It was six o’clock on Madison Avenue and 27th Street, and pit master Sam Jones looked relaxed.
The first ten of his twenty whole hogs – weighing in at about 180 pounds each – were smoking away over oak and hickory coals pumped up a bit by charcoal briquettes. For the next sixteen hours, those coals would continually get refortified, the skin of the animals parching to a thick chip texture. Come 11 a.m., the loin, belly, ham, and skin would be cleaved together into a pile of juicy, sweet meat topped with his signature Heinz tangy Carolina BBQ sauce.
The sixteenth annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party would be loud and hot, and frantic. But for now, the third-generation pit master from North Carolina’s Skylight Inn and Sam Jones BBQ didn’t seem concerned.
“Big Apple Barbecue is the grand stage, a who’s who of barbecue,” Jones tells the Voice. “The people who do a good job at every single style of barbecue are here, so when they first invited me, it blew my hair back. Now, it’s like a reunion. Tonight, there will be a ton of alcoholic beverages consumed, a ton of lies told, stories from old, and the making of new ones for next year.”
Walking south on Madison proved Jones’s words to be too true; seated a few feet back from his own smoking whole hogs, Pat Martin of Martin’s Bar-B-Que sat in a circle of camp chairs, drinking beers and shooting the shit with Kenny Callaghan, a founding organizer of the party and, as the former chef of Union Square Hospitality’s Blue Smoke, one of the most visible and involved faces of the weekend.
Callaghan immediately jumped up for hugs and to share stories: what had already been set in motion, whose trucks were still en route somewhere in Baltimore, and which smokers were well underway. He ran off to put out a fire (as in a problem to be fixed, not one of the dozen flames breaking wood down around the park), and Martin jumped up to show off his hogs, too.
Weighing in at two hundred pounds each, six of his twelve 100-percent Berkshire pigs were already split and had been smoking on his steel hog pits since midday. He’d pulled them with a one-ton pickup on a forty-foot gooseneck trailer up the nine hundred miles from Nashville. “When Kenny and Danny [Meyer] invited me the first time, I thought, ‘This is a big stage.’ I had to show up on the stage. So I had this thing built for it,” Martin says.
Slightly larger than the eastern North Carolina hogs, the meat on Martin’s would be pulled out from under the skin in the Tennessee-style tradition, and therefore yield slightly less meat, so he’d also smoke forty twenty-pound shoulders to meet demand. In his eighth year participating, he credited the event’s success to the prestige of the group in attendance, and the fact that “Big Apple is not a competition – it’s truly a festival, and truly about the family and love of barbecue. And that’s why New Yorkers come back every year for it. There’s no one in barbecue that doesn’t want to be invited to this. We’re one of the fortunate few who are.”
The hogs would continue to smoke long after Martin left to rest up for the next day, a few of his crew staying overnight to keep the fires stoked. After 24 hours at around two hundred degrees, they’d be served up and replaced by the next lot.
Meandering to the corner of Madison and 26th, Tim Hutchins and Dustin Blackwell of Hutchins BBQ had just started their briskets’ 14-hour smoke in the rotating smoker they’d hauled the 22-hour, 1,500-mile drive from McKinney, Texas. As the only first-timers of the festival this year, they hadn’t yet begun their drunken pre-game revelry. Instead, they made sure their team of fifteen employees was ready for the biggest catering job they’d ever had.
That job meant 500 briskets, their raw weight of 10,000 pounds smoking at 225 degrees for fourteen hours before sitting warm at 150 degrees for another three hours. “Then it’s game-time,” Blackwell tells us. “You’ve got the biggest and best names in the industry here. It’s a huge honor. We’re excited to build camaraderie with other places, to shake some hands and see how they do barbecue. And we’re far from home, so meeting customers from New York and getting their feedback’s gonna be really important to us.”
Further south and nestled against the park, Hometown Bar-B-Que’s Billy Durney was astounded by the love the out-of-towners had brought. “It’s one big happy family,” he said. “I don’t even know the guys from Salt Lick BBQ, but when our wood truck came up, three of their guys immediately came over to help us unload. There’s a new family that we’ll bond with now. This is what this event is about.”
