In 1989, a young John Chaffin, fresh out of the Marine Corps, had a life-changing beef roast made by his father — nothing fancy, just cooked low and slow. He's been chasing that deep, meaty flavor in the kitchen, the grill and the smoker ever since. If you've ever snagged the coveted job of carving the meat for a family dinner and indulged in the furtive pinches of scraps that are its perks, you know what he's looking for. "I always loved those bits," he says, "those little scrumptious bits left on the cutting board."
You might have seen Chaffin and his wife Caroline Chaffin Brooks at their Caroline's TX BBQ [(707) 672-6138] stand at Eureka's July Fourth street fair. If you were wise, you ordered up a half-and-half pulled brisket and pulled pork sandwich, or maybe some ribs with a side of slaw. For now, catering gigs and events like the Friday Night Market in front of Eureka's Clarke Museum are your only chance to taste what they're cooking up.
Chaffin, who grew up in Blue Lake and now lives in Eureka, first met Chaffin Brooks when she was a customer of his at Johnson Auto Electric. She'd moved from Texas to attend Humboldt State University and was working at Blue Lake Casino. He says he'd never have asked her out at the shop, since "business is business," but eventually he drove up to the casino hoping to run into her and invited her out to breakfast. Now the two handle the business together along with their barbecue venture.
The prep for Caroline's TX BBQ all happens at a commercial kitchen but now and then, including the October customer appreciation party, the auto shop's side lot hosts a barbecue with the 400-pound mobile smoker turning out a feast. They even welded up a DIY metal rack for smoking 26 slabs of ribs at a time.
Today they've got a squat stainless steel smoker going amid a handful of cars. The baby back ribs, which Chaffin says are trickier to time than their longer St. Louis counterparts, release from bone with a tug of the teeth and taste of sweet Sunday pork roast with a light smokiness. The brisket wiggles and threatens to collapse as it's transferred to the cutting board. Chaffin leans his cane against a folding table and slices the first third, revealing a rind of translucent fat and dark meat as an errant stream of juice flows to the edge of the board. Even the very tip of the brisket is fall-apart tender and recalls the concentrated flavor of pan drippings. "What I find special about barbecue is the collagen," says Chaffin. "It's what gets people licking their fingers. It's just gold." It's also a point of pride for him that you don't "need to wash it down with a beer."
"I grew up every Sunday doing barbecue and tending to the grill," says Chaffin Brooks, who hails from San Antonio, Texas, and a tradition of African-American family barbecuing. In her neck of the woods, that means Mesquite chips, a simple salt-and-pepper rub, no sauce to get in the way of the pure meat flavor and a side of Wonder Bread. It's hard to argue with that. Still, she and Chaffin offer sandwich rolls and their own tangy sauce to satisfy Humboldt tastes. Do yourself a favor and try it without first.
"John has created the perfect rub and the timing for everything. We work together in that way." He works the grill, she says with a sly lilt, "but I like to butt in and make his life miserable." She typically handles the customers and the register, too. The exact recipe for the three-ingredient barbecue rub, however, is a secret even from her. "He does it by look and feel," she says. But sometimes Chaffin needs more help than others.
When he was serving in the Marines, Chaffin trained at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina. In 2014 he was diagnosed with Waldenstrom's disease, a rare form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma linked to water contamination at the base. The cancer causes heavy fatigue and his hands sometimes seize up. In the years since, he's given up his Harley-Davidson and backed off from the shop. "I've been forced into disability and so I've taught Caroline how to make it work, so she's an equal partner and she makes things happen."
"I'm a family guy," says Chaffin, who married young the first time around and had two daughters, Kelly and Candace, soon after. He only regrets he "worked that relationship away" and acknowledges that he's had to "go back and rebuild" with his kids. These days Chaffin and Chaffin Brooks have plenty of family time, raising Chaffin's brother's kids, now 14 and 11. They've also got three grandkids in town and Caroline's mother Kim Trevillion living right across the street.
At the end of the month, the couple heads to Texas for a big family homecoming — and hopefully to get some recipes and pick up some skills (possibly sausage making) from Chaffin Brooks' great uncle, who ran a successful barbecue joint there for decades. Chaffin is hoping to win him and the rest of the family over with his own brisket, too.
Whether all these accumulated skills and recipes will eventually lead to a food truck or a brick-and-mortar restaurant is still up in the air. In the meantime, you'll see them at occasional events, piling up plates from trays of shredded meat. "It's a family event. We have my mom, my nephew, my niece, whoever else we can pull. We can't do it without everyone," says Chaffin Brooks. "If you don't have family, what do you have?"
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.