TVWB celebrated its 24th anniversary on June 12, 2022. It’s hard to believe that the website is 24 years old!
Back In June 1998…
- Gas was $1.03/gallon.
- Michael Jordan played his last game with the Chicago Bulls.
- Microsoft released Windows 98.
- Seinfeld had just finished its final season on television.
- Google did not exist as a company.
- There was no such thing as blogs, podcasts, Flickr, or YouTube.
- My hair was mostly brown, not mostly gray…and I had a lot more of it!
It seems like only yesterday that I started on this barbecue adventure. If you’re interested in learning about how it all happened, read on.
Stumbling Into The BBQ Forum
Prior to 1997, “barbecue” was something that I enjoyed eating at Armadillo Willy’s BBQ, my favorite local joint in Los Altos, CA. It was not something I made in my own backyard. In those days, I owned a Weber Genesis 2 gas grill and burned baby back ribs in my own backyard, thank you very much.
In April 1997, I was sitting in my cubicle at Hewlett-Packard when a colleague Duncan “Cam” Engel called me over to his desk. Cam and I and a few other work buddies were regular lunch visitors at Armadillo WIlly’s, probably once every two weeks. “Hey, check out this barbecue website,” he said. It was Ray Basso’s “Kansas City Barbecue Connection” which featured a prominent link to The BBQ Forum. “This post says that a guy from Kansas City named Paul Kirk will be teaching a barbecue class at Armadillo Willy’s next month. Wouldn’t it be cool to learn how to make barbecue?”
Unfortunately for my employer, I spent the rest of that afternoon and a good part of the next day reading most of the archives of The BBQ Forum (something you could actually do back in those days when the forum was only two years old). Up until that time, I had never contemplated making my own slow-cooked barbecue. It was not until I stumbled into The BBQ Forum that I realized that people actually cooked real barbecue in their own backyards and that people participated in barbecue competitions for cash and prizes. So I owe Ray Basso a great big “thank you” for introducing me to the wonderful world of barbecue.
What’s This WSM Thing?
As I read through the posts on The BBQ Forum, a cooker called the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker kept popping up again and again. Not only were people using it in the backyard, but they were also using it in barbecue competitions—and they were winning! I read posts by Mike Scrutchfield and Elizabeth Lumpkin and Jim Minion, all singing the praises of this cooker. These folks became my inspiration and my online teachers. I figured that if this WSM thing was good enough for them, it would certainly be good enough for me. I was already a big fan of Weber products, so all the more reason to buy one.
On April 17, 1997, I went to Barbeques Galore in Palo Alto, CA and bought a WSM for $189. This was back in the day when you had to find a Weber dealer that carried the WSM or was willing to order one for you. It couldn’t be ordered online at places like Amazon.com, they were only selling books at the time!
I brought my shiny new WSM home and committed myself to learning how to barbecue and to taking that Paul Kirk class just two weeks away. And I’m still cooking on that same WSM today. It’s the cooker you see in all the articles I publish here on The Virtual Weber Bullet.
My First Cook
I used my new WSM for the first time on April 19, 1997. I know the date because it’s the first entry in my cooking log. Keeping detailed notes in a cooking log was another thing I learned from people on The BBQ Forum. Click here to download a copy of the cooking log I use.
I fired up the cooker using the instructions in the Owner’s Manual (the first of many mistakes made in those early days) and cooked two slabs of baby back ribs using a commercial rub from the grocery store. I finished the ribs with Armadillo Willy’s barbecue sauce about 40 minutes before the end of the cook.
My notes from those first ribs:
- Good smoky smell and taste.
- Not spicy or salty enough.
- Not enough sauce.
- Get longer matches or a butane lighter.
- Get a small watering can.
- Make sure plenty of charcoal is on-hand.
- Not bad for the first time!
Attending Paul Kirk’s Class
After those first ribs, I signed up for the Paul Kirk class at Armadillo Willy’s and didn’t cook again until the day of the class—May 3, 1997. Chef Paul took his Barbecue School of Pitmasters class all over the United States…all I could think was how cool it would be to hang-out all day in the parking lot of my favorite barbecue restaurant, learning how to make barbecue from one of the best in the business!
The class was sponsored by the California BBQ Association. Frank Boyer was the organizer and John Berwald, founder of Armadillo Willy’s, provided an area in his parking lot and inside his restaurant where the class was held. There must have been 30 students in that 7:00 am to 7:00 pm class, paired up into teams of two.
I learned so much that day. Chef Paul went over the basics of rubs (we each formulated our own signature rub using ingredients provided by the class), how to build a fire, and how to trim, cook, and present all four competition meats. Although I had eaten plenty of brisket and pork butt over the years, I had never seen them “in the raw” much less actually cooked one! Each team cooked a smallish whole brisket, a pork butt, a slab of spareribs, and a whole butterflied chicken, and presented them in Stryrofoam boxes in a mock judging beginning at 4:00 pm. To this day, I’m still not sure how we fit all that meat into my 18.5″ WSM!