As Durney continued to get his Heritage Creekstone Farms beef plate short ribs butchered, salt-and-pepper-rubbed, and set on that white oak wood, friends kept stopping by. There was Doc Sconz, the photographer who offers “musings on food and life” along with his photos. Shane McBride – the Balthazar chef and competitive barbecuer who co-founded Brooklyn’s Pig Beach with Ed McFarland, Matt Abdoo and Rob Shawger – stepped in for some good-natured ribbing. The two noted with pride that New York barbecue is unique in that it doesn’t have to stick to the traditions set for regional styles: Both of their menus include touches of non-American cuisines that make New York City so great.
And the other pit masters have taken notice: “What Billy’s doing in Red Hook is as good as anything you’re gonna get in Texas or anywhere else in the country,” Martin promised.
The Salt Lick people couldn’t be found at their tent; they’d moved their party to Ubons around the corner on 26th Street. There, the father-daughter team of Gary Roark and Leslie Roark Scott would be serving 1,800 pounds of pork shoulder over the course of the weekend, smoked low over hickory for ten to twelve hours, topped with their molasses-tinged Ubons barbecue sauce and served with slaw.
But while those shoulders were smoking away, the team had a far more pressing meal getup: the fifteen pounds of Polk sausage, hundred and fifty chicken legs, and a few dozen whole chickens being grilled and fried for the fifty-plus guests milling around, hungry and downing beers and Bloody Derbys (that’s a Bloody Mary with bourbon).
“The first few years we did this party, we sent invitations,” says Roark Scott. “This year we haven’t invited anybody, and people still show up! Over the years of our participation, we’ve made many friends who’ve become a part of our family.”
The Salt Lick folks showed up toting folding chairs, with cardboard signs dangling from their necks scrawled with “Judge 1,” “Judge 2” and so forth, as Operations Director Miriam Wilson raucously brought a mason jar of moonshine to the lips of anyone who crossed her path, blessing them “in the name and spirit of barbecue.” McBride swore to us: “There’s a lot of moonshine going around this park that you guys don’t even know about.”
Ubons may have had the largest party on the block, but small clusters of friends gathered around most of the tents, sitting lazily, springing into action to shovel another load under a hog or set some more wood atop a fire, then resting again as it smoldered down.
“It takes a lot of heart, passion, and patience to barbecue,” said Blackwell back at Hutchins. “Cook times are so long. You really have to baby it, and it takes a lot of focus, a lot of passion, a lot of effort, and a lot of good people around you to make it great.”
“Most of us don’t look at it as a job – it’s a true way of life. We’d starve to death if we had to do something else for a living,” said Jones. “We don’t know another way. As long as I can breathe air, I’m gonna cook whole hog barbecue over wood.”
Maybe it’s that kind of steady passion — the hauling of the smokers north and east, the time it takes to split logs and burn them down to briquettes, the hours of loading coals and smoking meat low and slow, and the time spent sitting around shooting the shit with friends old and new — that comes through the most at the festival, where lines build 100 folks deep and people wait in the blistering sun. Maybe it’s the “grand stage” of New York that so pushes the pit masters to serve their best. Maybe it’s the generations of conflict that many of them recognize.
“The South is [a place] of positives and negatives regarding culture,” Martin offered, ruminating on the journey of most of the pit masters to New York. “But the South brought so many beautiful things — in music and barbecue. This is our food as Americans.”
“For us, hospitality means bringing people in like we would on our front porch,” says Roark Scott. “Mississippi has a hard reputation right now of not being the friendliest state, and we want to counteract that. We want to prove that barbecue is a great equalizer — at the table, everyone is equal. So we like proving, over and over again, that our version of Mississippi welcomes everybody.”
Maybe it’s all those things. But, on Friday night at least, as hickory, oak, and ash smoke flew up Madison and 26th Street and through the trees of Madison Square Park, all were welcome. All were family. All were fed. And all were ready for the weekend and 100,000 new faces.