Dr. Kit Parker is a professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Harvard, where he teaches courses on the mechanics of nanotechnologies, systems fabrics, and barbecue.
The Southern-born smoked meat enthusiast launched a class on the science of barbecue this spring as part of an ongoing quest to build the best smoker possible through data and computer modeling, becoming something of a barbecue hero for wonky science lovers and pitmasters alike.
Parker spoke with First We Feast about his barbecue tours of the South, the troubles with the Big Green Egg, and how he gave students the most delicious final exam in Harvard history.
What’s your background?
I grew up in the South—Birmingham, Alabama—and lived all around in Texas, Georgia, and Tennessee. I grew up eating good Southern cooking. I never realized what a great cook my mom was until I got older and realized not everyone ate as well as we did. Her mother had been famous for her cooking. [My grandmother] started a cake-in-a-can company during World War II called “Sandra Cakes” (after my mom) for soldiers overseas.
My other grandmother whetted my taste in barbecue. We used to buy our barbecue at a lumber yard. I always thought that was unusual until I started preparing for this class, but then it all made sense. The wood you smoke with is so important, and who would know more than the people running a lumber yard?
I got a PhD in applied psychics and spent 20 years traveling the world in the Army, all the while eating different foods. I like to eat and I can really put it down. I really enjoy a good buffet line. I get after it.
Photo: Eliza Grinnell/Harvard SEAS
What was the inspiration for your class?
I was in Memphis in January 2012 for the Liberty Bowl, and in the parking lot before the game they had the Barbecue Bowl. I was walking around looking at the contestants and these smokers [they were using] were basically pieces of junk. I was thinking, “How is the world did it get to be like this?” They were basically variations on a trash can. It dawned on me that we haven’t really converged on a universal way to best smoke meat.
I spent three years visiting barbecue joints across America, mainly avoiding chains. I’d go and get the pitmaster to talk with me. I realized that if you’re going to do a smoker, you can’t do a smoker that’s so hi-tech it disrupts the social ritual of smoking.
When you talk to barbecue aficionados [and] they have 20 years of experience—it’s an art form. For amateurs, though, if you want people to be able to smoke a pound of brisket and really be a barbecue hero to all of their friends, you have to dummy-proof it.
Food—barbecue in particular—is an art and a cultural catalyst for building friendships and reinforcing families.
The idea is that you can use the science to expand the cultural ritual of barbecue and sharing a meal together with friends. Food—barbecue in particular—is an art and a cultural catalyst for building friendships and reinforcing families.
How did the technology begin to develop?
Apps are really how we interact with the world today, and the more pitmasters we talked to, the more I realized that we were going to have to have an app to control this.
The big issue is [figuring out if people] can people invest 16 hours in babysitting a smoker. It’s challenging for people to do. If you can turn the smoker into an entertainment device with an app, though, that’s a different story. You download this barbecue app. You say, “Hey, come over Saturday and watch the game! The brisket will be ready at halftime.” Through the app, people can actually watch the meat get smoked so they’ll know when to start making their potato salad or fried okra.
What piece of meat did you focus on?
When we talk to pitmasters, the piece of meat with the most issues for smoking was brisket. The point of the meat has a lot of fat in it and a lot of marbling, and the flat [of the meat] is absent of a lot of marbling. You can’t really cook it the same way.
Also, wood selection. A real pitmaster knows that wood is extremely important. We decided to tackle brisket and build a smoker. We needed feedback control, because the only way to control the chemistry in the meat is to control the slow, slow heat.
How did you approach it with Harvard?
I told the dean I wanted to teach a course on barbecue and he looked at me like I’d lost my mind. “You want to teach a class on barbecue at the engineering school at Harvard?” When I described the problem, though, everyone got it. There are hundreds of chemical reactions inside the brisket, and you’re trying to control fire, which is one of the biggest engineering problem since the beginning of mankind. There are so many engineering problems rolled into one.
I told the dean I wanted to teach a course on barbecue and he looked at me like I’d lost my mind.
Then, the question became if I could pull it off in a 90 day class with a bunch of 20-year-old kids who don’t know squat about barbecue. If it wasn’t a serious challenge, someone would’ve done it before.
How did the class go?
We smoked a lot of meat—nearly 250 pounds of brisket—over the course of the class. These students hadn’t ever smoked before. We worked with a Big Green Egg first to learn how to smoke, and were often out there smoking in -7 degrees, black out conditions, in Boston at 2:30 a.m. on a Saturday.
These students hadn’t ever smoked before.
I got certified as a Kansas City Barbecue judge, and the only rules we put on the kids for building the smoker is that it had to adhere to Kansas City Barbecue competition rules. You had to be able to take it to a competition and smoke with it.
What scientific methods were used?
We used thermal imaging devices to measure what was happening in the smoker and to measure what was happening in the fire and meat. We’d take data from there then use computer models to record all the difficulties we had with the Big Green Egg. There were a lot, but mainly a hot spot if you didn’t build your fire exactly right. We used the models to build the ultimate smoker, which is shaped like a coal-tower nuclear plant.
Through the winter we smoked, designed, and ran computer simulations. While we cooked over 200 pounds of real meat, we’d use computer simulations to smoke it again and tackle any problems. Every brisket we smoked, I’d grade it according to Kansas City Barbecue rules—mostly taste and texture. We were very careful to record how much fuel we used, how much moisture was lost out of the brisket. We made lots of measurements on this—every wood chip, every piece of charcoal. We tried different rubs. We took a very sophisticated, scientific approach. We had old time pitmasters come in and talk, we had Nobel Prize winners in chemistry come in and talk about the science of wood. No one ever said no. Everyone loved that the class was exploring one of America’s oldest culinary rituals and all wanted to be involved.
Maybe I should’ve kept a diary when all this started.
What was the final exam?
We threw a big barbecue for everyone! That was one of the biggest things, planning a big meal for over a hundred people using engineering approaches. We had to smoke briskets one at a time for four days around the clock non-stop. We realized the key to the right texture of barbecue is temperature control.