat to rest.

But then I thought I'd make sure by reading another recipe. This one said to cook the meat for 1 1/2 hours per pound, and then cover the brisket with foil and cook for another three hours

Gulp.

I ran outside, and looked at the brisket. It looked good, and it smelled great. But I put a thermometer in it and it said: 130.

I fired up the gas grill immediately. I needed to get this meat up to at least 150 internal temperature. I had no idea how I was going to get this meat to cook with the "smoke".

After finishing the meat for an hour in the gas grill, the meat finally made it to 150, and I let it rest for a half hour. We made our guests wait an extra hour for the "smokey" Texas style barbecue brisket, but it really was worth it.

Despite being ill-prepared, despite the comedy of errors that ensued, despite the mad improvisation, and despite the fact that it was an hour late, I had delivered a pretty darned good, "smoky" beef brisket.

I'll certainly make it again.  But hopefully, next time, without all the drama.

*****

In some ways, my meat "smoking" adventure shows, in a weird sort of way, the challenges of Lehigh's football team this year.

While it's easy to look at last year's season and see that it was a great success - a 10-3 record, with their only losses coming to CAA schools - looking at the season with a more critical eye sees plenty of room for improvement.

Senior QB Chris Lum ended up with a pretty solid season last year, with 19 total touchdowns, including a great offensive run starting with the Harvard game in October. Yet despite all the offensive success, Lehigh ranked 64th in total offense nationally, and 4th in the Patriot League - the definition of "middle of the road". Yes, the offense has made great strides - but it can't be considered an "elite unit". Not at this point.

And while the defense looks like it will be a strong unit once again, partially thanks to the return of senior LB Mike Groome, Lehigh also loses four senior members of the secondary as well as the curiously-underrated contribution of LB Al Pierce, a heart-and-soul guy on the defense for years.

It's also worth mentioning that despite the great performance last year as a whole, Lehigh largely underwhelmed in the entire month of September. Just like few might have predicted my meat "smoking" experiment would have turned out well when I was running around for hours looking for beef brisket, few thought after a 2-2 September, with two double-digit losses to CAA opponents and two losable games against non-scholarship Drake and 1-9 Princeton, that the Mountain Hawks would be bound for greatness in 2010, including their first playoff win in ten years.

It's abundantly clear that the same recipe for success for 2010 - figure yourselves out in September, miraculously come together in October, sweep through Thanksgiving - won't work in 2011. The bar has been raised, there's no doubt about it.

And starting today, Lehigh fans hope that the high expectations for this team will be justified for the entire season.

Mountain Hawk fans, basically, are simply hoping that the high hopes for this team aren't a lot of hot "smoke".

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