Field Report:
Big Apple BBQ 2006 New York, NY

Diana, MaceVindaloo, SuSu, Diasala, BigNoaz, ScarletManuka, Jools, MostlyIrish

This may seem like a repeat, for we did come to this event last year and even wrote a field report about it. But it seemed different this time around. For one, we were better prepared, having heeded our lessons from last year (meaning no sunburns this time around). For another, the people who turned out for 'que seemed much more into it that last year.

We know that American-style barbeque seems to be experiencing a renaissance, where pitmasters are held in a reverence normally reserved to those who observe mystical faith. For their product is somewhat magical, if not mystical. The bad meat is rubbed, scrubbed, smoked, dabbed, seared, sauced and somehow turns into viands so good that crimes were contemplated to get more ...

The Food Network — an all-food channel featuring cooking and food shows for 19 hours a day — has broadcast many shows about barbecue competitions and shows about how to cook the stuff. Of course, they point out that you cannot do what the champions do, for their stuff is the manna of the gods. Your stuff will just be merely excellent. So to understand the difference, you have to travel to the South and to the West to the meccas so you can imbibe. But if you have your wits about you, you can attend the Big Apple BBQ Block Party instead, where many of the champions and grand champions come to smoke their wares on Madison Avenue!

One could worry about the overkill. Since these places are normally very far apart, one could wonder if having 10 samples of excellent 'que might overwhelm the senses. Only one way to find out, eh?

This time, we planned to go both Saturday and Sunday. No matter how much one loves barbecue, and no matter how dainty the servings, one cannot possibly eat 10 plates in one day, even spread over two meals. And we invited more people to share in the love, as it were, so we bought Bubba Fastpasses this time. If you used your Amex card, you got $135 on a $125 card, or $225 on a $200 card, and the fastpass let you enter a line reserved for fastpassers and you could use the card as a debit card for food, drinks, and souvenirs.

We also made sure we had plenty of sunblock, and layered our clothing, meaning the bottom layer was for the 100+°F / 35°C humid weather that New York can be famous for, and we brought extra shirts and sweaters to wear over that. This year, the weather was a dry, breezy, beautiful 70°F / 20°C and a sweater was a useful thing. We also brought jugs of peach iced tea with us, so we could concentrate on the 'que. And we had enough people so that a space could be staked out for picnicking.

So, with shorter lines, we had no excuse not to stand in line for the popular items which we couldn't get last year: beef brisket, and whole hog. Here's a list of who came and what they cooked:

Bryan Bracewell
Brisket, Hot Sausage, Tangy Coleslaw Elgin, TX
Ken Callaghan
St. Louis style Ribs, Dill Pickles New York, NY
Chris Lilly
Pulled Pork Shoulder, Spicy Crispy Southern Mustard Slaw Decatur, AL
Paul Kirk
Beef Brisket, Coleslaw New York, NY
Mike Mills
17th St. BAR & GRILL and
Babyback Ribs, Beans Murphysboro, IL
Las Vegas, NV
Ed Mitchell
Whole Hog, Mustard Coleslaw Wilson, NC
Gary Roark
Pulled Pork Shoulder, Coleslaw Yazoo, MS
Michael Rodriguez
Brisket, Sausage, Beans Driftwood, TX
John Stage
Pulled Pork Shoulder, Baked Beans New York, NY
Otis Walker
Rib Tips, Cinnamon Beans St. Louis, MO

We did managed to try everything this year, and we ended up playing the game of "who was best." It was difficult to say, since some of it depended on personal taste. Do you prefer the fattier deckle on the beef brisket, or the dryer, leaner tongue? How much does the sauce contribute to the experience, or does it mask it? One thing we did all agree upon — New York 'que could play with the big boys, for the most part. It's not the best, but it's a toothsome experience, nonetheless.

