I am hopelessly addicted to smokering. For years I was deep in denial, pretending that my obsession was just a relaxing activity that felt and tasted good without hurting anyone. Nevertheless, I was recently compelled to face up to the fact that I need help. Bad.
Last week, I started making some phone calls. At length I reached a person whom I will call Nat. He listened to my halting confession and reassured me that he hosted a support group for people just like me. He invited me to the group’s next meeting which was scheduled for the following night. I hung up on him, panicked by my self betrayal. That night, though, as I thrashed in sleepless turmoil, I came to realize that Nat’s support group might be the last barrier between me and insanity.
It was only 3.2 miles to the support group’s undisclosed location, tweaked into 29 circuitous miles on my odometer by the time I finished trying to lose anyone who might recognize me. It didn’t help that I drove past the place four times before I had the courage to actually park my four-wheeler and get off.
I slouched down a set of cracked concrete steps and knocked on a basement door until it was opened by a man silhouetted against the yellow light within. He smelled of smoke, and his eyebrows were missing. Instinctively, I knew what had happened to them–they had been singed off. Wordlessly he stepped back and motioned for me to enter. As he did so, I could see the burn scars on his forefinger knuckle. I felt a twinge of camaraderie. Could it really be that someone else in the world thought oven mitts were for sissies? Hope stirred within me. It had been a long time since someone who knew about my problem had not looked at me as if I were a pervert. With a ragged sigh, I stepped inside.
“Are you Nat?” I asked Absent Eyebrows.
He shook his head. “Bob. Nat’s in there.” He jerked his thumb toward the dull murmur of voices. Panicked, I turned to run, but Bob laid a hand on my shoulder. “Weber,” he said. That single word pierced my heart and I collapsed into his arms, blubbering. For the next few minutes, I couldn’t see very well through my tears, but I heard footsteps and low, reassuring voices. Firm but gentle hands guided me until I felt myself being eased into a chair.
As the blur began to clear I became aware that I was seated in a circle of faces, and that all eyes were on me. A plump, bespectacled gentleman smiled at me.
“I’m Nat. Welcome to Smokerers Anonymous. Why don’t you give us your name and tell us why you’re here.”
“My name is George, and I’m addicted to smokers.” The relief at admitting that out loud to other humans was palpable.
“Hello, George!” chorused the group acceptingly. I almost began to cry again.
Nat explained that no-one was going to condemn me. In fact they were all proud of me for having the courage to be there. I could join in the discussion or not, whatever felt comfortable for me. He asked who would like to start.
Bob put his paw in the air. “I guess you all figured out by the way I smell that I had me a relapse. Over the weekend I went to Wal-Mart and saw me this irresistible little Hibachi. I bought a plastic storage bin to hide it in, which I told my wife was for organizing the garage on Sunday, like she’d been pesterin’ me to do. I couldn’t think of anything but that Hibachi, until my wife left for the hairdresser. Then I drug it out, wrapped me some mesquite chips in a perforated foil packet and smoked me some kabobs. The bad thing is that I can’t make myself feel sorry.”
Nat clucked sympathetically. “I’m so glad you felt safe enough to be honest, Bob. What’s our motto, boys?”
“Just one smoker’s all you need,
Any more would smack of greed.
Though your taste buds crave burnt wood,
Doesn’t mean your fam’ly should!”
“Now what else could Bob have done,” Nat prompted, “when he felt the urge to spend money on another smoker that he didn’t need?”
“Suck on a piece of charcoal,” someone piped up.
“Burn a toothpick on the kitchen range and snort the smoke.”
“Drop a hot coal down the front of his shirt.”
Nat beamed. “Great answers. I see you all have been using your coping tools. Let’s not forget the disastrous results of allowing our addiction to take charge.”
A shriveled up little fellow name tagged Clarence nodded fervently. He was draped in an apron mottled with barbeque sauce stains “Yeah, like what happened to Morton.”
The guy next to me whispered an explanation. “Morton ran out of cottonwood chunks, so he tried smoking a moose brisket with some old pressure treated wood scraps he had laying around. They found the whole family sitting around the table mummified from the toxins in that treated wood. Didn’t even have to embalm them.”
I connected with this group on a visceral level. I felt I could trust them with my marinade drenched secrets. I raised a hand. “I need some help, guys. This thing just has a grip on me, and I don’t know what to do. During the winter months I get to thinking I have it licked, but about the time the Nenana tripod collapses, the desire comes back with a vengeance.”
“That’s good, George. Let it all out,” crooned Nat.
