There’s no denying 2017 has been a year of fractured promise, of world realignment, of questioning what’s real and what’s not. It feels disconnected and dreamlike at times. Communities, families, and friendships are torn apart because they can’t seem to agree on facts or how to react to change.
Because of this, there’s never been a better time to barbecue with neighbors and strangers. When we spend time with people who have different views and spend that time in a way that connects us, we get closer and we reconnect. It’s hard sometimes to get away from our news feeds and rejoin society, but we need to do it.
This past weekend, the fifteenth annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party (BABBP) occurred at Madison Square Park in Manhattan. With it, New Yorkers of all colors, creeds, and backgrounds came together to celebrate and bond over a deep love of smoked meat. It was hot with temperatures reaching the mid-90s, but the daylight hours of Saturday and Sunday brought the community together and we waited in those long, hot lines together.
Fifteen vendors from all around the country showed up to share their best barbecue. Each one had its own charm and style, with brisket, burnt ends, pulled pork, whole hog, pork ribs, beef ribs, chicken wings, and sausage all represented. Besides New York, vendors came from Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
Most of these are red states, and yet, if you, a blue New Yorker, take a minute to talk to the immensely talented pitmasters or their crews, you’ll notice a lot differences fade away. We’re all decent people, we’re all trying to make a living, and we all love good food.
Let’s talk about food for a second. The depth and variety of offerings at this year’s BABBP was outstanding. Vendors prepared 18,000 chicken wings, 30 whole hogs, 5,000 pounds of sausage, 1,200 pounds of whole pork shoulder, 2,600 pounds of beef short ribs, 5,548 slabs of baby back ribs, and 2,308 slabs of St. Louis cut ribs.
The sole new vendor this year was Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q from Atlanta, Georgia. I was highly impressed with their tender brisket and mouth-watering cheddar-jalapeno sausage. It was one of my favorite plates from the whole event, and I hope they’ll return next year.
Four New York vendors showcased some their best items. Hometown Bar-B-Que pitmaster Billy Durney (with a hand from the current Brisket King of New York) offered up his amazing, peppery beef short ribs. Blue Smoke pitmaster Jean-Paul Bourgeois served impeccable brisket burnt ends (and as a Kansas City boy, I know some good burnt ends.) Hill Country pitmaster Ash Fulk offered up his signature juicy brisket. Dinosaur Bar-B-Que founder and original pitmaster John Stage was cooking up tasty pork ribs and beans, as he typically does each year.
Hill Country's Fulk made a good case for New York vendors to attend, even if they have locations that are exceptionally close to Madison Square Park, such as Hill Country and Blue Smoke. He noted that it's important to remind people that you're around and if you haven't been in awhile, you should come by again when you get hungry a week after the event. In a world where New Yorkers have a lot of great options for BBQ (that wasn't the case even 10 years ago), it's important to tell your story and make people aware of your wares.
Outside of the New York vendors, I was blown away by four other offerings: the perfect pulled pork sandwich from Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q of Decatur, Alabama; the melt-in-your-mouth whole hog sandwich from Martin's Bar-B-Que of Nashville, Tennessee; the perfectly smoked and flavored St. Louis cut pork ribs from Scott's Bar-B-Que of Hemingway, South Carolina; and the playful chicken wings from Ubon’s Barbeque of Yazoo City, Mississippi. I also really enjoyed the desserts and sides.
I got to spend a little time with Chris Lilly from Big Bob Gibson before the event started and during the event. Lilly has a soft-but-assured demeanor. He knows how to make damn fine pork and has been doing it so long, he's won many competitions, including this year's Memphis in May. And he's been serving up amazing BBQ all 15 years of the Block Party's existence. In a way, he helped inspire New York to grow as a BBQ town. And hell, maybe we still have a lot to learn from Alabama boys like Lilly. Next year, you should ask him how he got so good at what he does. Ask him how he juggles a family and an extremely successful BBQ business. Ask him what he cares about. And listen.
See the full gallery from the 2017 Big Apple Barbecue Block Party below: