When I was growing up in suburban New Jersey, the Fourth of July was always a huge holiday for my family. I can remember going to a parade in the morning and then having a little barbecue back at my grandparents’ afterward. Celebrating America’s Independence was always a happy time.

As I grew older, I took over planning the festivities, which turned into a yearly Fourth of July party that took on epic proportions. The menu and the number of kegs were extensive, but how could they not be when the party always officially started at noon-15 and finished when everyone remaining passed out? Preparations, particularly for the overwhelming amount of meat, took place days in advance with dry rubs and marinades that would have made Bobby Flay sweat.

The day itself of consisted of three grills all going at once. The gas-powered one was for the quick stuff, like burgers, hot dogs and sausages. The extra large brick fireplace was powered by charcoal and cooked all the bigger cuts of meat such as pork loins that appeared to be from some sort of prehistoric pig. Finally, the vertical smoker cooked the ribs, the brisket, and the pork shoulder low and slow throughout the day. The food came in waves all afternoon long and the experience was amazing.

To truly do this grill justice, I decided to recreate one of my epic all-day BBQs. I invited back some of the old crew, savvy veterans of mass eating and drinking that would appreciate the classic menu enhanced by a new wood smoker twist.

But as I got older, the parties with menus that included all-day cooking became too taxing to manage. Being married and having younger kids put extra demands on the cook, like serving the food quickly, and smoking meat for longer periods of time became unrealistic.

That is until a forwarded email entitled “Timely BBQ Season Story” came my way. Inside it, a question from my editor, “Do anything for ya?” filled the body. As I read the email from Traeger Grills that extolled the virtues of wood (insert your own lewd joke here) I was reminded of days gone by, when cooking low and slow was the norm.

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With a chance to relive my twenties staring me in the face, I immediately responded with “Ummmmmmmm yeah. Looks awesome. Sign me up.” Traeger was happy to send over a test model, and so began my new love affair with their top seller, the Lil’ Tex Elite ($700, traegergrills.com).

To truly do this grill justice, I decided to rekindle my youth and recreate one of my epic all-day BBQs. I invited back some of the old crew, savvy veterans of mass eating and drinking that would appreciate the classic menu enhanced by a new wood smoker twist. The chosen day turned out to be rather drizzly, but with a brand-new grill in the backyard, my enthusiasm was hardly dampened.

jalapeno-poppers

I wanted to run the gamut and really test out the versatility of the Lil’ Tex Elite, so I put together a menu that contained a variety of items including: honey bourbon BBQ wings, bacon-wrapped jalapeno poppers, a pulled pork pizza, an espresso rub-encrusted bottom round roast, grilled vegetables and even cornbread muffins.

Some of the recipes I pulled right from the Traeger Grills Cookbook, and I used their prepackaged rubs, which proved to be quite tasty. The others, like the pulled pork pizza, I came up with on my own. Either way, it is definitely worth reading the cookbook that Traeger provides prior to using the grill for the first time, if for no other reason than to get a better idea of the temperature and the cooking times for everything. Having only used an old-school vertical smoker in the past, my knowledge of how to use this hefty piece of machinery was limited, and the cookbook proved very useful from that perspective.

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I should also mention that there’s a bit of a learning curve when it comes to the temperatures and cooking times. In an attempt to try to get all this food cooked and finished within the day, I basically used one temperature for everything, 350 degrees, which seemed to be the most common temperature based on my research. This ultimately worked fine but to do things a little better, I would lower the temperature a little and extend or shorten the cook times depending what I was preparing.

That said, I found the Traeger Lil’ Tex Elite super easy to use. Firing it up was as simple as pouring the wood pellets into the box on the side of the grill, turning it on to heat up, and then setting the desired temperature.

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Having done all of my prep work with the food prior to the arrival of my guests, being able to just put the food on the grill and let it sit for a specified period of time left me much more relaxed and able to entertain. For an avid gas griller like me, this notion of “Set it and Forget it” is somewhat unheard of, unless you are Ron Popeil, and it was a welcome relief for a cook who often feels forgotten while standing at the gas grill alone. In the case of the Traeger, I was able to socialize with my guests and visit the grill at appropriate times to check on and remove food from it.

The food itself all turned out pretty great. An overwhelming smoke flavor was something I remember vividly from my old vertical smoker, and not everyone appreciates that taste. For this event, I used the oak pellets, which imparted a mild oaky smoke flavor to all of the food, a subtle influence that proved a nice addition to all the food.

wood-fired-pizza

That includes the cornbread muffins and the pulled pork pizza, two items that I was nervous about doing on a smoker but that turned out to be delicious. In fact, the pulled pork pizza, complete with my homemade honey bourbon BBQ sauce was widely regarded as the best-tasting item of the day.

Overall, my experience with my new Traeger Lil’ Tex Elite was a positive one. It brought me back to days gone by and the ease of use and taste of the food left me wanting to fire up my new Traeger grill again the very next day. In other words, whether you’ve never grilled with wood pellets before or are itching to spark a smoking flame you dreaded was all but burned out, I highly recommend picking one up.

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Photos by Steve Mazzucchi