Smokin' Up A Storm
Feb 25, 2000 03:30 PST
SMOKIN' UP A STORM
by Thayne Smith
North American Hunting Club
An old college professor once noted that the first artists
probably were cave men who drew pictures on rocks with charred
I've often wondered, since being kicked out of his class for
asking silly questions, if the sticks were the remains of some
of the first outdoor cooking endeavors? And, were the cave
dwellers artists at whomping up half a javelina on a spit, or
History books and old college profs tell us a lot about artists,
but they don't waste much time on the fine art of outdoor
However, every culture in the world has outdoor cookery in its
past. It probably started when some neolithic hunter dropped a
drumstick in the fire and found it tasted better than dodo bird
in the raw.
Next, he learned to roast meats over the fire, on a stick, and
that tasted even better.
He learned, probably again by accident, to use fire, smoke and
moisture to cook his meals slowly to a tender, flavorful,
uncharred turn. No doubt it was appetizing, even without
barbecue sauce, which wasn't to come along for some time.
In fact, it is still popular among adventuresome hunters to turn
a roast of elk, an upland game bird or two, a duck, a goose or a
hunk of javelina on a hand-crank spit positioned between two
forked sticks over a hardwood fire.
The secret is in the pre-cooking preparation of the meat or
fowl, and the selection of the wood for the smoking process.
It's too bad I didn't know these things 45 years ago when on a
cross-country hunting trip with a bunch of rowdy friends during
high school days.
We first shot a pheasant, then a jackrabbit, and decided we
should have a primitive-type feast. There are few trees on the
plains of Western Kansas, but we finally found an elm with two
forked limbs, and fashioned a spit of sorts to cook our bounty.
Pheasant and jackrabbit cooked hurriedly over an elm fire,
without salt, pepper or barbecue sauce, are no delicacy, believe
I recall the adventure years later when watching "Gunsmoke," the
old Dodge City show, on black-and-white television.
Marshal Matt Dillon and sidekick, Festus Haggis, were caught in
a storm while on the plains chasing bandits, and had to turn to
nature for a meal. Matt harvested a prairie chicken on the wing
with his rifle (it wasn't an easy shot, of course), and Festus
cooked it on a spit not unlike that which we fashioned of elm.
Matt and Festus didn't say what kind of wood they were using,
but they gnawed and gnashed at the prairie chicken drumsticks,
remarking that it was an "old bird" but "it sure was good."
It was evident that the scriptwriters knew nothing about hunting
or prairie chickens. They're not easy to take on the wing with
a rifle, and everyone knows that even the gravy is tough when
you cook an old one.
My first lessons in smoking meat, and wild game, came in
Arkansas at the age of six, when my folks moved from the Kansas
plains to escape the Dust Bowl.
The Ozark farm they purchased had three outbuildings -- a barn,
an outhouse and a smokehouse. The only running water was in a
creek a mile away. The smokehouse was my mother's "refrigerator"
A small building of six by eight feet or so, it had rough-hewn
side boards, hand-split oak shingles, some shelves on the side,
and earthen floor. It wasn't exactly a carpenter's showpiece,
with enough cracks and holes to let the smoke billow out the
sides. Large rocks were used to form a fire ring, about four
feet in diameter, in the center, and wires extended from the
rafters above for hanging the meat to be smoked. Green oak
chips and chunks were placed on hot coals in the fire ring. The
fire would smoke and smolder for days, until the meats -- rubbed
with an abundance of salt, pepper and brown sugar -- were well
"cured." Most smoking was confined to hams, wild game and fish.
Rabbits and squirrels were plentiful in that part of the world.
They were generally consumed (fried) shortly after being
harvested or were smoked for a few days, then "canned."
With no electricity, refrigeration or ice box, there were only
two ways to preserve meats -- by smoking, or "canning" in a
Canning, in fact, became an important factor in my life on
Christmas Day, 1940. I was 11 years old, and was presented my
first gun -- a gleaming Remington .22 single shot -- and one box
I headed for the woods on our farm, with my dog -- a fine collie
that was excellent at "treeing" squirrels.
A happy and proud hunter and his dog returned with 16 squirrels
four hours later, but my folks weren't too impressed.
Dad, I recall, lectured me considerably while teaching me how to
clean squirrels and "fire up" the smokehouse, and Mother let me
know she didn't appreciate having to "can" squirrels during the
Some credit to the Chinese with the invention of the smoking
process to preserve foods, and the Gauls with the first
Others acknowledge smoking processes developed by Indians in the
Northwestern United States for curing fish and wild game.
The colonists of early America had no refrigeration or means of
preserving meats other than salting and drying, or slow curing
with cook smoke in fragrant smokehouses.
Smoke-cured meats are preserved, but not fully cooked. They
take supplemental cooking, by frying, baking or roasting, before
Today, cooking out of doors and smoking wild game is a favorite
of many North American Hunting Club members.
Some still use the "cold smoke process" of Colonial and pioneer
days for curing wild game, while others enjoy a second-smoking
process -- called "smoke cookery" -- which uses a low fire, hot
smoke and sometimes moisture, to provide a complete job.
Smoke cooking popularity soared two decades ago with the
development of a variety of small smoker ovens for residential
use. They are ideal for the cooking and flavoring of wild game,
upland birds and waterfowl.
Most prominent are the "water" smokers, using propane (or
natural gas), charcoal and/or wood, or electricity as a fuel
source. Made of steal, they employ a water pan between the fuel
source and the meat shelves. The pan provides moisture for the
game being cooked, and catches the juices as they drip from the
Others, also quite prominent, can be used to cure and flavor
wild game meats, but require the use of an oven or microwave to
complete the cooking process.