“It all started when I was a little kid in Moose Hole. I was walking by an Athabaskan elder’s smokehouse. His wife was just taking some salmon down from the drying poles. As she stepped out of that smokehouse that day, like a specter materializing from the billows of alder smoke, she smiled at me and held out the succulent amber meat, smoked on the skin. If I had known what I know today, I would have turned and ran until there was no more breath in my lungs. But I didn’t.
“She tore off one of several strips joined at the tail and handed it to me. ‘You like smoke fish? My daughter, he get them in fish wheel, out Tommy Creek. Eeeee, so many! Big one too!’ Tentatively I reached out and touched it. I expected it to be slimy, but it was firm and slightly tacky. It had been deeply scored at one inch intervals, so I pulled off a cube and touched it to my tongue. Oh the bliss! I had never felt such ecstasy! In one instant, all my cares were gone. I sucked that chunk of smoked salmon into my mouth so fast, I nearly bit my finger off. As I snatched the rest of the salmon strip, like a wolf cub, tearing at a gut pile, she cackled. ‘You like! You help me pick berry, I give you more.’
“That was it! I was hooked. I spent hours picking berries and cutting moccasin patterns out of moose hide, just for the chance to get my daily fix of smoked salmon. As time passed, along with the elders, the smokehouse began to fall into disuse. I needed to satiate my craving elsewhere. The stuff in the supermarket cost a neurosurgeon’s years salary per ounce, and wasn’t pure. The dealers had obviously cut it with fillers. It didn’t even taste like salmon. It tasted of pure salt. Nothing I bought could replicate that first experience with alder-smoked, Athabascan-style smokehouse salmon.
“It became clear to me that my only remaining option was to try to smoke my own. That’s when I began my affair with smokers. My first boxy little Luhr-Jensen, wasn’t big enough to smoke a whole salmon, but it cranked out great chicken and shrimp…and burgers to die for. I began to lay awake at night inventing exotic marinades and brines.
“The snare tightened around my neck as I lost myself in the quest to create a unique taste that would thrill the palate. I discovered combinations that didn’t work. Never mix Thai fish sauce with fresh squeezed grapefruit juice and eggnog, for instance. Once I had pushed my sauces past their practical limit, I began experimenting with wood and game combinations.
“Cherry? Good with Dall Sheep. Not recommended for muskrat. Mesquite? Excellent with ptarmigan or moose. Awesome with squirrel. Doesn’t help lemming or lynx. Hickory? Great bold flavor that can even make fall grizzly palatable. Diamond willow? A good caribou cold smoke. Not bad with halibut. Spruce? Tolerable if you don’t mind your meat tasting like turpentine. Birch? A sweet smoke that goes well with snowshoe hare or King crab. Old creosote fencepost? Leaves a distinctively nuanced aftertaste especially great for serving to visiting in-laws and IRS auditors.”
Nat interrupted me. “Yes, yes, but we don’t need so many graphic details. We’re trying to recover here.” I noticed that Bob was drooling all over the front of his shirt, and that Clarence was chewing holes in his apron where the barbecue sauce stains were. “Would you simply share with us when you first realized you had a problem?”
I cleared my throat. “Sorry. My wife first noticed it last spring, when the diverted floodwaters of Jarvis Creek filled up the lower levels of my house. I was delirious with happiness. Because the flood had ruined the compressor motor in our little upright freezer, I now had an excuse to convert it into a smoker. My wife found this weird at the time, but it wasn’t until this week during a trip to Fairbanks that it became obvious even to me.
“What did Lowe’s have on display, but an entire section of grills and smokers? Without thinking I began fondling them and poring over price tags. I couldn’t stop myself! I had a beautiful smoker at home which I had spent months building from my old freezer shell, my shed was full of grills and smokers of all shapes and descriptions, and here I was craving another one. I tell you, guys, I’m beyond hope. Guys? Guys…Hello? Where’d they go?”
The room was deserted. Outside I heard the squealing of tires. I ran up the steps just in time to see Nat and Bob playing crash-up derby in the driveway, trying to beat each other to the street. Nat was leaning out of his window shaking his fist at Bob. “I’ll be at Lowe’s before you’ve cleared Tenderfoot Hill, you lousy so-and-so!”
“In your dreams!” Bob screamed. “I hope all the smokers are gone before you get there, and you have to stand behind me in line watching me pay for the last smoker grill they have in stock.”
I just shook my head, and trudged back down the stairs. At the bottom lay the trampled remains of Clarence’s apron. It smelled of hickory smoke. I sat down on the bottom step and began eating it, blissfully.