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Where There’s Smoke

Nevin Martell | March 22, 2024

People | The Cooking & Culture Project

Grab a fork (no knife required) and head to MiKayla Emanuel’s house

Sometimes you have to look back to understand where you are. That’s certainly the case for MiKayla Emanuel, a passionate pitmaster who works as a nighttime production manager at Hormel Foods.

She was born and raised in Adams, Minnesota, a small town of just over 600 people, 5 miles north of the Minnesota-Iowa state line, 15 miles southeast of Austin and 100 miles south of Minneapolis-St. Paul. She is one of four siblings; she has two older brothers — Ryan and Marcus — and a younger sister, Kendra. Her father, Terry, worked as a trucker; her mother, Rhonda, was a bank teller.

MiKayla Emanuel

As a youngster, she and her siblings enjoyed going on summertime daytrips with her dad in his big rig. “Our favorite part was to go take a nap in the back,” she says. “We thought it was so cool there was a bed in a vehicle.”

When he wasn’t out on the road, she sometimes helped him smoke meats for family gatherings and community cookouts. He was a pitmaster supreme. “Brisket, prime rib, chicken; you name it, he could smoke it,” says MiKayla.

However, he wasn’t the best teacher because, “He always said his recipes were measured with his heart, not kitchen utensils,” says MiKayla, though he did drill into her the technique of spritzing the meat with apple juice every 45 minutes to ensure it never went dry.

Despite the lack of true tutelage, the father-daughter sessions ignited MiKayla. “I fell in love with smoking,” she says. “Just watching raw product turn into something that falls apart and tastes so good. It brings family around, and everyone talks about it.”

While the meats were smoking, there was no chitchatting or lollygagging at her house. It was all about multitasking. Her father kept her busy, usually doing yardwork.

I fell in love with smoking, just watching raw product turn into something that falls apart and tastes so good. It brings family around, and everyone talks about it.

MiKayla Emanuel

Starting around age 10, her chore list expanded when she took on cooking dinner for the family. Initially, she made a lot of hamburger-macaroni dishes and spaghetti. One weekend, her father showed her how to make his meatloaf, a mix of beef, eggs, saltine crackers, ketchup, brown sugar and some seasoning. It wasn’t so much a recipe as a methodology. That lesson pushed her to start seeking out new dishes to try, helping to expand her recipe repertoire.

Though her father did most of the cooking, her mother had her own specialties. Her Swedish meatballs are a family favorite. When MiKayla asked for the recipe as an adult, her mother demurred. “She always says she’ll share it when I’m older, and I’m always saying, ‘Mom, I am older,’” says MiKayla. To be fair, her mother has given her recipes for several desserts, including peanut butter pie, cheesecake and apple pie.

This was the irony of MiKayla’s family. Her father didn’t have recipes but was willing to share his knowledge (he passed away in 2021). Meanwhile, her mother does have recipes, but is often unwilling to share them.

While attending Southland High School, MiKayla took her culinary know-how to another level. She worked as a cook at Bubbles Café, a homey diner in Adams that specializes in hearty comfort food, like burgers, fried fish, chicken sandwiches and generous wedges of pie. “I loved the work and building relationships with the regulars,” says MiKayla. “If you liked someone, you’d give them extra french fries. I always loved seeing the smiles on people’s faces when they were done eating.”

There were two other important influences in her life at that time: the open-fire cooking she did on camping trips with her grandfather and her church, and the years she spent participating and competing with 4-H and the National FFA Organization. The former helped cement her love of making food, especially when it got kissed by smoke, while the latter deepened her interest in agriculture.

After graduating high school in 2016, she chose South Dakota State University in Brookings, largely because of its high-quality agriculture program. And there was another benefit. “I really wanted to get away from home and experience being four-and-a-half hours away,” she says.

I loved the work and building relationships with the regulars.

MiKayla Emanuel

Initially, MiKayla’s sights were set on becoming an ag teacher, but she soon decided she didn’t have the patience to teach children. Casting about for an alternate career path, she enrolled in several meat-science courses. “I really liked the science behind the processes that result in delicious dishes,” she says. “That was an eye-opening experience for me.”

The class that clicked the most was devoted to teaching the science, methodology and benefits of added-value products. For their final project, MiKayla and her classmates created their own product. She chose to make chislic, a beloved bar food in South Dakota. Usually cubes of mutton, lamb, beef or venison are deep-fried rare to medium-rare, then sprinkled with garlic salt or other seasoned salt, and served with saltines on the side, though sometimes fries are subbed in. Working with cubed steak, she dusted the well-browned beef with loaded baked-potato seasoning — a fun play on meat and potatoes.

After earning her degree in animal science, she began her career at Hormel Foods where the 26-year-old now oversees the production of dried sausages, the world-famous SPAM® brand and marinated meats. Outside normal responsibilities, she has helped the Inclusion & Diversity Committee organize potlucks so colleagues can share food reflecting their heritage. For her contribution, MiKayla once made a hot dish with potato nuggets or tots, an epic casserole tipping the scale at 10 pounds that was made with layers of ground hamburger, cream of chicken soup, cream of mushroom soup, peas, sweet corn, green beans, cheese and a finishing layer of attractively arranged tots.

It’s super cool seeing our products on shelves because we see it from Stage 1 all the way to a finished product, such as a can of SPAM® classic.


Another gratifying part of her work happens when she’s off the clock and on a grocery run. “It’s super cool seeing our products on shelves because we see it from Stage 1 all the way to a finished product, such as a can of SPAM® classic,” she says. “It’s even cooler seeing people getting excited about our products, putting them in their carts. That’s what keeps us going every day.”

Smoking continues to be a passion for MiKayla, one that’s earned her no small amount of renown in her family. Ribs are her signature dish. Rubbing them with olive oil until they glisten, she sprinkles on her favorite brand of BBQ rub and marinates them for a day. She then cooks them at 220 F for four to eight hours, spritzing them every 45 minutes with apple juice, just like her dad taught her. She knows they’re ready when they’re fall-off-the-bone tender and juicy as all get out.

Another treasured favorite in her arsenal are burnt ends made with cubed pork belly tossed with avocado oil, spices and honey. After four hours in the smoker, the meaty nuggets almost shatter when you bite into them, unleashing a savory-sweet-umami rush of flavor. “They’re divine,” she says. “Just the best.”

MiKayla loves playing around with her smoker, often using it for unexpected dishes like lasagna. Another time she used it to bake a peach cobbler. And then there were the cookies that ended up in there. “You took a bite and felt like you were camping,” she says of the latter.

Some people like to use smoking as a timeout from their other duties. But old habits die hard. MiKayla and her husband, Andrew, are renovating their home in Blooming Prairie. “I’ll be in the middle of tearing down a wall and have to take a pause to spritz my meats,” she says. “I’m still multitasking.”

Another passion she indulges during smoke sessions is woodworking. MiKayla handcrafted her kitchen table, plus a coffee table, end tables and toy boxes. “I just like to be in my garage, smelling all that I’m doing,” she says. “You can smell the meat cooking and the freshly cut wood.”

All in all, life is good. “I love every minute of what I’m doing, whether I’m working at the plant or smoking meat,” she says. “Five years from now, I’d like to be an operations manager with Hormel Foods, and I would like to keep learning new recipes so I can keep bringing my smoked meats to family gatherings.

“I know people love them — and I love that they love them.”