For the last ten years the second weekend in June has meant one thing for New York City: the Big Apple BBQ Block Party. This weekend, some of the best pit masters from across the country convene at Madison Square Park to barbecue and offer New Yorkers an opportunity to taste the variety of flavors and styles of America’s most homegrown, authentic cuisine. My family is from Argentina and I grew up on South American, Asado style barbecue. Asado is the way my Dad and Grandfather cooked and it’s all I knew about barbecue for most of my life. It was not until I went to my first BBQ festival when I moved to New York five or six years ago that I gained an appreciation for American style barbecue and began to understand the differences in flavors and styles from the various regions of this country.
This year I decided I was going to do more than stuff my face – I wanted to talk to some of the pit masters to learn about their specific styles of barbecue, who taught them how to cook, and whether their cooking is influenced by international styles of barbecue. I found that most of these renowned pit masters learned how to barbecue the same way I did – from their Dads – and they take tremendous pride in maintaining the flavors and techniques that have been passed down through their families for many generations.
Pit master Chris Lilly of Big Bob Gibson’s from Decatur, AL is one of the most decorated, well-known pit masters in the country with 10 world barbecue championships. Chris described to me how Decatur’s location between Memphis and the Carolinas makes their style of barbecue a unique combination of those two mainstream, traditional barbecue styles. Their pulled pork is given its subtle smoky flavor from a dry rub and applejuice injection, followed by 12-15 hours of smoking over a combination of charcoal (they only use Kingsford) and hickory wood chunks. Chris Lilly believes the tastiness of their pulled pork stands strong on its own, and serves all his sauces on the side so that the customer can decide whether they want sauce, and what type. I agreed with him – the pulled pork sandwich was incredibly flavorful all on its own and when I added the Big Bob Gibson’s signature white sauce it took the sandwich to another level.
Chris and I also spoke about the influence of international styles of barbecue on his cooking. Chris is well traveled and loves incorporating foreign flavors and cooking techniques into his own recipes to stay current when he’s catering parties or cooking at home. However in his 87 year-old family restaurant in Decatur, he leaves the recipes alone and lets the family tradition stand true and uncorrupted.
After hitting up Bib Bob Gibson’s I walked over to Ed Mitchell’s stand to try some Carolina style BBQ. Ed was a really nice guy who takes his barbecue seriously. Ed grew up on a farm in Wilson, NC where he learned his families 150 year-old method for cooking whole hog at a very early age. He considers his style of Carolina barbecue the most authentic and believes that true, authentic barbecue requires cooking a whole animal. Head to toe cooking and a vinegar-based sauce seem to be the two factors that really distinguish Carolina barbecue. Because he’s roasting an entire pig, he’s a proponent of the hot and fast barbecue cooking technique, and cooks his hogs at temperatures reaching up to 450°. After chatting with Ed I got to taste his whole hog, and he was right about one thing – roasting the whole animal brought a richness and depth of flavor that I hadn’t experienced in eating pulled pork made from the pork shoulder alone. Combined with the tangy acidity of Ed’s vinegar sauce, this succulent pulled pork was vibrant and delicious.
After tasting the Carolina style whole hog I decided to try some Memphis style pork, so I made my way through the crowds over to 17th Street BBQ. Pit master Mike Mills is know as “the Legend” in the barbecue community. He was a super down to earth guy, and sat with me while he smoked a cigarette and told me about his Memphis style barbecue. Mike learned to barbecue from his dad, and assesses good barbecue based on the harmonious convergence of four factors – juicy pork, spicy rub, tangy sauce and the slight presence of smoke. A true southern barbecue man, Mike called this combination flavors in proper proportions a “rodeo in your mouth”, which made me laugh a little. He was adamant that he didn’t like “sloppy barbecue” that has too much sauce and loses the texture of the pork. He was serving ribs with sweet, tomato-based Memphis style sauce. Contrary to my assumption that barbecue is an imprecise process, Mike told me that his entire process was, in fact, measured and precise. He pulled out a shaker full of his secret dry rub and told me it was enough for exactly 18 racks of ribs. If you don’t have enough to get all 18 racks you used too much rub, and if you have some left over you didn’t use enough. “We just make it look easy, “ he said.
My next stop was over at Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q from Birmingham, AL. They were serving sausages with hot pimento cheese. Jim ‘N Nick’s strategy for making these sausages juicy, smoky and crispy was to smoke them first, then grill them to make sure the casing gets extra crispy. The hot pimento cheese they serve with the sausage is always my favorite garnish at the entire festival. I love cheese, the jalapeño gives it a nice kick, and the roasted pepper rounds it all out as a perfect complement to the sausage.
Jim ‘N Nick’s pit master Drew Robinson, like all the other pit masters I spoke with, also learned how to barbecue from his family. More internationally influenced than many pit masters, Drew described a trip to Uruguay that he took with his competition team, the Fatback Collective. In Uruguay, they visited Chef Francis Mallmann, ate at his restaurant El Garzón and had the opportunity to cook with several of Mallmann’s cooks. He enjoyed tasting and learning about Asado style barbecue. Experiencing another culture’s way of cooking barbecue made Drew realize how all barbecue has the same starting point – a whole animal – and then different techniques give the meat totally different textures and flavors. The Fatback Collective learned a lot on this trip, and used some of their newly learned techniques to cook a whole lamb over an open flame for the exotic category in the Memphis in May competition this year. Drew didn’t think the American crowd was quite ready for Asado, and their lamb did not place very well. A stuffed jalapeño wrapped in bacon won the category.
For my last stop I went over to Ubon’s of Yazou MS to taste their 5-generation old sauce. I had the opportunity to chat with Garry Roark and his daughter Leslie, the “Barbecue Princess.” I had a wonderful conversation with the two of them, and they shared the story of how Garry’s Father, Ubon, passed down the secret recipe for their famous sauce. Ubon’s sauce gained national acclaim in the mid 80’s when Garry started competing in the barbecue circuit, and producing the sauce on a large scale. The recipe is made in southeastern Missouri so it has “a Memphis flare with a nod to Kansas City.” The sauce had a really nice tomatoey tang and just the right amount of sweetness, not too sweet. It was delicious with the pulled pork and worked well with the peppery slaw they served.
Chatting with Garry and Leslie, I could feel the love they put into their food and the pride they take in sharing the family recipes and food their family has been cooking for generations. This idea of family as the center of the barbecue world struck me as the strongest commonality between all the pit masters. No matter where they were from, what type of sauce they used, whether they cook over hickory or apple wood – despite any of these differences in their cooking styles, they all learned to cook barbecue from family. These pit masters associate the tradition of barbecue with their fathers, their brothers, their grandfathers and their uncles. The restaurants they run in their hometowns are family businesses, most of which have been there for decades. And even though our cooking methods are different, I also associate barbecue with my grandfather, my father and my uncles. So despite our different heritage, I related to the pit masters this year in a way I never had before, when I realized the one thing you need to cook great barbecue is your family.
© 2012 Jonathan Meter