So our votes for the "best of the Big Apple BBQ:"

Served bathing the rib tips and slice of potato bread. Was so good we licked the vessels and made love to our fingers ...
Complemented the brisket and sausage beautifully — it's thin and spicy and slightly orange colored. You can buy it by the bottle.
WHITE SAUCE Big Bob Gibson's Bar-B-Que's
They call it "chicken sauce" but don't let that fool you — this stuff is great on anything, including salad or just bread! Justifiably winner of many, many awards and sold by the pint bottle.
This was a tough call, because we're unsure how much the sauce affected our judgement on this. But it was superlative pulled pork, in any case!
The Elgin, TX brisket came in just ahead of The Salt Lick's in terms of flavor and texture, and also because the sausage which accompanied the beef was better, and they didn't "trim hard" meaning their meat had fatty bits and deckle. But some of us dearly loved the Salt Lick, too, even though one of us cried over how much was being trimmed off the brisket by the crew — he had to be dissuaded from diving into the trimmings bin ... but even so, those of use who love leaner brisket found it to be nirvana, and the Salt Lick's sauce is not to be believed.
RIBS 17th St. Bar & Grill
Mike Mills is the master among pitmasters, and his ribs demonstrate why ... Blue Smoke's St. Louis ribs were taste for sure, and they did a final hot grilling over coals, too. But Mills' ribs made you stop and chew more slowly and suck hard on the bones!
WHOLE HOG Mitchell's BBQ
The whole pig is cooked and chopped up and tossed so you get a bit of dark meat, some light meat, and some crunchy skin all in one bite. It's like the best roast pork dinner you never had, the stuff dreams are made from!
BAKED BEANS Dinosaur Bar-B-Que
These are almost creamy and we begged for "extra beans" with our servings. There were little pieces of pork in the beans, too, and this is a superior example of what "refried beans" should be. Note: Smoki-O's Cinnamon Beans were a close second, and so sweet and lush as to be considered dessert by some of us, and we really wanted more of it.
COLE SLAW Big Bob Gibson's Bar-B-Que
The White Sauce makes the difference in this slaw, and we garnered the recipe! Be sure to check Hut Cuisine for it soon! But the coleslaw made by Ed Mitchell had sesame seeds and was really really fresh. We watched them make it and that kind of endears them to us ... though if they'd offered a recipe, they might've won this category!
This is basically a spicy kielbasa, and long links of it were smoked in the big cooker. What made this sausage better than the Salt Lick's? The pitguy told us to come up close and take a picture of his beautiful sausage ... and one of us formerly worked for a sausage manufacturer and was an aficionado. She said this was as good as any she'd ever experienced and we have to admit, it made us swoon and gasp!

In one case, there was only one entry in a meat category: whole hog. But we doubt we needed anyone else to go up against the winner.

Ed Mitchell is a big man, and he cooks whole hog, meaning a whole pig is split from chin to tail (thus the supposed etymology of the word "barbeque" — the French à barbe à queue, meaning from (chin) whiskers to tail), is seasoned with whatever hocus-pocus the man performs, then slow cooked for many, many hours. His people pulled the meat then chopped it like playing drums with two cleavers. Then the crispy skin was also chopped and mixed in with a sauce. The whole was piled onto a soft potato-white hamburger bun and placed alongside his mustard slaw. Now, if you were doing this the North Carolina way, you'd dump your slaw onto the sandwich and have it with sauce. But we are snobs and we wanted to experience sans accoutrements (even though we had learned previously that the sum of the parts is often what the ideal is all about), so we tried it as is ... and we swooned! This stuff was just so toothsome, like a British style roast pork dinner (with the crackling), but good!!

He brought a whole bunch of converted 1000-gallon heating oil tanks mounted on trailer wheels, one hog per boiler. It's part of the practical charm of barbeque to use other objects as an oven or smoker. Others talk about converting two bathtubs — one inverted over the other — to make an ideal smoketrap for any part of a quadruped beast. These make the most revered coffins for the whole hogs, and don't they look a bit like those Star Trek coffins? Oh, to die and end up in the care of Ed Mitchell!

