Big Apple BBQ Block Party, Madison Park, NYC

SuSu, MaceVindaloo, BigNose, Jools, MostlyIrish

Usually the term "block party" brings to mind a very local event — having a "community get-together" where everyone contributes to the cost of throwing the party. Many are pot-luck type of affairs where everyone brings a dish of food to form a buffet line of sorts. There might be a hired clown or local band, or some games, or more commonly, there is organized chaos. In general, people have a good time, get to know the neighbors, swear to go to the next community meeting so they don't get caught with garbage duty again ...

In New York proper, such things are not normally possible. Sure, there are churches that put on parties like that; some "blocks" or apartment buildings might even attempt one, too. There are also many street fairs with professional vendors of many kinds ... they're not really the classic style of "block party." So one may conclude that New York, in general, does not "do" block parties. But that doesn't mean someone won't try!

Blue Smoke is a well-known restaurant in the Murray Hill/Gramercy area of Manhattan. Incongruously, they are in the region nicknamed "Curry Hill" for all the Indian restaurants and spice markets and groceries. Whatever, they are a premier 'cue joint, and they prove wrong the adage about needing a shack way out in the rural parts of the American South to get good barbecue. Still, being on top of the heap doesn't mean they really are at the top ... so they organized for 10 notable barbecuers — champions in one way or another — to come to NYC and offer the best of their best, just so New Yorkers could taste the real deal! How's that for incongruous — the most down-homiest of foods in the concrete jungle??

But honestly, how real can anyone be if they'll be smoking parts of animals over the asphalt and concrete? Isn't there some sort of ordinance against that? Turns out that as long as you file for permits, such things CAN be permitted, and New Yorkers are way richer for Blue Smoke's efforts. Who came? Why, the best of the best, is all:

Pitmaster Affiliation Location Speciality
Chris Lilly Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q Decatur, AL Pork Shoulder and Baked Beans
Kenny Callaghan Blue Smoke New York, NY Kansas City Spare Ribs and Dill Pickles
John Stage Dinosaur Bar-B-Q New York, NY Pork Shoulder and Baked Beans
Ed Mitchell Mitchell's BBQ Wilson, NC Whole Hog and Coleslaw
Michael Rodriguez The Salt Lick BBQ Driftwood, TX Beef Brisket, Sausage, and Coleslaw
Mike Mills 17th Street Bar & Grill Murphysboro, IL Baby Back Ribs and Baked Beans
Memphis Championship Barbecue Las Vegas, NV
Otis Walker Smoki O's St. Louis, MO Pig Snoot Sandwich
Bryan Bracewell Southside Market & BBQ Elgin, TX Beef Brisket, Elgin Hot Sausage, and South Texas Beans
Garry Roark Ubon's "Champion's Choice" Yazoo, MS Pork Shoulder and Coleslaw
Mike "Sarge" Davis Whole Hog Café Little Rock, AS St. Louis Spare Ribs and Coleslaw

In addition, Blue Smoke's pastry chef, Jennifer Giblin, offered Devil's Food Cupcakes, Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars, and Strawberry Rhubarb Bars for $2 a serving. The barbecue was $7 a plate. You basically got in line to pay your money and enjoy your 'cue plus side dish — one speciality per tent. So if you wanted to try all ten offerings, you stood in 10 lines. It was more like a state fair than a restaurant. (There were even people giving away t-shirts, hats, and go-floss; all very appropos!)

In the spirit of a block party, this whole shindig was actually a party disguised as a benefit for Madison Park, which is a public park at the very bottom of Manhattan's Madison Avenue. Though the city is responsible for maintainance and upkeep of city parks, residents have taken to donating money and time to keeping their local parks as they want them to be. Many have fenced-in dog-runs for their pooches and bitches to play, and pay for the necessary clean-up. This park also has a sprinkler for kids to run about in their bathing suits during the hot days of the NYC summer, as well as flowers, port-a-potties, well-groomed lawns, park benches in good repair, etc. It's hardly in danger of being shut down or anything, but still, it's a neighborhood feature and it was good of Blue Smoke to funnel profits into it, in exchange for being the venue for 10 pitbosses and their equipment and crews.

Speaking of equipment, some of it was really, really scary. Many of the crews actually do travel extensively around the continent from one event to another, and from competition to competition. Their fame is the promotion for their restaurants and other efforts. Some support charities, some write books. There were semi-trailers emblazoned proudly with the names of the championship teams, and many trailers which held the enormous smokers and pits in which these cattle met their delicious destinies. These are expensive things to haul and be hauled. You'd better believe these men and women are serious about producing the best 'cue in their universe! It'll worth any amount of money you care to spend just for taste of the meat, the sauce, the beans, and the slaw. (As for bread, everyone uses either Wonder or Martin's Potato slices or rolls.)

