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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

‘cue Ballin'

The World Cup is upon us, good reader; how best to celebrate? Swiss fondue? Korean kimchee? Ukrainian borscht? Brazilian churrasco? Ghanaian kelewele? Persian polow? Australian beer?

The Porkchop Express appreciates any excuse to explore international food, but we decided to kick it American style. Why? Because this weekend marked Manhattan's yearly celebration of delicious regional ‘cue: the 4th Annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party.

As exciting as this sounds, I still had my doubts. After all, Block Party 1, 2 and 3 were tense, pricey, atrociously organized affairs.

Sure, they sound great: legendary pitmasters, hailing from such exotic locales as Texas, Missouri, Alabama and East 27th Street, descend upon Madison Square Park with smokers and hardwood, shoulders and briskets. But in the past, demand far exceeded supply, space was cramped, and lines were irritatingly long. To make matters worse, you could only purchase food with tickets bought from crowded booths located nowhere near the food. And Ponce de Leon himself would have been hard-pressed to find the "beer garden." All of which made attendance feel more like a chore than Pork Party USA.

But what's past is past, and hope for delicious springs eternal. So we pushed mediocre memories aside (to wit, sitting on a molasses-slow line for a 7$ pig snoot sandwich), and trekked into Manhattan this Sunday to check things out.

Like many New Yorkers, Yankees' Boss George Steinbrenner loves BBQ

Some people get excited by sunny days or a pretty smile. But for yours truly, little revs the engines like the smell of smoked meat. Great ‘cue is a wonderful afrodisaic and mood-enhancer, the belle of the ball and friend to all, the best scene in an action movie, the siren in your favorite song. And as far as I know, it's also pretty damn American.

Or so it seems; the origins are a bit hazy. The word comes from the Hatian barbacoa, a term first used by Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo (in 1526) to describe the delicious, pit-roasted meats of the Tierra Firme Indians.

Barbacoas also had another meaning: rough wooden frames, about 3 feet high, used by resourceful 17th century American settlers to both sleep on and prepare meats (over hardwood embers).

"Barbecue" now refers to either the cooker, the food, or the gathering. And no matter the context, it's cause for celebration. What's the appeal? Flavor, sure. But also accessibility, simplicity and tradition. Everyone starts with the same basics (meat, spices, and a heat source), and distinction is honed in the details: the freshness, ingredients and cuts; the marinating and rubbing; the cooking times and techniques; the choice and mix of sauce and sides. Depending on where you hail from, or what your grandparents did, or how close you live to what farm, your BBQ may (and usually does) look entirely different from mine.

Which raises an important issue: when it comes to this stuff, folks get mighty territorial and fussy. Consensus is rare, pride's a-plenty, and everyone seems to have their own take on what works best. The point being that barbecue-appreciation, like barbecue-cooking, is largely a matter of individual taste. So with that qualification in mind, let's check out a few of Sunday's offerings.

Big Bob's pig-on-a-bun

First up is a pulled pork sandwich, courtesy of Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q from Decatur, Alabama. Big Bob was a Railroad worker who started smoking pork in 1925. Long story short, folks loved his product, and his weekend hobby soon became a fulltime career.

I Ain't No Joke!

If you were wondering, the guy (above) with the thick rubber gloves and bloody hat/apron combo is Big Bob's humorously not-big grandson. Don't let his size fool you tho; he wielded his machete like a pro. A pro machete maniac, that is. And he put those skills to good use, pulling and chopping 61 pork shoulders this weekend. The Gibsons served their moist, smoky meat on a Martin's potato bun, with a tasty side of mustardy slaw.

Mike Mills' baby back ribs

Next up were great baby back ribs courtesy of Mike "The Legend" Mills of Murphysboro, Illinois. Favored with a delicious rub, and topped with Mike's grandmother's 1902 World's Fair Blue Ribbon "ketchup-vinegar combo" sauce, these were almost good enough to make me forget the syrupy side of mixed-bean surprise.

Mayor John Cowman and Southside CFO Dustin Manhart, holding it down for the Lonestar State

The good folks at Southside Market & BBQ were far more consistent. In fact, their combo plate of succulent smoked brisket, outstanding sausage, and peppery slaw was The Porkchop Express pick-of-the-day. What made Southside's meal stand out? Flavor, pure and simple, the result of sound fundamentals (fresh meat, great spicing, hardwood cooking) and stellar execution.

This formula has served them well for some time. After all, Southside dates back to 1882, when founder William J. Moon started selling beef and pork from the back of a wagon. Moon came from Elgin (hard g), Texas, a spot some 20 miles east of the old Chisholm Trail.

Elgin Hot Guts are Mighty Tasty

The Chisholm was a nexus of Texas foodways in the late-1800s, and Moon's town benefitted. It became–and remains–the epicenter of Lonestar links. As Mayor Cowman put it, "when you think of Elgin you think of sausage." Based on what I tasted, I wont disagree.

Southside's "guts" still use Moon's original 1882 recipe. Cooked rotisserie-style on low heat for about 45 minutes, these are some of the juiciest sausages I have ever had. Smoother than your average kielbasa, with more snap than a New York hot dog, adjectives don't really do justice to this plump, spicy specimen.