It was a whirlwind of activity, and surprisingly my cooking partner and I won a 2nd place ribbon for pork butt in the mock competition! I came away from that class wanting to learn more about making barbecue…but I also learned that day that competition barbecue was too much work for me and I’ve never pursued it to this day.
Beginnings Of A Website
After about six months of WSM ownership, I had a fair amount of cooking experience under my belt, and I’d collected a lot of tips and tricks about how to best operate the cooker. I kept all my notes neatly organized by category in a bright red binder.
One day, as I was leafing through the binder, it dawned on me that I had enough information for the makings of a website. Wouldn’t it be great to put all this stuff online into a single, well-organized site that was dedicated to owners of the Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker? And what about people who wanted to see the WSM before buying it, but couldn’t find one in a local retail store? Maybe I could include photos showing what the cooker looked like and how all the pieces went together.
So, in the Fall of 1997, I started tinkering with a website. I didn’t know much about web pages or HTML at the time, so I thought this would also be a good opportunity to learn some new technical skills. However, I soon got distracted by other things and lost interesting in the website.
Fast forward to May 1998. I was still cooking up a storm on my WSM and collecting information in my now bulging red binder. One day I was browsing several barbecue websites and thought to myself, “I can make a site that’s every bit as good as these.” In the interim, I had acquired more HTML skills, so I felt more sure of my technical abilities. I also felt that the WSM was a fantastic product that didn’t get the attention it deserved from Weber; in fact, it barely got a mention on their corporate website.
With new motivation, I dusted off the web pages that I’d set aside and started work again. I took photos of the WSM with my 35mm film camera and used a scanner to get them into electronic format.
On June 12, 1998, I uploaded the site to the free hosting space provided by my Internet Service Provider, and The Virtual Weber Bullet was born.
The website started out with just four sections, all of which fit on a single floppy disk—with lots of room to spare:
- The Weber Bullet Tour
- Usage Tips & Techniques
- Smokin’ Links
- BBQ Resources
Initially the website URL was www.concentric.net/~callingh until September 1999 when I registered the domain name www.virtualweberbullet.com.
Here We Grow!
From those first four sections in 1998, TVWB expanded to include a cooking section (1999), a discussion forum (2000), a shopping section (2000), and a video section (2007). Today, the site features over 200 articles and videos covering a wide range of topics, including recipes, cooking techniques, usage tips, and WSM modifications.
In 2000, my friend Kevin Kawahara encouraged me to create a bulletin board dedicated to the WSM. While not wanting to take anything away from other forums, I felt that the WSM had a large enough following that it deserved its own place for discussion on the Web. After all, if the Big Green Egg, Kamado, and Klose cookers had their own dedicated forums, why not the WSM?
With Kevin’s help, The Virtual Weber Bulletin Board went live on February 6, 2000. It used Infopop’s Ultimate Bulletin Board software and ran on a server with a Comcast high speed internet connection in Kevin’s spare bedroom. Kevin was system administrator for the bulletin board until June 2004, when Comcast cracked down on bandwidth usage and ruined the nice little arrangement we had going. After a few frantic days of transition, the bulletin board moved to Infopop’s Groupee hosted service on June 9, 2004.
Over the next 8 years, the discussion forum grew tremendously, with over 8,000 registered members and hundreds of thousands of posts. In 2011 and 2012, it became clear that The Virtual Weber Bulletin Board needed to move to a new platform, as the hosted service was not staying competitive with other platforms, both in terms of cost and features. With some help from a company called URLJet, I moved the forums to vBulletin software on a new, more efficient hosting service in July, 2012. In February, 2020, I moved the forum yet again to an even better software platform called Xenforo and that’s the software we’re using today.
As of July 2021, the forum has over 21,000 members and almost 900,000 posts!
But back to Kevin Kawahara for a second…I can’t thank him enough for his generous contributions to our online community in those early days. Without him, the bulletin board would not have happened.
I’ve had the privilege of using TVWB to help charitable causes over the years, and there are three instances that really stand out for me.
The first was working on The Little Red Bullet Project. This customized WSM helped raise $1,520 for the American Red Cross in the aftermath of 9/11. Another was The Two-Tone Blue Bullet Project that raised $1,476 for Florida hurricane victims in Fall 2004. Finally, in 2015, members of The Virtual Weber Bulletin Board raised over $1,900 in cash and grilling equipment to help a fellow WSM owner who was burned out of his home during the Valley Fire in Middletown, CA.
This is the image I saw on television that motivated me to want to help.