As for money, you could pay cash or by Amex; the event was sponsored in part by the American Express Card. They also implemented something called the "Bubba Fastpass" which was a pre-ordered $100 card which got you into the express lanes for all barbecue pits, and your card would be depleted depending on your purchases. You could buy one if you got there early enough — believe it or not, they actually ran out of the things before the noon starting time! We had initially thought it would be an unnecessary thing to have — how much barbecue could a person eat at $7 a pop? It seemed we'd end up with money not spent on the card, so we didn't get one. We did regret it, when we realized that (1) we all could have eaten on one Bubbapass, and (2) the express line really was one! There was no waiting, and there were actually seats alongside Madison Park where only passholders were allowed. There were really burly looking security people to filter the bubbas from the non-bubbies. Okay, okay, we'll be bubbas next year!

You'd think New Yorkers might be snarly about the waiting in line in the hot sun part, but they were very well behaved. The ones we talked to on line were not only knowledgeable, but determined to gloat — there was a lot of cell phone chatter as they phoned friends to let them know exactly how far they were from imbibing in melt-in-your-mouth pig or cow ... That's nice.

"Ruralites" for whom barbecue is a way of life had a hard time grasping how fashionable their homey ways were. One pitmaster was standing on a table taking pictures of the crowd and muttering, "Who'd a thunk it? Prime 'cue in the middle of ..." and then he lowered his voice, "New York City!"

And how was the 'cue?? Seriously ... words cannot describe it! The memory of it is making us salivate and pine for some hokey shack in the middle of nowhere that pumps smoke 24/7. Some of us got there and waited in a few lines and bought multiple plates of food, as there was no purchasing limit. By the time everyone else had filtered in, we had a big sack of what looked like squat Chinese take-out containers and we found a convenient oil drum and spread our spread. Everyone else, mysteriously, had been too polite to take over such conveniences.

We feasted! And people actually came up to us to ask "Where did you get the food?" and "Are you selling those??" I can just imagine our police records: "Scalping 'cue" which is probably punishable in some counties by keelhauling or somesuch. But we didn't sell any because it was just too good to share or sell off. Even the snoots from Smoki O's!

You don't know what a snoot is? Um, what part of a pig's body do you suppose a "snoot" might be? Then fry it up and slather in a tasty, spicy sauce and put it between two pieces of soft American white bread. The meat was chewy and crispy and we actually love 'em! The line for the snoots was short, so we got a few servings first on.

In fact, it was a good idea to "divide and acquire." The lines were very long — sometimes over an hour! By the time we got our food (we got there early, but still took over two hours to gather up our comestibles, divided as we were), signs stating, "X many hours to wait" were being posted. The crowd handlers did an excellent job keeping the lines moving and separated, and informing people which line they were on. The lines were so long that they often snaked into adjacent areas, so you might've thought you were on line for Ubon's from Yazoo, MS, but you ended up at NYC's Dinosaur BBQ. Not that that's bad; you ended up with pork shoulder either way ... but what a difference! Ubon's has Dinosaur beat! And Ubon's coleslaw was amazing, too. Be sure to grab Wetnaps and spoons before you leave the line.

Despite our strategizing, we didn't get to sample everything. For one, barbecue is a dense, heavy meal, and though the portions were not huge, you still filled up fast. For another, one does get tired of waiting in lines, even for such an awesome reward. We decided that since people were so "stupid for brisket" that we'd stick to pig, which is Dixie's speciality. Part of our decision was simply geography — it really did become confusing regarding which line ended up where. And also, some of the pitmasters were just downright friendly and we got to talking.

Also, one of the Hutties is a barbecue freak, in the nicest sense of the word. Not only will he eat it and critique it, but he'll make it and beat just about anyone else, pro or con, in a head to head tasting. He lives in New York City and creates an amazing Texas beef brisket and salt and pepper beef ribs. Seriously, he smokes /cooks it in a standard NYC galley kitchen, which is smaller that most compact cars. Seriously. And obviously, a big kitchen doesn't guarantee results. So being the beef bbq snobs we'd become in his presence, we eschewed the Texas offerings. We had to get the snoots, of course (how often does get snoots anywhere??). The rest was as described above.

The nicest pitmaster we ran into was Mike Mills of 17th Street Bar & Grill. Though you might not think Illinois is "south," the truth is after the Civil War, many people moved to the southern end of that state, making it much more deep-south in character than it is Windy City. He made a delicious, tender, good, austere baby back rib with a more than decent sauce. He and his daughter had written a book called Peace, Love, and Barbecue. We ran off to the book tent so that we could bring it back for them to sign. They had set up the oil drums and picnic tables, and didn't mind up taking up their space at all. That's how we came to be surrounded by urban millions waiting for a bite of authentic 'cue, and somehow being transported "back home" while we sat and chawed a spell. (Okay, only two of us are from outside of NYC, but we're all New Yorkers by adoption and spirit, so "back home" is more likely to be a small apartment with aggressive air conditioning!)

It was a long day, and when we all finally got some form of sunburn, we decided to walk over to a local eatery for drinks and cool desserts, and to comtemplate the many free and low-fee seminars being offered, or the movies and such. It really was a hot, intensely sunny day, and the cave-like darkness of the bar we ended up in was a soothing relief as we acclimated back to the NYC we normally live in. We really did feel like we were treated to a nice piece of Dixie, and we look forward to coming again next year! (We'll bring more sunblock and get the Bubba Fast Pass and arrive earlier and a lot hungrier, too!)

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