Time passes strangely when there's nothing to do and nowhere to go. In the haze of trying to work from home, trying to care for kids, trying to read the news, trying not to read the news, trying to keep in touch, trying to be alone, the minutes pass in a steady, tedious drip, while whole days disappear into a shapeless fog. Is it Monday? Saturday? Only the screeching arrival of the garbage truck distinguishes one from the other.
To give form to formless days, last week I decided to attempt to smoke a brisket without a smoker. Brisket comes from the chest of the cow, and can be difficult to get just right. Made up of a wide, flat section with a knobby bulb on one end, it's filled with fat and connective tissues, meaning it must be cooked low and slow. It's a task that requires a long stretch of empty time and few distractions to keep you from monitoring the meat—a perfect assignment in the age of coronavirus.
I started with a 14-pound cut from The Butcher's Block, a Sarasota shop that has stayed open during the COVID-19 pandemic but is encouraging customers to call ahead with their orders to help maintain social distancing. Inspired by a guide to smoking brisket on a Weber grill published by Texas Monthly and guided via text and Facebook message by pitmaster Mark Gabrick of Gabrick Barbecue in Austin, Texas, I came up with a rough plan.
On Friday, the day before the big smoke, I rubbed the meat with a bit of oil and salt and pepper, wrapped it in foil and left it in the fridge overnight. The next morning, as soon as I had a cup of coffee in my hand, I wheeled our Weber into our backyard and lit a small fire on one side of the grill. The brisket went on the other side, fat down, with a thin foil barrier on one side to prevent that part of the meat from getting too hot. I plopped the top of the grill on, arranged the holes on top over the meat to pull the smoke in that direction, grabbed a book and my coffee, and sat down to wait...and wait...and wait.
It was strange, but not in the way all these recent days have been strange. On a typical Saturday, I feel cooped up after the work week, eager to visit the Sarasota Farmers Market or meet up with friends. This Saturday, none of that was an option, and so I just sat there in the backyard all day and did nothing but read, gaze at smoke curling up through palm fronds and salivate while daydreaming about dinner. It felt good in a way that no day had felt since my wife and I began working from home, and since school and daycare closures left our kids trapped at home, too.
At dinnertime, I pulled the brisket from the cooler where it had been resting for several hours and set it out on the counter to rest for another hour. The meat had developed a dark bark, and the scent of smoke filled the kitchen. The hot afternoon had faded to a cool evening, and my wife and kids and I decided to eat in the shade in the backyard. The texture of the meat didn't approach that of the best brisket I've ever had, but the flavor was exceptional. Served with red wine, mashed potatoes made by my wife and two sons, and simple steamed broccoli, it was the best meal, and one of the best days, I've had since the pandemic began.
A side benefit: I've discovered the joy of brisket leftovers. Sunday night, we ate brisket sandwiches with sautéed onions and freshly grated horseradish. On Monday, we ate sandwiches again. On Tuesday, how about brisket tacos? That's one way to mark time passing: seeing your brisket leftovers shrink day by day.