The Shop Dog Diaires: Lavinia’s Life of Fire

In life there is opportunity. The question is whether or not you take it. On March 15, Pat Martin will publish his first cookbook, Life of Fire: Mastering the Arts of Pit-Cooked Barbecue, the Grill, and the Smokehouse, which he wrote with a fellow named Nick Fauchald. We, the shop dogs of Parnassus, are extremely interested in barbecue. We are especially interested in Martin’s Barbecue, and the barbecue sandwiches that come from Martin’s Barbecue sister restaurant, Hugh Baby’s. But while the other shop dogs dare only to dream about barbecue while snuffling around in their beds for the last crumbs of a hard biscuit, I take action. I go to Heather, my shop person, and whine until she realizes we need to interview Pat Martin for the Shop Dog Diaries.

Heather and I sometimes drive to Hugh Baby’s after work and we split a barbecue sandwich in the car. If that’s not living I don’t know what is. I have been with Heather for fourteen years now, so let’s just say we understand each other. She knows the questions I have about barbecue and grilling and meat. Andy, shop person to boss dog Opie, also has intelligent questions. Sparky’s shop person Ann has no questions about barbecue. She is an idiot but she knows how to type.

Lavinia meets her hero, Pat Martin

We are very excited when Mr. Martin, an extremely busy man, comes to the store to sit  with us. To the shop people he smells like any other human, but to me he smells like paradise: high notes of wood smoke and tangy sauce above a strong foundation of slow-cooked meat. He is a major deity to dogs and humans throughout middle Tennessee, and yet he comports himself in a manner both friendly and attentive. He rubs my ears as he speaks. Did you get that? Pat Martin, pit master, Rubs. My. Ears.

We start at the beginning, asking him what meat is best.

“For barbecue,” he tells us, “you want muscle fiber and collagen to cook at a low heat. For grilling it’s the opposite—leaner cuts of meat cooked at a higher temperature.” By leaner, he means less collagen, not less fat. I agree with this. For pork he likes the Boston butt. Like me, he likes ribs of both pork and beef. He’s a big fan of the Santa Maria tri-tip, which he says is the perfect cut for the grill.

At the mention of the Santa Maria tri-tip, Andy lights up like a Christmas tree. Turns out he’s been waiting his whole life to have a meaningful conversation about the Santa Maria tri-tip. I understand this.

Heather asks what to do if you already have a gas grill. Mr. Martin tells it to her straight. “Hire a contractor to take it away. Gas grill companies have done a really good job making us forget how easy it is to grill. It takes fifteen minutes to build a fire. You always hear it takes too long. It doesn’t take too long.” Mr. Martin believes in approaching food with simplicity and then diving deep. This is what his wonderful book is all about: straightforward excellence born of time and knowledge, freshness and quality. His recipe for cooking a whole hog is thirty-three pages long, as well it should be.

Pat Martin in the smokehouse

Everything Mr. Martin serves is prepared on site that day, not just the barbecue. This kindness extends to grinding up the meat for the Hugh Baby’s hamburgers and making the ranch dressing. There are no microwaves in his restaurants, no freezers. I marvel. It would be the honor of any dog’s life to sleep at his feet at night, to get up in the morning and dig and dig in the yard until I have made a pit worthy of fire. And so I want to know, does he have dogs?

“Always,” he says. “There have been so many great dogs in my life.” For a moment we are all quiet, remembering the great dogs that came before. Mr. Martin has two dogs now, Max and Chloe, one who is smart and one who has a great personality.

But can they come to work with you?

He nods, and my heart nearly explodes with joy. “At the office, people bring their dogs if they’re well behaved.”

Look at me! I scream inside. I am so well behaved! The next thing I know he’s talking about how he believes in bones for dogs, not unsafe little chicken bones but real bones, big ones that can keep a dog busy for hours. He says they’re developing a new dog biscuit, and that the shop dogs of the Martin’s Barbecue office get to test them for flavor and quality.

At Parnassus we sell books, the flat, dried out pulp of trees. Not barbecue. Not biscuits. Suddenly I wonder what I’m doing with my life.

But Mr. Martin is here because he has a book, a truly great book, and without this bookstore job we never would have met. He says he’ll remember me. He says he’ll bring me test biscuits. He rubs my ears again. Decent man that he is, he does not ask for my resume, because then I would have to make a very painful choice between Heather and Mr. Martin, between Parnassus Books and a lifetime of Martin’s barbecue.

Please, don’t ask.

Pre-order Life of Fire. Come to the riveting event in which Andy will be in conversation with Mr. Martin on March 15th, the day of publication. This is the manual for what is possible in life, and once we all have copies, dogs and people everywhere will rejoice.

Join us at the store on Tuesday, March 15 at 6:30pm for our event with Pat Martin! Registration is required. Click here to register.

Life of Fire: Mastering the Arts of Pit-Cooked Barbecue, the Grill, and the Smokehouse: A Cookbook Cover ImageLife of Fire: Mastering the Arts of Pit-Cooked Barbecue, the Grill, and the Smokehouse: A Cookbook