My Love Affair with Barbecue: A Chronology
Note: In preparation for the upcoming 4th of July holiday, we're proud to announce the launch of BBQ Week. Starting today and running through the holiday (okay, so it's really more like BBQ Week-and-a-Half, but bear with us—there's a lot of smoked goodness to get through), we'll be celebrating all things barbecue and barbecue-related, from recipes to frontline reports from the best pits in the country. To start things off, our founder and overlord Ed Levine waxes nostalgic about his lifelong love of barbecue. Take it away, Ed. —The Editors
1962 As a New York City area resident, I understood barbecue as a verb. My father would grill or barbecue a steak on Sunday nights, and outside dish was a pizza from Cairo's. The meal was sheer pleasure, if not exactly food pyramid-friendly, and I believe our Sunday night summer ritual was a formative experience for my taste buds. To this day, grilled steak and pizza, especially now that Kenji has shown us how to make serious steak and pizza at home, are two of my favorite things.
1969 The next step in my barbecue development was the realization that there really is such thing as barbecue, the noun. That took place in 1969, when I was living with my brother and sister-in-law in Los Angeles, and we discovered a barbecue joint on Pico Boulevard in Pasadena, and perhaps more memorably, the Texas-style barbecue at Gadbury's in Watts, near the USC campus downtown. I believe Gadbury's is still standing.
Fall 1969-Spring 1973: In non-barbecue (the noun) country in Grinnell, Iowa, my friends and I, under the influence of various substances both legal and illegal, would barbecue (grill) pheasant shot by our crazy friend Wilbur Wright. The pheasant was mighty tasty, even when grilling it in sub-freezing weather (I told you there were illegal substances involved), though the residue of blood and guts in our kitchen sink after cleaning the pheasant was perhaps less appetizing.
1971 Over one college summer San Francisco that I spent not working but making a little money as a bowling hustler, we ate real barbecue at a joint right near the San Francisco Zoo. For the life of me I can't remember the name of the joint, but I certainly recall the taste of the smoky ribs and the meaty beans.
1973 Moving to New York after college and experiencing the barbecue wilderness that was NYC at the time, I consoled myself with barbecue from Singleton's and Sherman's, two of the last barbecue joints in Harlem. When my friend Lolis Eric Elie was researching his definitive barbecue book, Smokestack Lightning, he discovered hundreds of listings for barbecue joints in NYC in the thirties. How Harlem was reduced to a precious few barbecue joints by the time I got there in the mid-seventies was and is a complete mystery to me.
1975 In the mid-seventies a Jewish dude who went to school in North Carolina opened Smokey's on 9th Avenue. His pork shoulder tasted good—even great, at the time, but really I have no strong taste memories of it. He later relocated to Amsterdam Aveue. Smokey's was followed by Stick to Your Ribs, opened by a British fellow named Robert Pearson who in his past life worked as a hairdresser to stars like Twiggy. His was the first true Texas barbecue, made in a wood smoker, that I had tasted. His other innovation: constructing his barbecue sandwiches on Portuguese rolls from Newark. Genius!
1980's The eighties were my formative barbecue years. When I was working for Nick at Nite in advertising, we did focus groups in Kansas City. Faced with the prospect of eating normal focus group fare (M&Ms, pretzels, peanuts, etc), I decided to spend a few hours following the Calvin Trillin Kansas City food trail and bring the fruits of my expedition back for my fellow focus group attendees. Yes, they thought I was nuts, until they tasted the Arthur Bryant's spread I brought to the antiseptic focus group facility in suburban KC: burnt ends, brisket, ribs, beans, and slaw. (And for dessert, Winstead's doughnut twists.) People who attended those focus groups don't remember anything we learned about Nick at Nite and its viewers, but they can recall every single bite of dinner. Now that's what I call real focus group learning.
Around the same time, while in Chicago on MTV business, I had a cabbie drive me to legendary south side barbecue joint Lem's. The African-American cabbie insisted on parking the cab in the Lem's lot and coming in with me, telling me it wasn't a safe place for a white guy to hang out at 10 at night. Really I think he just wanted some barbecue, which was probably the best non-monetary tip he'd ever received; Lem's ribs and rib tips were and are legendary. A tip I learned much later from a fellow Lem's customer is to order the ribs "cut to the bone," which yielded more eating pleasure because the ribs could be separated from one another quite easily. Otherwise, it's not easy to eat an entire rack of ribs with a plastic knife in a parking lot leaning on the hood of a car without just gnawing and passing.
1990-present: The first big let's-show-New-Yorkers-every-barbecue-style-available-in-this-country-joint was Virgil's, opened in Times Square by the noted late restaurateur Artie Cutler in 1994. But it was Danny Meyer and Kenny Callaghan, working with the great southern Illinois-based pitmaster Mike Mills, who really solidified the barbecue craze, first with Blue Smoke and then with Big Apple Barbecue Block Party.
In the 21st century Brooklyn's DIYers started getting down with barbecue. Fette Sau, Fort Reno, Fatty 'Cue, Mabel's, Fletcher's, and BrisketTown ushered in a new wave of Brooklyn Barbecue. Queens is in on the game, too, with Butcher Bar, The Strand, John Brown Smokehouse, and Alchemy, Texas (formerly Ranger Texas Barbecue) all vying for barbecue supremacy. The one new barbecue joint that suggests a New York aesthetic while still paying homage to Texas traditions and techniques is Mighty Quinn's, whose pitmaster Hugh Mangum might be the most talented pitmaster we've ever had in this city.
There are some things you can't get here. I've had friends send me burnt ends from LC's in Kansas City, pork shoulder from Big Bob Gibson's in Alabama, brisket from Black's in Lockhart, Texas, and sausage from South Side Market in Elgin. Because as good as barbecue has gotten in NYC, sometimes the only way to get some of the best stuff is to get it straight from the source.
Why do I love barbecue so? Because at its best, it is simply one of the best things you can put in your mouth. It has everything I look for in food: a nice crust on the outside, tender and smoky meat, and the right combination of meat and fat. I also love the fact the barbecue is so much a function of place. It is the original locavore food, even though now you can seemingly get any style of 'cue from any part of the country, everywhere. Lastly, I love the people and the pitmasters I have met around the country who are smart, dedicated, incredibly passionate about what they do, and like nothing better to tell you about what they're doing and how much they love it.
So whether you're grilling something Josh Bousel or Kenji came up with this 4th of July, or going the extra mile and smoking your meat in a fancy pit or a Weber Kettle; whether you're barbecuing, the verb, or making barbecue, the noun—or even getting some barbecue shipped to you from someplace that you can't live without for another moment, grab yourself a beer or two, rustle up some friends, crank the music, and start the story telling. It's all good. Barbecue (the noun or the verb) is some of the glue that keeps all of us connected.
About the author: Ed Levine is the founder of Serious Eats.