No amount of reading or talking to friends can prepare you for your first turn at the barbecue smoker. On Sunday, I smoked my first rack of spare ribs. It wasn’t a complete disaster, but it was a pain in the ass. Here’s the tale told in pictures (with my new digital camera!)

Here’s the new baby: a Brinkmann Smoke N Grill, with a separate wood box.  If you ever decide to buy one of these beasts, do what my barbecue mentor, Jim Shahin, suggested: Have Home Depot put it together for you.

Where was the chimney starter in my youth? With one of these things as a kid, I could have satisfied nearly all of my pyromania without any residual damage to house or garden. Here, I’m merely getting the charcoal ready. It will serve as my base heat source, on top of which I will throw wood chunks, which I have soaked in water.

Many barbecue books suggest saucing the ribs before — and while — smoking them.  This approach produces, by and large, Memphis or Kansas City-style ribs, which I like well enough. But I wanted to smoke my first rack Texas-style, so I opted for nothing more than a simple salt-pepper-cayenne rub. I also removed the membrane on the back of the ribs, which is a bitch.

One of the problems of cooking with wood is the vast amount of smoke it produces. It wafts into the house, into the neighborhood, and into the very pores of your skin. You smell like a forest fire for at least 24 hours. The other problem, as I discovered, is that wood chunks burn faster than money in a teenager’s pocket. I burned through my bag of chunks before the ribs had even taken on any color or smoke. Plus, my barrel temperature just wasn’t staying hot enough. It kept dipping down to around 200 degrees. I wanted to maintained a temperature of about 250 degrees.

As if summoned by the Gods of desperation, barbecue mentor Jim and his wife, Jessica Shahin, made a surprise visit. I had called Jim earlier to see if he and Jessica wanted to come over for ribs (i.e., help me smoke them), but they had previous plans. Fortunately for me, they broke them at the last minute. Once descended from the heavens, Jim quickly assessed the situation and determined I had at least two problems: that I needed a crap load more wood in the firebox (which I kinda figured) and that the charcoal I was using (this Whole Foods hippie natural-wood bullshit) burns very fast, which means that you need to keep adding and adding and adding the stuff to maintain a constant temperature. Or have more split hardwood handy, which I obviously didn’t.

Jim’s suggestion to save the ribs from disaster was to move them briefly from the barrel to the actual firebox, where they would benefit from some high, direct heat. Then, after moving the ribs back to the barrel, he suggested I rip open the Kingsford Match Light Charcoal (which I also had on hand) and fuel that firebox as if I were shoveling coal into the boiler of a steam locomotive.  He also showed me a few tips for controlling temperature when the fire gets too hot.

Jim’s suggestions did the trick. The backyard was starting to smell of dripping fat and grilled pork — and lighter fluid, or whatever the hell Matchlight puts on those coals to make them ignite so easily. So much for my gently smoked ribs. Still, the smells were tantalizing…and not just to us bipeds. Coltrane was ready to eat, too.

The meal was finally ready around 10 p.m., or about two hours later then I had expected. The ribs were passable. They were too salty, the result of my zealous seasoning at the beginning. But they were also a little too chewy; they would have benefitted from another hour on the grill. Of course, my “smoked” ribs would have really been better with, you know, real smoke flavor, too. But at least Carrie‘s side of roasted summer squash was killer.