Ron Judd

A giant leap for grill-kind

Artificial intelligence finds a home in smoked-meat locker
August 25, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.
A pork butt slumbers in digi-barbecue splendor on a Bellingham back deck, prompting columnist Ron Judd to wonder: Has AI finally found a home in smoked meat?
A pork butt slumbers in digi-barbecue splendor on a Bellingham back deck, prompting columnist Ron Judd to wonder: Has AI finally found a home in smoked meat? (Ron Judd/Cascadia Daily News)

Executive Editor

The traffic backup started a couple weeks ago, around 5 p.m. on a Saturday.

Unlike the usual Bham jams — deep lines of maroon Subarus with bike racks big enough to have their own ZIP code stacked up at interminably fixed traffic lights (patent pending: City of Bellingham Public Works) near interstate freeway on-ramps designed in the Henry Ford era — this one was a string of only four or five small-wheeled vehicles, each with a black cover. 

Serious grill jam. Out on the back deck. 

Before we get to the (sorry) meat of the matter, a couple admittedly feeble, face-saving qualifiers: This jam has been a couple of decades in the making. It is the result of the combined forces of evolving barbecue technology (did we go to the moon for nothing? No, we did not), an expanding culinary palate, and, naturally, a personal cling-on heritage — my genetic predisposition to never get rid of anything because, duh, I might need it someday.

photo  They each have a purpose — sort of. A small collection of grills, some old and refurbished, one fancy and artificially intelligent, combines to form an embarrassing life moment — and traffic jam — for their meat-centric owner. (Ron Judd/Cascadia Daily News)  

Unlike its shoddy predecessors, the fancy new grill, a Traeger Redlands (a Costsco version of the Traeger Ironwood 650) is wood-pellet-fired and all-electronic. As I maneuvered it into position, my spouse had a look of feigned disinterest, tinged with scarcely masked disapproval. I could see the wheels turning: At least it keeps him outside for consistent stretches of time. 

Ha. She didn’t know about the Wi-Fi/phone app function, which puts the once-tedious chore of stoking a fire to a certain temperature, and then maintaining it for six to 12 hours, literally under one’s thumb, from any location, anywhere. It is as close as one can come to barbecue-induced nirvana, assuming it all works (cough, cough). And if it doesn’t, what’s the worst that might happen? (Homeowners’ policyholder, please stop reading here.)

The phone app allows one to be semi-dozing in an armchair and grilling at the same time — yes, a glimpse of heaven for some of us. In fact, one can dial up a recipe for, say, slow-roasting a pork butt, hit “play,” and conceivably walk away for an entire day, trusting a digi-chip to ensure a perfect bark and smoke ring (if you know, you know) by day’s end. 

Serious voodoo grill magic. If it works. 

I had to try. 

For the test, I dialed up the website of a personal barbecue guru, Malcom Reed, an XXL Southern guy who rarely steers the ‘cueing crowd into a ditch. He had his own personal technique for grilling an 8-10 pound pork butt overnight, unattended, in a pellet grill, with a few more hours of finishing touches applied the following day. 

Being a slave to the groove of local news, that “half-day” part didn’t fit with my work schedule. So I improvised, swapping “all day” for “overnight.”

Before leaving for the office one morning, I rubbed up a big pork butt with spices, plopped it into the chamber of the new grill, set it to 200 degrees and drove off. Any problems, I surmised, would be made known to me via various grill-app alarms. And I could eyeball the internal temp of both grill and meat all day long, hitting the kill switch in any unfortunate event. 

Second legal disclaimer: This is probably not a good idea, for obvious reasons. I did have a (skeptical) second person at home during most of this time, fire blanket in hand.

Throughout the day, I conducted my usual daily newsroom duties — deep, thoughtful edits of stories, making various dad jokes, fetching sandwiches, nodding approvingly during meetings — while keeping one stealthy eye on my pork butt, roasting happily away at 200 degrees across town.

OK, not entirely stealthy. At one point, sharp-eyed assistant editor Audra Anderson caught me peeking and gave me the what-in-the-world-are-you-doing look to which I am well accustomed.

“Uh, checking on my grill,” I said sheepishly, busted.

Eight hours later, I made an excuse to leave early and drove home to find the butt in perfect deep-bark slumber. Following Reed's advice, I dialed up the heat, via the phone, to 250, wiggled the internal thermometer and set it accordingly, and went about enjoying my evening. 

And here lies the problem. Artificial intelligence sometimes trumps natural lack-thereof. The weak link in this chain is not the grill but its owner. Over dinner — not pulled pork, still roasting, but a salad, I nodded to the grill outside and quipped: “It’d be just like me to forget about that thing and go out the next morning and find what looks like a charred asteroid.”


And several hours later, I proceeded to do exactly that. Plomping into bed with a heavy sigh, I shut out the light. My wife, thank the gods, woke up long enough to mumble: “How’s your meat?”

Next sequence: Smack forehead, don robe, pad outside in the dark and clumsily pull that big chunk of hog artwork off the grill and drag inside.

Pork pulled, asteroid averted. 

The grill herd must be thinned. But the new one on the end is one small step for barbecue overkill; a giant leap for grill-kind. 

Fourteen hours in the making, the low/slow-cooked pork was perfect. I clearly am not. All things considered: medium well done.

Ron Judd's column appears on Fridays;; @roncjudd

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