Nursing a smoked meat hangover, I collapsed into a seat at the air-conditioned trailer tucked into a corner of the Big Apple Barbecue. Inside, food scholar John T. Edge was passing out bundles of bacon-studded popcorn and curating documentaries on the subject of the day.
The twenty-minute loop of films by Joe York recounted stories of whole hogs, pit masters, and a party that has grown from five cooks on the sidewalks of 27th St. to the engorged tenth-year anniversary sprawling across three city blocks.
"Madison Square Pork," York's retrospective on the Block Party, was a welcome respite from the crowds just outside the door. Several cooks had remarked that the first day of the event had drawn more hungry New Yorkers than ever before, and while the weather was surprisingly mild, just looking at the line for Ed Mitchell's whole hog sandwiches was enough to cause a pork-scented panic attack.
That moment, however, never came. Instead, in the final scenes of the film, 10-year Block Party veteran Mike Mills nailed the reason the Block Party works with trademark charm:
"I've watched this year after year. They stand in line. They don't shove. They don't push. They talk to each other. During that period of time, their whole life transcends. I've watched this just transcend from the hustle and bustle to 'let's enjoy life.' It's kinda like smoking the bee hive. In order to make the bees docile, so you can go in and work with them... you smoke 'em."
Maybe the masses he described are a self-selecting group, incredibly patient when promised pork seven ways. Maybe Danny Meyer's crack team of event coordinators has figured out all the secrets to stemming all-out pandemonium. Maybe Mills was right: a good barbecue is the original Disneyland, turning the act of waiting into eager anticipation in the fattest, happiest place on earth.
At the Big Apple Barbecue, all lines were long. But no line was without its showman, no corner was left without an ear to live music, and no one could escape the aromas of smoke and meat floating over every inch of the park.
The quality of the food certainly helped, and all of the usual suspects were smoking, grilling, and serving with full force this year. Ed Mitchell's whole hog, balancing juicy, porky flavor and the tangy heat of vinegar and pepper, was as good as it's ever been. Rodney Scott's whole hog, packing a stronger punch of spices, was more of a mixed bag; the good bites, though, brought me back to that afternoon in Hemingway, when South Carolina's barbecue blew my mind.
Ribs from 17th St. and Pappy's Smokehouse were exceptional this year—the former nailing the porky, woody backbone of flavor that makes Mike Mills' cooking so memorable, the latter using brown sugar and black pepper to make their own distinctive mark on a rack of baby backs. The Checkered Pig's St. Louis-style spare ribs, shepherded personally by Pit Master Tommy Houston, were the definition of a good barbecue spare rib: meaty, moist, and slightly smoky, with a balance of flavors just addictive enough to keep you reaching for one more piece.
Up Madison Avenue, New York's premier pit masters held up their end of the Party. The brisket from Hill Country New York was as juicy and flavorful as ever. Dinosaur Bar-B-Que's pork shoulder surpassed its own high standards thanks to a little extra love from pit master John Stage (who somehow surpassed his own high standards for making the act of brushing meat with barbecue sauce look incredibly badass). The biggest line for pork shoulder, though, was for Big Bob Gibson's now infamous sandwich—possibly better at the Block Party than it is in Decatur, Alabama.
As always, good vibes extended from the cooks just as much as from the food. At the Ubon's tent, the founders of fan-club-turned-competition-team Jubon's had quit their New York jobs to become full-fledged members of the crew. Rodney Scott, a newcomer to the roster, bumped his own soundtrack (thanks for the P.Y.T. fix) and greeted guests as if it were everyone's tenth year anniversary. Southern cooking and New York crowds merged into a seasoned, smoky romp as a raucous R&B rendition of Wilco's "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart" sounded from the stage.
There are ways in which this event could be more enjoyable. I wish the lines could somehow be shorter than they inevitably are. I wish there were more diversity in regional styles and more variation in the yearly lineup. But most of all, I wish we didn't have to wait another year to have another weekend like this one in the heart of New York.
About the author: James Boo has been a Serious Eats contributor since 2010. Working as a freelance journalist, he is also the founder of Real Cheap Eats and a documentarian. Check out his food-and-travel blog, The Eaten Path, for more journeys to the real meal.