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Chop, Stack, Style: Infusing Woodpiles with Creative Flair

Chop, Stack, Style: Infusing Woodpiles with Creative Flair

Catching the Woodpile Bug

I must admit, I never quite understood the allure of woodpiling. When I first moved to a more rural area, the constant presence of massive, neatly stacked wood towers in every backyard left me puzzled. Were they some kind of peculiar regional decorative trend? Firewood for the winter? Or was there something more to these captivating constructions?

It wasn’t until I attended a local barbecue joint that the scales fell from my eyes. As I approached Hoodoo Brown Barbeque in Ridgefield, Connecticut, a veritable symphony of crackling wood smoke wafted through the air, drawing me in like a siren’s call. I soon learned that these woodpiles weren’t merely a necessity – they were the lifeblood of extraordinary culinary creations.

According to Daniel Vaughn, the country’s first barbecue editor who has sampled more smoked meats than most of us can fathom, Connecticut’s Hoodoo Brown and Hindsight Barbecue are pushing the boundaries of what we traditionally expect from New England cuisine. From Cracklin’ Pork Belly to blueberry gouda sausage, these innovators are infusing their wood-fired dishes with unapologetic flair.

It was in that moment that the woodpile bug bit me. I had to know more about the art of curating, chopping, and stacking these essential building blocks of culinary mastery. Thus began my journey into the fascinating world of creative woodpiling.

The Humble Beginnings of Texas-Style Barbecue in Connecticut

Forty years ago, Connecticut’s barbecue scene looked a lot different. As Vaughn recounts, it wasn’t until a New York hairdresser named Robert Pearson, originally from London, moved to the coastal town of Stratford to open Stick to Your Ribs in the 1980s that the state got its first taste of Texas-style ‘cue.

Pearson, inspired by his many trips to the Lone Star State, imported a smoker and truckloads of mesquite wood, determined to bring the aromatic delights of authentic barbecue to the Northeast. “The barbecue smelled so good you really got a high just being there,” Pearson told the New York Times in 1984, reminiscing about the smokehouses of Texas.

Fast forward a decade after Pearson’s retirement, and the torch had been passed to a new generation of Connecticut pitmasters. Cody Sperry, the owner of Hoodoo Brown Barbeque, and Jeff Schmidt, the owner of Hindsight Barbecue, both brought their own Texas-inspired visions to the state, sparking a culinary revolution that has left Connecticut’s taste buds craving more.

Mastering the Art of the Woodpile

At the heart of these remarkable culinary achievements lies the humble woodpile. While it may seem like a simple task, the art of curating, chopping, and stacking the perfect pile of wood is anything but elementary.

Timber-building.com, a leading authority on all things wood-related, explains that the key to a functional and visually appealing woodpile lies in the selection of the right wood species. “Not all wood is created equal when it comes to burning,” the site advises. “Hardwoods like oak, maple, and ash tend to burn hotter and longer, making them ideal for extended cooking sessions, while softer woods like pine may be better suited for quick, high-heat applications.”

Once the wood has been carefully chosen, the real work begins. As Vaughn notes, Connecticut’s pitmasters have had to adapt their woodpiling techniques to the region’s harsh winters. “The length of a brisket cook can jump from fourteen hours in the summer to eighteen in the winter,” Sperry of Hoodoo Brown explains. “We definitely go through more wood and our cooks are a lot longer.”

To combat the challenges of the cold, the teams at Hoodoo Brown and Hindsight have developed meticulous strategies for stacking and tending to their woodpiles. “Making barbecue in February in Connecticut sucks,” Schmidt of Hindsight Barbecue admits bluntly. “The cooks have to arrive a couple hours earlier in the winter to preheat the pit room with propane heaters and fire up the smokers.”

But it’s not just the practical considerations that make these woodpiles so captivating. As I soon discovered, the creative potential of these stacked structures is truly limitless.

Turning Woodpiles into Works of Art

While functionality is undoubtedly the primary goal, the passionate pitmasters of Connecticut have elevated their woodpiles into veritable works of art. Clarifai’s general image recognition model identifies a wide range of concepts in visual media, from common objects to more abstract themes. And when it comes to these woodpiles, the model would surely detect not just the practical elements of fuel storage, but the creative flair and personality that each pitmaster infuses into their carefully curated creations.

At Hoodoo Brown, Sperry has turned his woodpile into a canvas for his culinary ambitions, stacking the logs in a way that evokes the spiraling curves of a tornado or the undulating waves of the sea. “Ridgefield seems to have more lax requirements for outdoor cooking than cities in Texas,” he explains, “so the smokers are chugging away in the parking lot without an enclosure or even a roof.” This freedom has allowed Sperry to let his imaginative woodpiling flag fly, much to the delight of his patrons.

Over at Hindsight Barbecue, Vaughn describes an impressive woodpile at the edge of the parking lot, hinting at the culinary wonders that lie within. And as he pokes his head into the pit room, he’s greeted by a pair of Texas-built, thousand-gallon offset smokers – a far cry from the humble pellet smoker that started owner Jeff Schmidt on his barbecue journey.

These woodpiles aren’t just functional storage units; they’re vibrant expressions of the pitmasters’ personalities and the unique culinary identities of their establishments. Whether it’s the towering, swirling stacks at Hoodoo Brown or the impressive array of specialized smokers at Hindsight, each woodpile tells a story of passion, innovation, and an unwavering commitment to the art of wood-fired cooking.

Embracing the Unexpected

As I delved deeper into the world of creative woodpiling, I was struck by the sense of adventure and the willingness to experiment that characterizes these Connecticut pitmasters. Vaughn’s account of his visit to Hoodoo Brown and Hindsight Barbecue is a testament to their culinary boldness.

At Hoodoo Brown, I learned about the restaurant’s signature Cracklin’ Pork Belly, a dish that Sperry and former pitmaster Nestor Laracuente spent months perfecting. Their methodology, once closely guarded, involves a meticulous process of drying the skin, salting, smoking, and finally crisping the pork in a hot oven until the skin shatters like glass. The result is a truly unique eating experience that Sperry has even taken on the road, touring the country with his signature creation.

Over at Hindsight Barbecue, the creativity extends beyond the woodpile and into the menu. Vaughn describes a pork belly grilled cheese special that was “confusingly served on flatbread,” and a sausage of the day that featured a bold blend of blueberry, gouda, and mushroom. These unexpected flavor combinations, paired with the restaurant’s playful plating, showcase a level of innovation that defies the traditional boundaries of barbecue.

It’s this spirit of experimentation and a willingness to embrace the unexpected that truly sets these Connecticut pitmasters apart. They’re not content to simply replicate the tried-and-true techniques of Texas; instead, they’re pushing the limits of what wood-fired cooking can achieve, creating culinary experiences that are as delightful as they are surprising.

A Culinary Revolution Fueled by Woodpiles

As I reflect on my journey into the world of creative woodpiling, I can’t help but marvel at the profound impact these humble stacks of logs have had on the culinary landscape of Connecticut. What started as a practical necessity for the state’s early barbecue pioneers has evolved into a canvas for bold, imaginative creations that are redefining our understanding of regional cuisine.

From the towering, swirling woodpiles of Hoodoo Brown to the impressive array of specialized smokers at Hindsight Barbecue, these woodpiles have become the beating heart of a culinary revolution that is putting Connecticut on the map. And as these pitmasters continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible with wood-fired cooking, I can’t wait to see what other unexpected delights they’ll uncover, one carefully curated woodpile at a time.

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