Pastor’s smoking habit pays off

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The Gospel reading that morning was the perfect precursor to an afternoon spent cooking 400 pounds of chicken over a hot grill: "I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!"

In fact, the orange flames of the grill at St. John the Beloved Church in McLean had been burning for hours, thanks to the Knights of Columbus and the pastor, Father Christopher J. Pollard. The food they prepared was served at the parish party for the Assumption of the Mary. "It's a solemn picnic of obligation," joked Father Pollard.

Hosting barbeque dinners on solemnities has become a tradition for the social parish. "We have coffee and donuts every Sunday, (so) it seemed weird that on a Holy Day people just come to church and leave," said Father Pollard. "(This is) helping people spend the whole day celebrating the feast."

But picnics at St. John the Beloved have something most parishes don't: large quantities of home-cooked meat. Father Pollard's own love of smoking meat has now become a parish pastime.

The holy smoker

Father Pollard first began smoking when cooking his own meals as pastor of St. Isidore the Farmer in Orange. Because the meat takes hours to cook, "you can just hang out," said Father Pollard. "It's social, it's easy. ... And it's just good. It's way better than what you can buy, when you do it yourself."

His love of smoking came with him when he became pastor of St. John the Beloved in 2014. Before church events, he would spend all night smoking the meat. Before the March for Life one year, Father Pollard was making brisket for the Ave Maria University students who were sleeping at the church. An overstuffed smoker left him with a burnt hand and a five-day stay in the hospital.

As a result of the "Ave Maria explosion," Father Pollard and several of his friends chipped in to buy the commercial smoker they use today. "Now we have a good dozen guys who know how to run this thing, (so instead of just me,) six of us pull all-nighters and I get a nap," he said.

For a typical St. John party, the church will cook anywhere between 700 and 1,000 pounds of meat, which they buy from a restaurant depot. "(It) makes Costco look like Trader Joe's," said Father Pollard. This May, Father Pollard and McFadden barbequed for the ordination reception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, feeding 700 people. "That was awesome," he said.

For the Aug. 14 celebration, they prepared hickory smoked bratwursts and grilled chicken slathered in white barbeque sauce. Making tasty meat-filled meals has become a point of pride for the Knights. "(This is) Father Pollard's holy smoker," said Grand Knight Lloyd Miller. "Because of him, it's a reputation we have to maintain."

Evangelization through digestion

The St. John's Knights of Columbus council re-formed just two years ago, and now is one of the fastest growing councils in the commonwealth, said Knights member Ed McFadden. Smoking is one of the ways they've revitalized.

Every first Friday, the Knights take the night shift for Adoration. Meanwhile behind the school, other Knights are smoking pulled pork, which is then sold on Sunday morning. "Father's almost made this a ministry," said McFadden. "It gets the men involved … (and all) those funds go to support the parish."

When the Knights started out, none of them knew anything about smoking, they said. "We've learned firsthand from the expertise of Father Pollard," said Knight Sean Malone. "A lot of grilling is one thing, but grilling mass quantities, that in itself is a great experience-builder."

As with any cooking, all the right elements have to come together to make the perfect brisket or pork or ribs. It takes the right cut of meat and the right rub, smoked at the optimal temperature for the right amount of time. "We must've gone through maybe six smokes before we got it perfected," said Miller. "It's a lot of work."

The crew starts early Friday morning and will cook about 30 pork butts for 30 hours straight. From the heat box, smoke snakes through the main chamber and out the smoker's chimney. The men sit nearby, chatting with one another and making adjustments to the fire or to the vents. It's all about trial and error - and getting that perfect airflow.

More than a delicious pulled pork sandwich, the men enjoy the camaraderie of their smoking buddies. "We have a good group of guys. It's a strong brotherhood," said Miller.

"It's evangelization through digestion," said Malone.

Di Mauro can be reached at zdimauro@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @zoeydimauro.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016