i strongly recommend a 30-dollar brinkmann smoke-n-grill, otherwise known as an ECB
. looks like a short, black R2-D2 from star wars. found in wal-mart, k-mart and other "marts." cheap, but durable - i've got one over a dozen years old that cooks better now than it did when it was new.
this smoker is easy to use and turns out very, very good barbecue; it can help you "get down to fundamentals" of fire control, temperature control, airflow etc. and it is nearly impossible to actually ruin a piece of meat when using it. further, with about 15$ in modifications (http://www.randyq.addr.com/ecb/ecbmods.html
), it can be made to work even better and allow you better control of airflow, smoke, temperature etc. the ECB
is a charcoal smoker that allows you to learn barbecue the way it was meant to be learned, with wood (and charcoal) that force you to develop skills that will make this more than a passing interest - the challenges involved will step up with each advance and your quest for knowledge and skills will allow you to grow to a true pitmaster.
finally, after trying this and getting good with it, you can decide if this barbecue/smoking meat is really the thing for you. if it isn't, you're only out 30 bucks; but, if it is, you can continue to cook VERY good, VERY authentic barbecue with it and improve your recipes and methods, or you can "step up" to another type of smoker. i say "step up" in quotes because your ECB
is perfectly capable of cooking barbecue as good as a more "advanced" smoker, but there are nuances etc. that an offset or other "advanced" smoker can take advantage of, plus they are usually bigger and will allow you to cook for a crowd (all those neighbors up and down the street who have been smelling your barbecue!). in other words, if you truly have an interest and a knack for barbecue, a more advanced smoker can make a good pitmaster better - but keep in mind that the best pit in the world won't make a novice into an expert or a bad pitmaster into a good one.
one more piece of advice - if you want to read up on some outstanding barbecue fundamentals, go to http://www.eaglequest.com/~bbq/
and download the barbecue FAQ. this is a safe, informative word document that will teach you quite a bit.
that's my advice - take it for waht it's worth!