There are many do-it-yourself smokers in use, too. Some are
modeled after the outdoor smokehouses of old, while others are
made of culvert pipe, hollow logs, wooden barrels, metal drums,
packing boxes, frame and canvas cylinders and old refrigerator
Popular with avid hunters and outdoorsmen are elaborate backyard
smokers made of brick, concrete block and stone, some identical
to home building materials.
Even tiny smokers for indoor use, using wood shavings and chunks
for flavor, are now available.
After all this, you would think that it is easy to smoke-cook
just about anything in the "wild game" category.
Not so. To be a gourmet smoker-cook, you must first remember
that wild game is different, and smoking is an art. It's
nothing like cooking on a stove.
Game, of course, comes in many sizes, shapes and cuts, from
nuggets to quarters. Smoke-cooking wild animals and fowl is
exacting, and it must be done right from the meat to be worthy
of adorning the sportsman's table.
First, you must use a reliable thermometer. They're expensive,
but worth it. Cheap ones will not help. Expert cooks and most
smoker manufacturers recommend internal temperatures of 145 to
225 degrees Fahrenheit for wild game. Follow their advice on
various types of meats, and cook them to the temperatures they
recommend for tastes of rare, medium, or well-done.
Remember, too, that wild game is much leaner than domesticated
animal meats. This accounts for much of the popularity of the
water smoker, because others remove the moisture from fat-free
meat. (Moisture removal is desirable in some cooking, however,
such as the making of jerky from venison cuts). The water
smoker, in effect, lets the meat cook in its own juices.
Water smokers allow for wood chips or chunks to be added to the
fuel source, to create a moist smoke which prevents wild meat
And they're versatile. They become barbecue grills if the water
is removed, roasters if the water and wood are eliminated or
steamers if the wood is removed and the water pan filled.
Some gourmet cooks use other liquids and spices in the water pan
to flavor the wild meat and make sauces or gravies of the
drippings. Favorites are beer, wine, cider, fruit juices or
marinades. Some add herbs and spices.
Often, when the cooking is done, there is some fine brew left in
the pan. It can be spooned over the meat when served, made into
a sauce or gravy, or refrigerated or frozen to use to make soup.
The pan should be lifted carefully out of the unit when cooking
is completed, and the juices poured into a large measure or
bowl. Let stand briefly so fat can come to the surface and be
removed, and juices tasted for concentration and seasoning.
Caution should be used to make sure the pans do not cook dry.
Much of the liquid will evaporate from heat during the long
smoking process, so the level in the pan should be checked
periodically (every four hours is sufficient).
At the same time, it's not good to fuss over the meat or
constantly remove the smoker lid. This allows heat and moisture
to escape and prolongs cooking time.
Another prime ingredient in smoke-cooking perfection is the
selection of the wood used to provide the smoke.
Tastes and choices differ from one cook to the next, and often
depend on the type and texture of game being prepared.
No doubt, every kind of wood known has been tried for smoking.
Some, however, at not good.
The national favorite -- and mine -- is hickory, with mesquite,
oak, fruit woods (cherry, apple, peach), alder, nut woods
(walnut, pecan) and even grapevines being used to add now
Without a doubt, green woods are best. Any dry chunks used
should be soaked in water for at least 30 minutes, and put on
the charcoal or in the wood pan prior to placing the meat on the
grill or rack. Chips are best for food that cooks fast, such as
steaks and chops, quail or dove. Chunks are preferred with
large fowl (turkey, goose, pheasant), roasts or briskets. Some
commercial "chips" appear to be little more than sawdust, but
they work well.)
Here's a brief rundown on the flavors provided by the various
HICKORY: Strong, pungent, smoky. Best for robust food such as
roasts (deer, moose, elk, caribou, pronghorn) and bear.
MESQUITE: Strong, sweet, rich and woody. Best for meats that
stand up to strong taste, including waterfowl, quail, dove,
pheasant, grouse and venison.
OAK: Mellow and fresh. Best for meats with strong flavor, such
as steaks, wild boar, grouse and prairie chicken.
ALDER: Sweet and delicate. Best for thick steaks, javelina and
game birds with light meat.
FRUIT WOODS: Light and lingering. Best for small waterfowl.
NUT WOODS: Sweet and delicate. Best for light-meated game
birds, small waterfowl.
GRAPEVINE: Sweet and tangy. Best for goat, antelope, quail,
A word of caution. Never use wood chips or chunks which include
the bark of the tree or vine, or grass, leaves or moss as a fuel
source. They impart a strong, bitter taste to the meat being
I have never used birch, but understand it is a fine cooking
wood. I've been tempted to try ash and hackberry, but I don't
experiment often when there's green hickory at my back door.
One experience with elm, even in clumsy, boyhood fashion, was
enough. Cottonwood is another prominent plains wood, but it
isn't worth a twit for smoking. It's too soft.
Unusual, and a real surprise, is Osage orange -- the wood of
"hedgerows" which abound in some midwest states and provide
excellent wildlife cover. The Coleman Company, of Wichita,
Kansas, packs a bag of hedge chunks with each of its fine
Interesting, isn't it, that some of the wildlife we enjoy
smoking is afforded protection by the woods we use in their
preparation, after both are harvested.
If you're truly an adventurous wild game cook, be daring,
experiment and try something different once in a while.
For instance, wood chips made from Jack Daniels whiskey barrels
are now available. Their aroma is tantalizing, and the taste
they lend to wild game meat will make a big hit with your
guests, while you enjoy smokin' up a storm.