Three groups had brisket: Southside Market and Salt Lick, both from Texas, and Real Urban Barbecue, or RUB of New York City. Alas, the hometown attempt was "okay" ... but it was small in both flavor and portion size compared to the generous Texas offerings. Unfortunately for them, it put them lower down on the list of barbeque restaurants to try. Their beef was sliced too thinly and it looked like a deli slicer was employed. The Texas boys both had toothsome, big flavored meat, which was hand-trimmed and hand sliced, so you got chunky bits, too. They made at least one of us swear to have the pitmaster's offspring ... see how romantic good 'que can be?

Chris Lilly is a former Memphis in May Grand Champion, and we understand that pulled pork can be a bland thing. Hawaiians make a version of it called kahlua pig which is spiced only with Hawaiian salt and ti leaves (the foliage of the taro plant, which is ubiquitous throughout Polynesia; the tuber mashed up with water to make the purple-hued poi) and is steamed rather than truly smoked, and it's delicious and needs a sauce to make it amazing. This is why southern style pulled pork is dressed while hot and freshly pulled. In North Carolina, this dressing is a vinegar-heavy sauce. As you move westward, the sauces become more ketchupy, or at least tomato based. The nature of this dressing sauce can set apart a competitor over any other, and it's no surprise that Big Bob Gibson's Bar-B-Que (whom Lilly represents) is a big-time sauce winner. It puts his pulled pork up and over everyone else's.

The big surprise was Dinosaur BBQ's baked beans. They were just too good, and one of us remembered that she'd bought John Stage's cookbook years ago, and she will be seeking out that recipe, even though it will require smoking pork to put into the beans. It reminded some of us of what in New Orleans is called "creamed beans," which is sold in cans. Not bad for what started out as a biker bar in Rochester, NY! The NYC location is in Harlem, and it's hoppin', we hear ... and we MUST go there!

As for Mike Mills — he's a gentleman and a great pitmaster. We love him. Adore him. And his ribs are pretty good, too! There were desserts too, again offered by Blue Smoke, which houses a restaurant down the street. We'd been to that place many a time and have written two reviews, too: 1 and 2. It's always good, and the desserts here were great. They sold out of blueberry pie the second day, and thus our motto, "Eat early, eat often, because they might run out." Those of us who waited till Sunday to get their pie were stuck with key lime pie only, but what a great key lime pie! And even better were brownies, which were offered for $2 apiece — cakey, with chocolate chips and really good, even out of the refrigerator where we stored them. The pies were $4 apiece and worth dying for — so much for apple pie being the symbol of America. We vote for key lime and blueberry instead!

The key lime's graham cracker crust was more like crumbly dark shortbread, and worth licking the plastic plate to get every crumb. The blueberry pie had a flakey crust with juicy filling (but not drippy).

But it was the 'que which made us want to commit serious crimes ... those of us who came by subway could smell the smoke in the underground stations, and coming out onto the street was pure torture! One had to scamper around and frantically call on cellphones to find out where the advance troops had settled and stored the vittles. Some of us had come early and stood on what we knew were the more popular lines, to ensure adequate number of portions. Remember, eat early, eat often!

There was also a country music festival going on, with area bands who specialize in bluegrass, country, etc. taking to the stage and entertaining the masses. They were all good, though we didn't think the piped canned music they played between sets was all that hot ... but then again, it was easy to ignore unless you were standing on a slow-moving line next to one of the big speakers.

There was also a beer garden with Brooklyn Brewery on tap. None of us really imbibed, but we could have used our Bubba Fastpasses here, too, as well as the souvenir line, where t-shirts, DVDs, sauces, and rubs were on sale. We ended up here at the end of each day trying to use up our bubbapasses, knowing that carrying over the balance would probably be impossible next year. For though this was the fourth event of its kind, we know better than to simply assume it would happen again next year or that we would be here to attend. Though we can't see why we wouldn't! One of us even flew in from London "for lunch," and he is very glad that he did.

