Big Apple Barbecue Says Goodbye to Madison Square Park with Final Party

Pitmasters from top BBQ joints in New York and around the country pose for a photo before the 2018 Big Apple Barbecue.

Pitmasters from top BBQ joints in New York and around the country pose for a photo before the 2018 Big Apple Barbecue.

This past weekend was likely the end of the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party (BABBP) as we know it. With Madison Square Park officials telling event organizers that it could not host the BABBP next year, everything we know about the event — the venue, the passes, the pitmasters, etc. — could be radically different next year. But 2018’s event was still a fun escape for thousands of New York BBQ fans and a chance for pitmasters from all over the country to spend quality time together.

The 2018 Big Apple Barbecue was an extension of many of the themes we saw at last year’s BABBP. With the world often feeling like a divisive and disruptive place, the BABBP was an escape from seemingly daily outrage. The feelings from last year lived on and it was a joy to spend time with many of the top pitmasters in the country and try their food.

The event included many food highlights. South Carolina’s Rodney Scott, who recently won a James Beard Award, served perfect pork ribs. North Carolina’s Ed Mitchell (who returned this year to the BABBP) served up great whole hog BBQ sandwiches. Billy Durney from Hometown Bar-B-Que served a creative brisket and jalapeno cheddar sausage sandwich topped with queso. Ash Fulk from Hill Country BBQ served up top-notch brisket. Last but not least, Jean-Paul Bourgeois from Blue Smoke served up crazy good smoked and fried chicken.

On the dessert side of things, I was lucky to try Ample Hills’ Big Apple Barbecue exclusive flavor “Corn to Run,” which is made from creamy corn ice cream, cornmeal crumble, and blueberry swirl. (Hopefully that shows up at later events too.) And of course, I couldn’t not get some fruit-filled hand pies from Texas’ Original Fried Pie Shop.

Additionally, the event showed some signs of evolution by prominently featuring two LGBT women running one of the lead booths at the event. This was the first time in the history of the event’s 16 years that a primary vendor was run solely by women. Jocelyn Guest and Erika Nakamura (formerly of White Gold Butchers) just launched J&E Smallgoods, and the two used the event to begin spreading the word on the new business. Guest and Nakamura sold sustainably farmed hot dogs, kielbasa, and bratwurst, which they plan to eventually sell in stores under the J&E Smallgoods brand.

Even though there were good times had by most vendors and attendees, both the tragic loss of Anthony Bourdain on Friday and the prospect of the event moving overshadowed some of the proceedings. Chris Lilly, pitmaster at Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q and maker of insanely good pulled pork, told me he would be happy to come back at a different venue, as long as the event didn’t change too drastically. He wasn’t alone in his sentiments, and the vast majority of pitmasters I spoke to about the venue change said there was a decent chance they’d make the trip to NYC again.

The downside to moving the venue is that few locations in the New York area can provide enough space *and* as much foot traffic as Madison Square Park. Barbecue setups require an enormous amount of space, and you need to sell enough food to make a trip from far away worth it. It will be challenging to move away from Madison Square Park’s very central location.

On the flip side, perhaps moving the event can help it evolve further. I heard several ideas from pitmasters and attendees of what other things they’d like to see in the next edition of the event. Some suggested that the event could use more women, and perhaps more chefs like Guest and Nakamura could be involved, or we could invite some of Texas’ top female pitmasters. Something else I’d love to see is more booths that represent Northeast BBQ from outside of New York, as there are plenty of great joints in New Jersey, Connecticut, and even Toronto. Instead of 16 primary vendors, maybe we could make room for 20?

There are many places the Big Apple Barbecue could move to next year. There are several large piers in both Manhattan and Brooklyn. The Citi Field parking lot recently hosted The World’s Fare, a large food festival. Randall’s Island Park regularly hosts Governor’s Ball, Panorama, and other big concerts.

Despite a little bit of uncertainty, the 2018 Big Apple Barbecue Block Party was a success for the many thousands of New Yorkers who come each year to try some of the country’s best barbecue. But maybe most of all, it was a success for members of the barbecue community, who cherish all the small moments they get to spend together and will continue to get together no matter where you tell them to park their trailers.

Check out more photos from the event below.

Sean Ludwig