The Big Apple Barbecue Block Party 2011 was this weekend. It was a crazy scene--crazy crowded and crazy fun. Here's my report. On the blog, there's a short video I made:
“Barbecue is getting big baby.” Outside Ed Mitchell’s traveling sideshow, two cooks go at it with cleavers. As bits of pork fly in a flurry of pornographic flesh, the cashier grins and points down the avenue, still quiet at 10:20 a.m. “In 30 minutes, the line will be to Madison,” he predicts, and when the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party 2011 starts, 200 fanatics are already waiting for a taste of Ed Mitchell’s meat. I arrived an hour early and finagled a prime position near the front. Clad in overalls and plaid—his “Farmer John” outfit, the cashier explains—Mitchell presides over his stand with dominating charisma. He is the Santa Claus of barbecue, a man with a big smile and a bigger belly. Poking a turkey to check for doneness, Mitchell nods, makes the slightest gesture to his team, and the biggest barbecue show on Earth begins.
Big Apple Barbecue brings together pitmasters from across the barbecue belt: Pappy’s from St. Louis, Missouri; The Salt Lick from Driftwood, Texas; Ubon’s from Yazoo City, Mississippi, to name a few. Along with the out-of-towners, New York boasts four participants this year, including Blue Smoke, Hill Country, Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, and Rack & Soul. This carnival of barbecue pitches a big tent—the collection of meats is catholic, the variety of styles representative, if not comprehensive. Aficionados and novitiates fill the boundaries of Madison Square Park; foodies and families and barbecue expats spill into the streets, jostling for a taste of Tennessee whole hog (Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint) and smoked sausage (Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q). Over a 48 hour period, 120,000 New Yorkers will pass through the park; it is an educational experience of gluttonous proportions, an opportunity to stuff the belly and the brain. Besides a series of free seminars—much more entertaining than your college variety class—the Southern Foodways Alliance brought their oral history project to the festival. Most pass up the untastefully educational activities—but Big Apple Barbecue covertly indoctrinates all into the principles of regional barbecue. Wander from North to South Carolina in a matter of minutes, then head to Dallas and across to Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia. The Big Apple team has assembled a cross-section of American barbecue; this event allows for effortless travel on a minimal budget: $8 a plate is a price I’d pay any day to sink my teeth into Ed Mitchell’s whole hog without leaving Manhattan.
Judging from the carnivalesque crowds and their willingness to brave multi-hour lines, barbecue is indeed getting big in the city. The uptick in interest follows renewed attention to Southern and Soul food—traditions that originated in the country and migrated North in the 1920s. During that Great Migration, blacks brought their culinary heritage to northern cities, where they served up homestyle dishes to an insular community of other southern migrants. In fact, southern black communities transplanted to New York often clashed with those groups already established in the North. The processes of assimilation centered around two social worlds: the restaurant and the church. Thus, New York barbecue did at one time inject country values into the metropolitan consciousness. Recreating the foods of their southern lives allowed blacks to resist and infiltrate a conflicted and impenetrably complex system of city morality. At Big Apple Barbecue, however, the essential problem of urban barbecue becomes manifest: city dwellers consume barbecue in order to escape to some pastoral fantasy; to leave the metropolis behind and embrace a simpler way of life; to retrogress to a pre-industrial, agrarian world; to rediscover a golden age. Yet, as Raymond Williams so provocatively notes, the escalator of history never stops. The “golden age” to which we urbane barbecuers retreat is a myth. Country life and the barbecuing life are both inextricably intertwined with a metropolitan cosmos of production; they are both invested with physical labor, deprivation, and hardship; and they both, in the urban mind, alternatively imply provincialism and rugged simplicity. After I engorged myself on excessive helpings of pork shoulder and ribs, I wandered the crowd and watched barbecue fantasies spin out in real time. “I got barbecue sauce on my jeans!” One Brooklyn-bound woman wails. “It’s getting all over my hands,” another fashionista mutters, befuddled. “A fork won’t cut through the meat,” her friend observes. You can bring the country to the city, but you can’t make the city country.
If you ever happen to drive through North Carolina, look up Ed Mitchell. His whole hog sandwich (on squeezable Pepperidge Farm buns) sets a new bar for barbecue. A moister pillow of pork is unthinkable. No sauce necessary other than the pig’s natural juices. At a panel presentation on Joe York’s short film To Live and Die In Avoyelles Parish, Mr. York explained the sensation of eating a cochon de lait’s tenderloin. “I don’t like to talk about food like this,” Mr. York said, “but eating that tenderloin was a transcendent experience.” Maybe it was my morning hunger, but that first bite of whole hog was transcendent, too.
30 W 26th St, New York, NY 10010
Rack & Soul
258 West 109th St., New York, NY 10025
116 East 27th Street, New York, NY 10016
777 W. 125th Street, New York, NY 10027