Humans can be divided into many defining sets: cat people or dog people, beer drinkers or cocktail sippers, those who wear gold or those who wear silver. But in New York, the most gratifying and heartbreaking distinctions tend to be real estate-based. With Memorial Day looming in the near future, New Yorkers know who they are: Those who have outdoor space for a barbecue, and the rest of us (we hate you, by the way). In Manhattan, rare gardens and terraces are almost exclusively snatched up by the wealthy, but in the boroughs, it can be a matter of prioritizing. Young couples often give up indoor space in favor of outdoor access, taking small garden apartments in brownstones, and living for the sunny months.
And no, fire escapes aren’t fooling anyone. Common as it is to spot hibachis on these makeshift “terraces,” it’s illegal, dangerous, and a completely crappy setting for entertaining. Your smoker friends squeeze onto the landing next to you, ashing in your marinade, and spilling beer on the downstairs neighbor’s plant—forget it. But don’t cry, you walk-up dwellers, you sad recluses above bars, above restaurants, and underground! With a little bit of planning and wise packing, you can make the city’s parks your suburban, “cook-out” fantasy backyard.
Even the lowliest renters can take over designated barbecue areas in the nearest park. Prospect Park has seven barbecue-friendly spots, four of which include coveted picnic tables. We recommend claiming those early. Groups of more than 25 people have to get a permit for any park event. This can be done through the Web site, but for the cooks and schleppers, smaller is often better anyway.
We recommend making this a group effort, delegating all the boring details (plates, drinks, blankets, coal, and so on) out to those who can’t cook, and then focusing on whatever food preparation you can do at home. To begin, try to do all your shopping in just two places. Go to a real butcher shop, like Staubitz, for all your meat, and get your vegetables and all other ingredients at your favorite farmer’s market or green grocer. One-stop markets like Whole Foods and Fairway are convenient for already-marinated meat and prepared side dishes. You don’t actually have to cook at all to host a barbecue, but the lazy approach is always more expensive. Your kitchen work should be limited to marinating and prepping for the grill. Those backyard-flaunting bastards can bring out all the ice cream they want, but for a moveable feast, keep it room-temperature, with sides like coleslaw or potato salad, and pack them in containers that can double as serving bowls. For dessert, think cookies. Think watermelon, cherries, and peaches, too. Crazy as it may sound, skip the green salad. Are you going to pack dressing separately, or have a soggy mess to deal with? A tomato salad with onions, herbs, or mozzarella is a better way to go. And think of vegetables that grill well, like eggplant, asparagus, radicchio, and, when the time comes, corn. portobello mushrooms may seem passé at this point, but there are vegetarians lurking everywhere, so it’s this or establish a strict “bring your own tofu dog” policy. Most vegetables can be cut and drizzled with olive oil, salt, and pepper and transported in zip-lock bags, ready for grilling.
To feed a crowd for less, offer sausages in addition to chicken, burgers, or even steaks. To appease religious objectors, include turkey or chicken sausages, even if you like pork best. If you go with ribs, choose spareribs instead of baby backs, which are quite expensive and often have very little meat on them (pork chops are cut off the back ribs, so the amount of meat that remains varies depending on the butcher). Always marinate ribs the night before the party, either in a store-bought barbecue sauce, a dry-rub, or an invention of your own, using brown sugar, hot sauce, herbs, spices, and of course, salt and pepper.
You may not have a sprawling lawn behind your mansion or 1,500 square feet suspended over Central Park West, but so what? Is anyone too good for New York’s parks?