Spit ‘n’ polish:BBQ in Kuwait

TAGHKANIC–Town resident John Markus just came back from a military mission that he wasn’t allowed to talk about until a couple of days after his return stateside. But word got out from a neighbor who reported calling him while he was away and being instructed by a message to dial 12 more numbers. Suddenly she was talking to him in Kuwait.

Mr. Markus, the former chief writer and executive producer for “The Cosby Show”, and current executive producer of TLC TV’s “BBQ Pitmasters”, was talking about his recent mission to bring home-cooked barbeque to 3,300 American troops stationed at two bases in Kuwait, the locations of which he was not at liberty to divulge. Mr. Marcus is well-known and much appreciated in the Town of Taghkanic for the annual barbeque cookout he prepares and underwrites as a benefit for the organization Taghkanic Neighbors.

He said the trip was the realization of an idea and the culmination of a story that began with Minnesota Senator Al Franken, the former Saturday Night Live writer and comedian with whom Markus co-wrote the critically acclaimed but short-lived TV show “Lateline”, a send-up of late night television news programs.

During a period of intense work on the show’s pilot, when Mr. Franken, who loves Columbia County, had come here to work, he decided that as a reward for all their hard work, he would cook barbecued ribs according to his grandmother’s recipe.

“They were the worst things I had ever had,” said Mr. Marcus. “It flipped a switch in my brain. I had to find out why they were bad and how to do it right.”

He was soon on a plane to Kansas City, where he apprenticed himself for a time, to Paul Kirk, known as the “Baron of BBQ,” a world champion in this field of cooking. The experience involved cooking with Mr. Kirk’s competitive barbeque team.

At the time Al Franken was doing his daily three-hour Air America radio show and asked Mr. Marcus for ideas.

“I proposed a trip into America in search of barbeque and people who hate Franken who wanted to debate him on the air. Franken loved the idea; they called the segments “Good Ribbin’ with “people who had a bone to pick with Al.”

“I would talk food and moderate the debates,” said Mr. Marcus.

During that time Marcus got to know some of the nation’s legendary barbeque personalities, including Big Bob Gibson and Chris Lilly from Decatur, Ala., and Chris Pope who ran the “All Star Barbeque Showdown,” the first competition barbeque TV show for outdoor life network 2006

“I was suddenly a lot deeper into barbeque culture. I upped my game,” Mr. Markus said.

Mr. Franken, who had done a lot of USO performances during his show business career, suggested they bring barbeque to the troops stationed overseas. That was six years ago, and they had trouble getting it off the ground. The military is understandably reluctant to allow outsiders to cook for troops for obvious security reasons, he said.

But then Al Franken got elected senator in 2008 after a close race finally decided in January 2009. When the senator mentioned his idea to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, things suddenly began to happen. Senator Franken began talks with the USO; it’s a private organization formed during WWII to support the morale of troops that brings stars to entertain at military bases around the world and that provides clubs away from military bases where troops can go to relax while off duty.

Mr. Marcus was able to find plenty of help from major players in the barbeque community.

Ole Hickory Pits Company of Cape Girardeau, Mo., custom built two large restaurant, propane-fueled cooker/smoker ovens on trailers, which retail at $20,000 apiece. They sold them at cost to the USO. Paul Schatte of Head Country Ponka City Oklahoma donated $8,000 worth of spices. The supplies, along with 200 lbs. of hickory and apple wood for seasoning, not fuel, were airlifted by the USO to Kuwait, an expensive endeavor.

“Then I went to the barbeque community and got the gold standard of cooks from across the country,” said Mr. Marcus. Myron Mixon from Undilla, Ga., a three-time champion hog cooker, and Tuffy Stone, captain of the barbeque team Cool Smoke signed on.

They couldn’t serve pork in a Muslim country, so a menu of brisket and chicken was planned. The other hardship was flying. One chef had not been on a plane for over an hour. “Pit masters are like gypsies. They’re highly independent. They travel widely, but on terra firma,” Mr. Markus said. Now they were faced with a 14-hour plane ride. There were some ashen complexions, and several cooks took sedatives.

Another challenge was alcohol deprivation. There was no booze to be found anywhere in Kuwait. But the chefs, used to daily imbibing on the barbeque circuit, “behaved like champs,” he said.

Once in Kuwait and ready to cook, the electricity generated by the base generators proved not compatible with the ovens’ propane igniters. The team had to improvise. To get the cookers ready, although jet-lagged, three of the team stayed up all night feeding wood into the ovens, as 1,400 pounds of brisket cooked low and slow, smoking overnight.

Before the brisket was out of the cookers, the “reefer truck” (military-speak for refrigerator truck) broke down, a potentially disastrous event that occurred just as the sun was climbing and the temperature was rising to its usual 115-degree daytime high. Military food inspectors threatened to shut them down.

Myron Mix, chief cook of Jack’s Old South Competition Bar-B-Que Team with180 grand championships in whole hog, pork shoulder and ribs categories under his belt, stepped in. He told his colleagues: We’re cooking it right now.

“The chicken hadn’t been prepped with the spice rub, and the grills hadn’t been cleaned, but we threw it right into the beef fat and rubbed the spices on while it was cooking,” said Mr. Marcus, who reported that the beef fat made the chicken delicious. Enlisted men and officers helped cook. Soon it was dinnertime.

Mr. Marcus, who brought a documentary crew along with him, is working on a film about the whole experience that he promises to screen in Columbia County. He’s now back at his day job, writing a sitcom for NBC. When asked the theme of the sitcom, he replied, “It’s about three generations of a family that does barbeque.”

He praised his crew of championship chefs. “This mission was driven by their hearts. It was a way for them to say thank you to the troops. Their passion was tangible.”

“On the plane home, they ran up a huge bar tab,” he said. “They all deserved a drink.” 

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