World barbecue champion Luke Darnell talks cartoon pigs, done temperatures, and popped tires.
Morgantown native Luke Darnell started barbecuing as a kid, spending hours with his friends tending a smoking hole in the ground at their parents’ summertime pig roasts. “When smoke would start coming out of the ground, we’d have to take a shovel and cover it. We didn’t know our parents did that so they could sit around and drink beer all day.”
Later, after moving to the Washington, D.C., area, he joined a competition barbecue team. After a few years without much success, his wife and best friend suggested Darnell start his own team. “They saw I had a passion for it. Here we are 5 years later.” He founded Old Virginia Smoke in 2013 and, by 2016, he was named World Barbecue Champion at the World Food Championships in Orange Beach, Alabama. Darnell was also named the 2017 Carolyn Wells Barbecue Ambassador by the Kansas City Barbecue Society.
Look for him on June 15 and 16 at the Almost Heaven BBQ Bash, held at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston.
“When we started this team, we were trying to figure out what the name would be. My brother, who still lives in Morgantown, he’s kind of a creative genius. He said ‘You’re not going to have a cartoon pig.’ The barbecue world is overrun with cartoon pigs. He came up with ‘Old Virginia,’ because it used to be one state, plus it includes my background—born and raised in West Virginia and now living in Virginia.”
“After we had our first season as Old Virginia Smoke, we decided we were going to go all the way in. We cooked every weekend between Christmas and May to learn the meat, our smoker, to learn about ourselves. It’s hard work and practice and dedication.
“Your goal is to have the most consistent product from week to week. Then you can start making changes until you find that sweet spot—different flavor changes, adding a little heat, trying out different temperatures for tenderness. You’re constantly tweaking because you can constantly make it better. That’s the best thing about barbecue. There’s a thousand different ways to get where you need to be.”
“You can make small changes but you don’t want to do anything drastic. There are certain things that are going to work in certain places. If you go into the New England, they like a little maple syrup. If you go into North Carolina, you’re going to go with more vinegar.”
“Cook it ’til it’s done, that’s the number one thing. They say pork is done at 145, but you’re going to cook butt ’til it’s 198. It sounds like it’s overcooked, but it’s not. You’ve got to break down that connective tissue.”
“The barbecue family is supportive. It’s people from all different walks of life. Some of our best friends in the world are barbecue people. You break down on the side of the road, or you’re traveling a long distance and need something, someone from the barbecue community is going to help you. Last year I popped a tire and we were in the middle of Illinois. I pulled into this parking lot and, all of a sudden, this guy pulls in. A barbecue guy. He’d seen me limping up the road and stopped to make sure I was all right. Everybody could take a page from that.”
interviewed by Zack Harold
main photo by Jessie Fleischman