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Flash in the Pan

Carnivorous slow food, Knucklehead style

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It’s time to get serious about meat. Flesh food is a sacrament to some, a sacrilege to others, and some don’t even think about it at all, they just eat it. But either way, the ancient rite of carnivorous pleasure makes you party to a kill, resonating with ethical, health, and environmental overtones. Ultimately, one’s personal relationship with meat is a path we each choose differently. Meanwhile, the autumn air whispers into omnivorous ears that it’s time to start boning up on yang energy to leverage against the impending cold dark. This article will be the first of many wide-eyed forays into the world of meat.

It started when Pouncing Doom called me with the scoop. Pouncing Doom, DJ Truckstop, Federal Agent and I braved rush-hour traffic down the Bitterroot, towards Knucklehead’s BBQ. We took Highway 93 to Florence, then the East Side Highway for five miles, until we spotted the “Knucklehead’s” sign by the rail car on the left, next to a greenhouse. Knucklehead’s custom smoker apparatus stood proudly in front of everything, a cross between a locomotive and a cast-iron skillet.

We walked past irises, hollyhocks, and petunias to the rail car window. And there was Knucklehead himself. I jerked my head toward Pouncing Doom and said, “My friend here says that you don’t mess around.” Knucklehead’s poker-smile was disarming. He said, “Maybe I do and maybe I don’t—and maybe my mama might say differently.”

“This here is Chef Boy Ari,” said Pouncing Doom. “He’s the law in Missoula when it comes to food.” I nodded my head. Pouncing Doom said, “I told him that you’re the real deal.” Knucklehead didn’t flinch. “OK,” he said, “What’ll it be?”

Behind our table, the greenhouse teemed with pepper plants: California Wonders, Red Aces, Jingle Bells, Jalepenos, and Habaneros, non-certified organic. We were buzzed by bees and hummingbirds while the sun slanted orange through puffy clouds above the jagged Bitterroots. The ambiance alone was worth the trip, but there was also my plate of smoked ribs, smoked brisket, red beans, and rice.

The ribs were unbelievably soft and tender and infused with fat. I wasn’t sure which was melting into what, my mouth or the ribs. So too was the tender brisket—no mean feat for what Knucklehead calls “one of the worst cuts of meat on the cow, unless you cook it slow for 12 hours. Then the gristle melts away and tenderizes the meat on the way out.” The pepper-tang barbecue sauce fit the meat like spoons of mayonnaise. The rice and beans had all of the important flavor factors in balance—everything working together for mouthfuls that were consistently prime. As we were Knucklehead’s last customers for the evening (he usually runs out around 7 p.m.), he joined our table. DJ Truckstop handed him a beer. “Knucklehead,” said DJ Truckstop. “What is barbecue?” Knucklehead paused a moment to reflect.

“There is only one way to barbecue,” he said, then corrected himself. “Well, there are a million ways to barbecue. But to do it right you do it slow. I start at 3 a.m.,” jerking his head toward the apparatus.

“Tell us about your apparatus,” said Federal Agent. Knucklehead’s eyes twinkled. “I designed it and my buddy built it,” he said. “It runs entirely on wood. I use applewood right now, and I might make a trip south for oak, hickory, mesquite, and pecan. It’s fun to cook with that thing. I love getting up in the morning and watching it go to work. I can bake, fry, pit barbecue, and smoke fish and sausage, all at the same time while I’m cooking.”

“Tell us about your meat, Knucklehead,” I said.

It comes from Canada, he explained. Although it’s imported, it’s more “local” than the meat from midwestern feedlots. But Knucklehead’s sights are set much closer to home than Canada. He told a story about some Texas ranchers who formed a local marketing cooperative so folks could eat their own local cattle. “The Texan model belongs in Montana,” Knucklehead said, as he outlined for us his plan for organizing a similar marketing network of Montana hog and cattle ranchers.

Bellies full, we made our way back north, pondering what we had just encountered. “It’s his overarching passion and vision,” said DJ Truckstop. “He’s the Stevie Ray Vaughn of barbecue,” said Federal Agent. “He must be the slowest smoker this side of the South Pole,” I marveled. “You could chew the bones on those ribs!” Pouncing Doom just kept screaming “Hell, yeah!” louder and louder as we drove home.

Today’s breaking news story is that after just a few months in business (he opened Father’s Day) Knucklehead is opening a restaurant in Missoula. The grand opening is slated for October. I’m not going to tell you the address, but you will see the sign, his only form of advertising to date. Until then, the drive down the ’Roots ain’t too hard on the eyes. And in winter you’ll want to make the trip too, for Knucklehead’s bright-light greenhouse dining and carnivorous pleasure therapy.

E-mail Chef Boy Ari: Flash@missoulanews.com

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