It was in Memphis, Tennessee, that Kit Parker first began to think about teaching a class on American barbecue at Harvard. The engineering professor was wandering through a barbecue competition, studying the smokers where entrants had marinated their meat in smoke for hours on end. And he noticed something distinctly odd. “They were the most godawful contraptions you've ever seen.” The junkyard of cobbled-together smoking chambers, of all shapes and sizes and materials, told Parker something important. No one really knew how to build a perfect one yet.
Barbecue, of course, is a word that has two uses in our modern vernacular: a verb meaning to slap some meat on the grill and slather it with sauce, and a noun referring to slow-smoked meat, a staple of southern US states including Tennessee and Texas, where Parker grew up. Aficionados of the latter develop a practical knowledge of the complicated series of chemical reactions that produce the melt-in-your-mouth texture, the crusty exterior, or bark, and the particular flavours of barbecue. This spring semester, Parker, a teaching assistant, and 16 engineering students learned them as well, as a part of a quest to build a scientifically optimised smoker.