Their brisket–cooked for 12+ hours til it's melt-in-your-mouth moist–is nearly as satisfying. Dark burnt ends, dry rub and high quality beef provide all the flavor you need, which may be why self-respecting Texans avoid saucing it up. If you must, however, Southside has a good one: hot and sharp (but not distracting), and refreshingly low in sugar.

If the sheer number of natives gravitating to the ‘cue was any indication, this place is the real deal. In the time I spent talking to Manhart and Cowman (the best Texas names ever??), at least half a dozen folks shared a common sentiment: gratitude that Elgin's finest had hit Manhattan.

#1 NC Pitmaster Ed Mitchell

Ed Mitchell also represents his home state to the fullest. Hailing from Wilson, North Carolina, he shared terrific Eastern NC barbeque with the NY masses: whole hogs slow-cooked over oak and hickory logs, and finished with a vinegar/hot red pepper flake sauce. The result is something uniquely balanced, a rich, smoky meat in league with a sharp, spicy wash.

Checking the Hog...

...and Pulling the Pork

On a more personal note, I was especially grateful to chat with Mr. Mitchell because, during a recent Carolina BBQ tour, I noticed his restaurant had closed. It turns out he was just rallying the wagons for two bigger, bolder ventures: a new New York restaurant (!) and, even more flavorific, a Barbecue Culinary Institute.

Yes, good reader, you heard it hear first: Mitchell's Bar-B-cademy of flavor is on it's way.

Clearly, this guy is a super-genius. His ‘cue training school works on so many levels, I'm not sure where to begin. And really, I don't have to; Mitchell put it best:

"Barbeque is part of our American heritage, and it's going to extinction."

His soon-to-be school is one effort to reverse the trend, a means of preserving techniques and traditions that comprise one of our country's most popular food cultures. And frankly, it's one of the best ideas I've heard in years. A University of Flavor bar none, this institute of slow-and-low promises to be a place where city slickers and country hams alike can meet, greet, and learn how to make amazing eats. It will also provide Mitchell the space to educate folks about quality meats and sustainable agriculture. (One key to his pulled pork is the animals themselves, which he raises and feeds sweet potatoes, peanuts and corn–a mix passed on from his grandfather.)

Talking to Ed brought me full circle, and reminded me of an earlier chat with Mike Mill's daughter, cookbook co-author and business manager Amy. Standing around and watching the crowds–women and men, young and old, hip and square, a rainbow of New Yorkers and tourists from Japan to South America–she labeled barbeque "the most democratic food in the world." Not to get too sappy (or smokey?), but by the end of the day I was starting to come around. Even in trendy, overpriced New York, the barbeque presents an opportunity to mingle and celebrate. It offers a space where folks who might otherwise never meet get together, compete, enjoy and, most importantly, eat. And that, my friend, is a goal in one!

Til Tuesday,

–J. Slab

For the record...
  • The BBQ Party now takes cash and Credit Cards
  • They have special V.I.P.-style Bubba Passes starting at $120 which, as an astute young woman noted, is pretty much contrary to the "barbeque spirit"
  • Another absurdity: the 35$ seminar "Wine for Swine," where Danny Meyer leads a "tasting of top-notch wines expertly paired with world-class ‘cue." No joke. To quote one pitmaster, "all you need with barbeque is beer or Pepsi." Notice he didn't say chardonnay?
Most of these folks sell online...
And you might as well check out...

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Blogger chowfungirl said...

Hey J, your experience at this year's BBQ fest seems to have been a whole lot more positive and hopeful than mine. I was honestly hoping to try all kinds of mouthwatering BBQ but unless I wanted to spend a couple of hours in line apiece for some only mediore ribs, or $7 for a little pulled pork sandwich with a teeny cup of slaw, I would have not such luck.

I opted for a Goan pork sandwich from a stand Tabla set up outside their restaurant to take advantage of festival goers and was sorry I did. I should have been clued in by the fact that there was no line at their stand. So skimpy were they on the meat, that I basically had myself a $7 Indian spiced onion sandwich on a sweet roll.

Overall, I was very disappointed at my first, and no doubt, last Big Apple BBQ Fest. I had expected something like the annual Western BBQ Rib Cook-off in Nevada which I have gone to a number of times (pork heaven!).

But if there was any positive outcome in all of this, was that I worked up a fierce appetite for BBQ and headed straight up to Dinosaur in Harlem for some fantastic ribs & wings. Oh, and if you did happen to stand for hours waiting in those huge lines at the BBQ Fest, you would have had plenty of time to make a LOT of hungry new friends.

6:58 PM  
Blogger J. Slab said...

this was the first Big Apple BBQ that I've actually enjoyed. true, it was overpriced with long lines. but got there MUCH earlier than in years past, which made eating feel like less of a chore....and really loved chewing the fat with some of the cue masters. (kulcha!)

a "Western BBQ Rib Cook-off" sounds fantastic btw....

2:36 PM  

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