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After Work: There's Nothing Like Good Barbecue

…Barbecue is slow cooking and smoking meat in a pit or over some outlandish contraption cobbled together in some ‘cue fanatic’s garage from big oil cans by a buddy who knows a little bit about welding. The fuel of choice is wood. Apple, hickory or mesquite-- each has its fans…

Dona Gibbs brings you the delicious open-air smell of hickory smoke and slow-cooking meat in the tastiest column you are likely to read this side of any dinner time.

For more of Dona's flavoursome words click on After Work in the menu on this page.

Call it barbeque or barbecue or simply ‘cue. Those of us from the South and Southwest can’t get enough of it. Believe it or not, debates heat up over whether the best ‘cue is brisket, beef ribs, pork ribs or pork shoulder. Then there’s the dry rub versus the wet mop. Chopped versus sliced. And the most incendiary topic of all: Eastern North Carolina vinegar-based sauce versus Western North Carolina tomato-based sauce.

Just to clarify. When we from the South and Southwest talk about barbecue, we are not talking about tossing a steak on the grill. While that has some of the essentials, meat and an outdoor fire, grilling is not barbecuing.

Barbecue is slow cooking and smoking meat in a pit or over some outlandish contraption cobbled together in some ‘cue fanatic’s garage from big oil cans by a buddy who knows a little bit about welding. The fuel of choice is wood. Apple, hickory or mesquite-- each has its fans.

Slow is the key word in ‘cue. Hours and a few beers are essential. Wearing a cap advertising John Deere tractors is optional. The most talented of the barbecues are called pit masters. And they’re proud of the title. I’ve never met a woman pit master but I hope they’re out there.

The hallmark of true ‘cue is a faint pinkish tinge. No, not rare meat. “Cue is well-done. The pinkish tinge comes from long hours of smoking.

The best places to enjoy such a thing are shacks, usually far from the interstate highways. They look like places your mother warned you about. Rustic, one might say rundown joints. Downwind you can smell them miles away. A pungent primal scent. Yum.

New York City was a ‘cue-less town when I first came here forty years ago. And when I traveled back to the South I always had built up a yearning for a good diet-busting pulled pork sandwich. Vinegar-based sauce for me, thank you.

Over the years that’s changed. The city has become barbecue obsessed. Now there’s even a Big Apple Barbecue Block Party to benefit Madison Square Park. It draws thousands who stand in line for hours to sample the pride of pit masters who made their way north with their special rigs and hauling loads of wood.

One of the pioneers in making New York a ‘cue town was a Brit. Yes, a Brit. Robert Pearson gave up his career as a London hairdresser to make a pilgrimage throughout the
South and Southwest studying with the famed pit masters of the barbecue capitals. He first opened an authentic pit-cooked barbecue restaurant in Stratford, Connecticut, then made his way to the borough of Queens and then finally to Manhattan after a decade-long struggle to built a $20,000 pit that complied with the city’s various fire and zoning issues.

Unfortunately, it’s now closed. A sad day, but thankfully, there are others tending the fire and chopping, slicing and pulling.

All this is back-story to a little slice of New York City that I observed out my kitchen window. I was preparing dinner when a familiar fragrance wafted up from a patio five stories below. Hickory smoke was coiling from an enormous grill. Not one of these whimpy kettles or a silly one-chicken leg hibachi, it was a real five-footer.

Tending this suburban monster was the archetypical Southern guy. Big-boned, he would be euphemistically called. He was wearing the requisite madras shirt and khakis and of course, flip-flops. A good ole boy dressed up for having a few folks over for dinner. He was cooking up a big ole pork loin.

I watched while he flip-flopped into his apartment and then came back stirring up a bowl of sauce. Tomato-based, I saw. He mopped it on to the meat. See, you can learn a lot about man by the way he barbecues. He slattered it on and disappeared again. Next time out he was lugging a large cooler. This guy was entertaining on a grand scale.

Nostalgia crept over me. Here was a man probably about six hundred miles or so from home attempting to bring a little Southern hospitality to his fifteen-foot square asphalt back yard. I named him Mr. Chillin”.

Each week he threw a party. One bigger than the next. Obviously he was one mean pit master.

The final party I saw was a real blow out. There were tables covered in red checked cloths, chairs, candles, five huge coolers and about forty people chowing down on ‘cue. On the Upper Eastside of Manhattan. Even though I hadn’t been invited, the sight alone made me happy.

Then sometime while I was gone from New York for six weeks, Mr. Chillin’ went away. No more blue smoke. No more pop as a cold beer was opened. No more laughter.

Maybe he’d been transferred. Maybe he and the city just hadn’t worked out. Or maybe he just yearned for some good ‘cue from a crossroads shack down South.


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