If you build it, they will come.

By M Shelly Conner
June 03, 2021
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homemade smoker article cover image Shelly Conner
Illustration by Meredith Digital Design

Relocating from Chicago to central Arkansas was a welcome change in many ways. The Southern temperatures meant a longer gardening season for my wife and I as we planned to purchase land and homestead for the first time. Our 2018 arrival in Arkansas was punctuated by a relentless slew of food recalls and the quick deterioration of all of our rock salt-eaten machinery. Within weeks as the summer temperatures climbed, we witnessed the literal bottom drop of our firepit, our truck and the handmade barrel grill that I'd used for 20 years.  

I grew up in a family of southerners whose gardening and cooking practices migrated with them from the South and spread across the country. My mother barbeques every New Year's Eve in the dead of Chicago winter. Those willing to disabuse themselves of stereotypical imagery of grillmasters will find that anyone willing to invest patience and attention to the layers of barbeque craft can excel. When I found an older Black man selling homemade grills on the westside of Chicago for an affordable price — a drum that looked like it had a former life as another product — it felt like home. It felt like my mother's grill which previously served as an old cylinder water tank. 

After my grill rusted through, I was faced with several options to replace it. The renewed popularity of these particular grills made from 55-gallon steel drums meant that individually crafted ones were cost prohibitive, while the big box store look-alikes were merely retro in design and inferior in craft. Sandwiched between the food production industry that privileges quantity over quality and food marketing focused on insta-prep technologies, I wondered if I could make my own grill by repurposing one of the inexpensive 55-gallon drums readily available in my new home state. And if by doing so, from design to manufacturing, how it would inform my relationship and process of barbequing. 

shelly conner building a homemade smoker from an oil drum
Credit: Courtesy of Shelly Conner

I combed YouTube for drill-build videos combining characteristics based as much on my grilling style as keeping in mind my nascent DIY skill set. There was a learning curve. Not only had I never cut metal but I had never operated an angle grinder, the tool used to do so. Three days into the build, I learned that the drum that I had successfully stripped of paint, halved, and drilled hardware holes into had been used to store chemicals. I hadn't entered this process of investing in organic farm-raised meat and building a grill only to poison my family with its use. I wiped away tears of frustration and started over with a food-safe drum. 

inside of a homemade smoker made from an oil drum
Credit: Courtesy of Shelly Conner

My previous grill did not have wheels so I included them in the new build. Adding new charcoal and wood to a hot grill can be risky; so I fabricated rails inside of the barrel where trays of charcoal can slide into and out of the grill through a hinged door on the side. Including the three days spent on the first drum that I had to discard, it took a week to complete. I constructed the grill as a direct reflection of my grilling practice such that it performs as an extension of myself. It certainly has character. That is to say, it's more cool looking with literal sharp edges than sleek, defining its own aesthetics. But it performs beautifully and  frees me to focus entirely on the farm fresh organic meat, my custom spice rub, and my homemade barbeque sauce. 

Homemade smoker on wheels
Credit: Courtesy of Shelly Conner

The first meals prepared on the grill were as ambitious as the build. With about 800 square inches of grill grate, I tested it by preparing several meats. I used a chimney starter to prepare the charcoal. A neat trick for wine enthusiasts is to store and soak corks in a jar, covered with at least 70 percent isopropyl rubbing alcohol. In lieu of paper, light a cork in the grill and place a charcoal-full chimney on top of it. It'll be smoking in no time. I spread the hot coals on the fire grate, keeping them on the side opposite to the smoke stack. This allows the smoke to travel across the length of the grill before exiting the stack. The inaugural meals consisted of a dry-rubbed smoked Boston pork butt. 

Because I designed it, made every cut, drilled every hole, the grill is upgradeable to the heights of my imagination and limited only by the pace of my growing DIY skill sets. I'm currently connecting it to a smaller water smoker via an aluminum dryer vent hose to create an offset smoker function. I'm still in the troubleshooting stage. 

Great barbeque can be achieved on any grill, but the best and most memorable experiences are usually tied to people and places with deeper connections to their food and their grills. Whether setting up a grate on bricks or fabricating a steel drum, an unparalleled intimacy occurs between the building and the cooking that can't help but be reflected in the food. It tastes like home.

M Shelly Conner's Smoked Pork Butt Recipe

I'm fortunate enough to have spent time soaking up life and grilling advice on my cousin James Eatmon's King of King Barbecue food truck in Memphis, Tenn. Although I don't use his rub, I've learned that a good one is simply a harmonious blend of your favorite flavors and aromatics. You can't go wrong with salt, garlic, onion, pepper, and spice. 

Ingredients

1 (3 pound) pork butt roast

For the dry rub

  • yellow mustard (enough to bind the rub to the meat)
  • 2 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon chipotle powder (I grind dehydrated smoked jalapeño peppers into a powder)
  • 1 tablespoon coarse black pepper

For the BBQ sauce 

  • 2 cups ketchup
  • 2 cups dark brown sugar
  • ½ cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1 cup unsulfured molasses
  • 1 cup canned tomato sauce
  • ¼ cup hot sauce (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tablespoons garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon yellow mustard
  • 1 tablespoon chipotle powder

For the smoker

  • ½ cup apple cider vinegar
  • wood chunks for smoking

Directions

  1. Wash and pat dry pork butt. Coat meat with yellow mustard.
  2. Combine kosher salt, garlic powder, onion powder, chipotle powder, and black pepper in a bowl.
  3. Liberally season all sides of the pork with seasoning rub. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour (preferably overnight).
  4. Whisk all sauce ingredients together in a large pot over medium heat. Bring to a boil. Stir often until the sauce thickens. Reduce heat to simmer for about 15 minutes.*
  5. Prepare the grill by placing hot coals on one side of the fire grate and a pan of water with ½ cup of apple cider vinegar on the other side. I also add wood chunks that were soaked overnight in water. When temperature holds at 250 degrees F (120 degrees C), place meat on the rack above the water pan on the opposite side of the coals.
  6. After 4 hours, wrap the meat in foil and continue to smoke until internal temp reaches 165 degrees F (75 degrees C) and pulls apart easily. Serve with homemade BBQ sauce.

*Sauce can be made ahead and stored refrigerated in a mason jar.

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