Apocrypha: Traditions, Myths, & Legends

Flesh and Bone

Meat Smoke Crew, 2001. Left to right (full faces only): Van Havig ’92 (in black and yellow windbreaker), Jim Quinn ’83, Allison Wibby ’93, Bear Wilner-Nugent ‘95.  Photo by Will Morgan ’88

Reed's Meat Smoke tradition dates back to 1985.

By Ann-Derrick Gaillot ’12

Saturday night of Reunions after the fireworks lit up the sky, Reed alumni and friends left the lingering whiff of sulfur only to be greeted by a scent of a different kind—the sumptuous aroma of smoked and seasoned meat. 

Under the cover of darkness, Reed’s venerable Meat Smoke Crew had prepared a feast for the unsuspecting revelers: open-faced, slow-smoked brisket sandwiches. Around their grill, Reedies gathered together in fellowship across the class years. For visitors and guests new to Reed, this communal meal was a happy surprise, but for Reed regulars it was a familiar comfort and reminder of the endurance of the legendary Meat Smoke Crew. 

Reed’s Meat Smoke tradition dates back to 1985, when several students, including George Wehn ’84, Mike Magrath ’84, and Lawrence Miller ’87, fed up with the unappetizing pig burials of Renn Fayres past, offered to take over the operation. In true Reed spirit, they dove into the task armed only with their intellectual curiosity and determination. That Renn Fayre, they managed to cook 1,000 pounds of meat—two hindquarters of beef and 25 turkeys—in an experimental smoker they built themselves from scrap lumber and sheet metal. The job required a crew that could stay up throughout the night in what was then called the Feast Glade, tending the fire, enjoying one another’s company, and welcoming any weary partyer who happened to stumble upon their camp.

Thus began the time-honored Meat Smoke tradition of the all-night watch. “Almost unintentionally, we ended up creating a kind of safe haven, a place to go at night that was warm, where there was a fire and people hanging out,” says Mike. “It was a place where you could come to ground after the craziness of Renn Fayre. It became our hearth.” 

After several years, Bear Wilner-Nugent ’95 took the reins as leader, later recruiting Andy McLain ’92 and Jeffrey “Moose” Price ’03. The three now shoulder the main logistical responsibilities of the operation. 

Today, the crew and their headquarters, Pirate Camp, are permanent fixtures at Renn Fayre and Reunions, and at Paideia, where they teach a meat-smoking class. Their status as a Reed institution was made official at the Reunions ’14 Fanfayre event, when the alumni board honored the crew with the Babson Award, given to members of the Reed community who go above and beyond in volunteer service to the college, and appropriately designed this year as a large clay platter.

Accepting the award, and backed by compatriots decked in pirate bandanas and vintage jumpsuits, Andy explained what Meat Smoke is all about. “Reedies want to stretch the boundaries, test the rules, experiment with dangerous substances like love and sex, loyalty and freedom, philosophy and religion,” he said with a wink. “To be young, and smart, and existing in a tumult of other young smart people! It’s a heady mixture, and sometimes people get hurt or harmed. Meat Smoke isn’t like that. It’s the comfort of a warm fire, and the likelihood of a hot morsel even in the middle of the night. . . . Meat Smoke Crew has a central mission that has nothing to do with meat. It’s about unmediated contact between students and alumni.” And indeed this bonding through the years is what continues to draw new members such as Melissa Lewis ’13, who joined the crew both for its strong sense of Reed kinship and her interest in food justice.

The Babson Award confirms what the crew has known all along: Reed needs alumni to nourish the community and traditions that make the college distinctive. But, like the hard workers they are, the crew didn’t spend too much time patting themselves on the back. Not less than 20 minutes later, they were back at Pirate Camp to prepare the brisket that would go into the smoker (nicknamed “the cathedral”) to be served the next night. 

Camaraderie was as tangy as ever as crew members passed around chunks of pork shoulder, fresh out of the smoker and piled high on the gargantuan award platter. The savory delights disappeared in a flash, leaving behind a swirl of sauce on the etched image of Old Dorm Block.