Alchemy is a chemical transformation of matter through air, earth, fire and water, a process characterized by melanosis (blackening), leukosis (whitening), xanthosis (yellowing) and isis (reddening), also known as nigredo (chaos), albedo (release, daybreak) and rubedo (intensity, sunrise); which means through the language of the opus magnum, alchemy is to cook, and specifically for these words, to smoke meat.
Above is an alchemical furnace pictured in De alchimia (1529) by a fictional/real alchemist named “Geber.” Similar to a melting furnace, the vessel needs to be egg-shaped as the spherical cosmos, similar to a womb where an interactions of elements and matters produces the filius philosophorum, that is, whatever miracle to be created–in our case, it’s a beautiful, red-lined smoked pork belly.
The Weber 18-inch Smokey Mountain Smoker is my alchemical furnace where matter, or in this particular case flesh as in a 3pd pork belly, suffers through the application of heat, moisture, and smoke to become, to resurrect into a delicious experience of meat and fat. Each of the pieces of my alchemical apparatus serves to convert one state of matter to another, to metamorphosize what cannot be eaten into what must because of the wondrous changes which limit microbial growth, halt fat oxidation, in other words preserve, and then via barbecuing create the glorious succulent fiber and tissue of a god-honoring meal. To begin, a bowl and ring hold many compressed blocks of coal dust (wood, decayed vegetation, sedimentary rocks, skeletal fragments) and logs or chunks of local trees such as apple, peach, pecan, mesquite, hickory, set ablaze with sections of the New York Times (devoted follower, but paper is paper once read) and matches. Once the coals and wood start their journey into a “whitening” it’s time to set the central chamber with the water pan on top of the smoking bowl, which now means four elements are in play, and we need the star of the show.
Beautiful isn’t it. The pig feeds people around the world, and pork features in many delicious recipes, especially the belly which offers deep, thick deposits of creamy, succulent fat which protects the meat and provides a compelling, rich flavor. Because the fat is a beautiful work of nature for transferring taste, I lather my belly with maple syrup and honey.
Then, of course, a healthy sprinkling of salt flakes and pepper.
Then into the refrigerator for four hours, which allows me time to further consider the alchemical properties of smoking meat.
This image appears in Carl Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy, which is one of my sources for the nuances of alchemy. From Albertus Magnus’ Philosophia naturalis (1650) the male figure appears in the middle of a circle divided by day and night, in the form of a clock or sundial (or moon-dial) and containing four elements; the circle itself surrounded by symbols of measurement, especially the number of perfection, 10. The union of water, fire, earth and air over a number of minutes, hours within an egg-shaped vessel will result in a divine, mystical being or perfectly smoked pork belly. This means irreconcilables must be united.
This figure from Psychology and Alchemy, vividly portrays the “wedding” of contraries, elements that may be seen as negating each other, but actually whose union is necessary for a meaningful transformation to occur through paradoxes The goal of this is gold.
By virtue of alchemical operations, homologized with the “tortures,” “death,” and “resurrection” of the mystes, substance is transmuted, that is, obtains a transcendental mode of being: it becomes “Gold.” (304-5)
Volume Two of Mircea Eliade’s three-volume work History of Religious Ideas, covers Greco-Egyptian alchemy from texts dated between the third century BCE to the fifth century CE, revealing a detailed journey to a higher consciousness, or in our case, the famous “red-line.”
Also called “pink ring” and a “smoke ring,” the distinct band forms when meat is barbecued and the release of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) from the organic matter burning dissolves into nitrous acid at the meat’s surface, which is then absorbed into tissue which in turn becomes nitric oxide and interacts with myoglobin to form pink or red molecules (big thanks to Harold McGee for this information). There it is above in some recent pork shoulder I smoked using pecan wood. Time for alchemy.
Pecan wood from Uncle Will’s Woodyard.
Briquets and pecan wood (earth) with fire.
Water with flesh from the Whole Foods butcher on Waugh.
Beer and book. Adelbert’s Brewery is one my favorite craft delights, especially The Philosophizer, and when I saw Hibiscus Saison, I just had to try–hoppy, many citrus and floral notes, and a bit tarty. Lovely to drink while contemplating alchemy and smoke over the course of four and a half hours, which leads to this.
A saturated, golden-brown, caramel color with distinct striations along the side.
Like looking through layers of rock into the earth’s past. I believe we’ve arrived at the Philosopher’s Stone. Time to slice.
Now we can eat as is or place between toasted bread, or as I eventually will, settle a slice or two into taco shells with smoked shrimp and slaw.
Next time, I’ll pursue alchemy with a cow tongue; until then, here’s The Platters singing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Bon Appétit!