One again, the beneficiary of any fundraising was Madison Square Park, which butted up against the tents where the food was prepared and presented. But we got to thinking ... what fundraising? We assume the men and women who came up from Texas, North Carolina, Alabama, Illinois, etc. did not do so for fundraising purposes, and were compensated for their time, efforts, and materials. Let's see, last year, 26,000 buns and 35,000 slices of bread were used -- one bun or one slice of bread per serving. So that's 61,000 servings, multiplied by $7, which is $427,000. The park got $50,000, which leaves $377,000 for the beer, food, music, etc. Assuming that the organizers and suppliers and non-food people got half of this, that means there was $188,500 left for each of the 10 pitcrews, meaning they did this for under $20,000 apiece ... that seems paltry for two days and many happy people!

Over 100,000 attended last year, and if each person ate three plates of 'cue and had 3 beverages of some sort, that's about $30-$40 per person. Then there were the serious piggies like us ... but either way, the numbers do add up. (If you couldn't follow this, don't worry ... we did it just to give us another justification for loving the 'que so hard!)

But it's not really a bubbafest. We eavesdropped on conversations of people enjoying themselves, and otherwise. We were fortunately enough to share a bench with a group who loved brisket deckle, and gave their thumbs down to The Salt Lick. They agreed with us that R.U.B.'s brisket was a damned shameful waste of a cow's bodypart in comparison to the rest. Others talked about how they'd studied via the Food Network and how that's practically the only channel they watch. And one of us had to be held back when these skinny girls commented on how they don't like fatty food ... and yet another had to be dissuaded from checking garbagecans to make sure everyone ate their 'que ... We cannot understand, for instance, why we found meat in the garbage consisting of nibble marks up to the pink smoke ring ... some moron partially gnawed honest barbequed brisket!! Gah!! Does one put on the ring setting but leave the diamonds in the recycling pile???

Urbanites and the more sophisticated enjoyed their 'que in relative silence, if you don't count grunts and groans of pleasure. We even spied Jeffrey Steingarten (author of The Man Who Ate Everything and It Must Be Something I Ate, and who defended a food critique from the legal ire of a restaurant who got a bad review, but you probably recognize him as one of the bitchiest and best regular judges on Iron Chef America) bellying up to Mike Mills's rig. He was wearing the same shirt and jacket he wore on his Iron Chef appearances, but it was absolutely covered in grease and sauce. This is a man who seriously loved his 'que, and he had chosen to grovel at the feet of the very affable ribmaster. We got his autograph and took some pictures, and enjoyed chumming with him for a few minutes before we ran off to another line for more 'que. (He did advise us that there were live audience seats available for the Iron Chef battles, for despite Alton Brown's insistence that Kitchen Stadium is located in a volcanic lair, the real location is the Chelsea Market studio.)

We loved this stuff so much that we "embalmed" many samples in the fridge, and we discovered that each serving fits snugly (with fork!) into a one-quart sized Ziploc baggie. (Others spied us doing this and even openly admired our practice. Hey, how else is one supposed to save this stuff?? Actually, last year, we had take-out boxes which were good, but hefty in size; the baggies let us fit more into our 'que stash.) Note that this meat does microwave quite well, but be sure to remove the coleslaw, of course. And we still found the sauce to be so good that once again, we made out with our fingers to get it all. (Good thing they don't make "lube" out of these sauce flavors ...)

Dogs were well-behaved here, and we enjoyed watching one in line who was sitting on her haunches and staring and sniffing at the guy pulling pork for Dinosaur BBQ. She wouldn't move, even when her owner progressed down the line. We understand, and we were amazed at how well she behaved. Cops and firemen in uniform were likely well-behaved when they gunned for free 'que. The out-of-town pitmasters did respect New York's Finest and New York's Bravest, and took good care of them. As you can see from the photos, the cops were much happier than the dogs.

And we think God must be a barbeque fan, for we got splendid weather. Last year, it was hot, humid, and still. We got sunburned, and it was worth it. This year, the weather was perfect and the strong breeze wafted the smoke far and wide, and made it obvious that this was a special weekend. We are a blessed bunch! See you here next year!!

Disclaimer: All contents are personal observations, and no profit or lucre is expected, solicited, advocated or paid by anyone, including those being observed. This is all just for fun. Any comments, please e-mail the author or WOOKIEEhut directly. Flames will be ignored. This report may not be posted anywhere without the author's knowledge, consent, and permission.