On a personal note, I’ve had the privilege of volunteering with Operation BBQ Relief to provide thousands of warm barbecue meals to first responders and evacuees of the devastating Sonoma County, CA wildfires in October 2017. This was especially meaningful because this area was my childhood home and I had relatives in the path of the fires that raged for days.
Something Old, Something New
In the past few years, my focus has been on going back and re-cooking, re-photographing, and re-writing some of the earliest articles on TVWB. I’ve learned a lot over the years, and I would not necessarily do things today the same way I did them 10 or 12 years ago, so a lot of effort is going into updating some of the oldest content on the website.
At the same time, there’s lots of new things to cook and talk about online, and It seems that more people like viewing content as videos instead of reading articles. So I’m in the process of creating and posting more videos on the TVWB YouTube channel.
In 2019, I undertook a massive effort to move all TVWB content to WordPress with a responsive page design. This was important because over 70% of visitors to TVWB do so on a mobile device, so a good mobile experience is critical.
One of the really satisfying things to have happened over the years is WSM Smoke Day. Started in 2005 at the suggestion of forum member Joel Kiess, Smoke Day is held each year on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. On that day, WSM owners barbecue with family and friends, then report back on the bulletin board with their results and photos. It’s great to see the fun that people have in their backyards with the WSM, and it’s amazing to see the scope of participation in the U.S. and many countries around the world.
Another focus in years past has been Q&A sessions on The Virtual Weber Bulletin Board. We’ve had great discussions with the likes of Harry Soo, Jamie Purviance, Kevin Kolman, and “Famous Dave” Anderson. I was also privileged to participate in a Weber Thanksgiving Turkey Q&A on Twitter in 2013.
Since my retirement from high tech in 2013, I’ve been spending 10-12 weekends each year judging barbecue contests around California and have become a KCBS Master Certified Barbecue Judge. I really enjoy greeting WSM owners at these competitions and spreading the good word about TVWB. (I stopped judging contests during the 2020-2021 pandemic, but hope to resume judging in the near future.)
And in recent years, TVWB has reached out to you via Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, as well as through our monthly TVWB News e-mail newsletter to keep you informed about what’s happening with the website!
20th Anniversary Celebration Cake
When TVWB achieved 20 years online, I commissioned this special celebration cake. You can read all about it here and watch this video I made.
Support From People Like You
Today, we live in a world where so many services are available online for free, including web searches, e-mail, photo sharing, video sharing, blogging, podcasting, and so much more. But companies have to pay for the free services we enjoy, and they usually pay for it by selling advertising.
From the very beginning, TVWB has provided you with quality information that is offered free of charge. But there is a fair amount of cost associated with delivering a website that serves up millions of pages a year to hundreds of thousands of readers. I’ve paid for some of that out of my own pocket, but TVWB readers have graciously supported the website by shopping our BBQ Shopping page, by purchasing thermometers at ThermoWorks, by making PayPal donations, and by purchasing TVWB logo merchandise. I want to extend a special thanks to all that have contributed throughout the years!
Gonna Keep On Truckin’
Like I said before, it’s hard to believe that 24 years have come and gone so quickly. Yet sometimes, it feels like I’ve been at this for a very, very long time! Month after month, creating new content and updating old articles. Fixing broken links. Replacing old photos with new ones. I can’t even begin to count the hours I’ve spent sitting in front of my computer creating and maintaining TVWB.
Why do I keep doing it? Certainly not for money. Certainly not for attention, because I’m not very comfortable in the spotlight and prefer to stay in the background. Certainly not for status in the barbecue community, because I’m no expert—I’m just a backyard barbecuer like most of you. Heck, I’ve even been accused of being the “Betty Crocker of Barbecue”—not a real person at all, but a fictitious persona dreamt up by the marketing gurus at Weber.
Well, I’m here to say that I’m not Betty Crocker, and I don’t work for Weber. I am a real person, a humble student of the art and science of barbecue, and I publish TVWB each month because it’s fun. I get a great deal of satisfaction from writing about barbecue. It’s an outlet for my creativity. It gives me a chance to tinker with projects like cooker modifications. It gives me a reason to buy toys like probe thermometers and digital cameras. It’s a way to share my enthusiasm for barbecue and the WSM with others.
But most importantly, I do it because of the e-mails I get from people like you telling me how much they enjoy the website and the discussion forum. How it’s introduced them to the joys of owning a Weber Smokey Mountain Cooker and preparing delicious food for family and friends…making barbecue for a daughter’s wedding rehearsal dinner…winning a ribbon in a barbecue contest…being a hero in your own backyard. Those e-mails make it all worthwhile.
So in closing, let me thank each of you for coming along with me on this 24 year adventure into the world of barbecue. Thanks to those who have offered words of encouragement along the way, and thanks for taking interest in the content I’ve provided over the years. If it weren’t for all of you, there would be no point in my doing any of this.