I'm a sucker for nostalgia, and last year's tenth annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party—the magical weekend in June when pit masters from around the country take over the streets surrounding Madison Square Park, smoking top-quality barbecue to fill the guts of eager New Yorkers—left me awash in fond memories of all the meats that have come and gone and the enduring friendships that have resulted.
As I began to assemble a battle plan to tackle all 17 offerings over two days for the 11th annual event this year, I started to lose that nostalgic feeling after seeing the same cast of characters fill the menu. Instead, a "been there, done that" mentality overtook me, and I wondered if monotony has put a dent in the Block Party's relevancy, which once brought different regional delicacies not found in New York City on a yearly basis—like pig snoots from Smoki O's in St. Louis, mutton from Moonlite Inn in Owensboro, Kentucky, and Brunswick stew from the Proclamation Stew Crew of Lawrenceville, Virginia.
Of course, as I ascended the stairs from the 23rd Street N/R station and the sweet smell of smoked meat filled my nose and lungs, all negative thoughts vanished in an instant and I was overcome with giddiness at the chance to once again stuff myself silly with some of the finest barbecue known to man—and to visit with my extended barbecue family.
Covering each and every pit master has become an art form in itself, and this year was nothing short of a triumph—a display of skill that ten previous years has wrought. By the time the lunch bell rang, immediately following the traditional "rib-bon" cutting performed by Blue Smoke's Kenny Callaghan, James Boo and I had already strategically placed a cast of about six friends in separate lines for barbecue. By 11:20 a.m. we reconvened as a group and worked through the snappy and spicy smoked links served with pimento cheese from Jim n' Nicks, peppery St. Louis-cut ribs from Baker's Ribs, the fatty deckle of Hill Country's brisket, sugar-coated baby backs from Pappy's Smokehouse, glistening pulled pork from Ubon's, brisket and sausage from The Salt Lick, and this year's sole new addition, the slightly smoky and very porky whole hog being cooked by pitmaster Sam Jones of Skylight Inn from Ayden, North Carolina.
Then it was off for round two, and with the initial wave of 'cue enthusiasts already settled down with their plates, shortening the lines significantly (lines on the whole seemed more manageable than in the past), it wasn't long until we were digging into sweet sauced bones from Memphis Barbecue Co., insanely juicy whole hog sandwiches topped with slaw from Martin's, the oft-touted baby backs from 17th Street Bar & Grill, Blue Smoke's robust salt and pepper beef ribs, and the number one best bite of the day, Big Bob Gibson's pulled pork, that seems to strike the perfect balance between pork, fat, and bark with a slight tang and soaking moisture that makes it a king not just among pork barbecue, but pork as a whole.
By now it was 12:15 p.m. and we had successfully sampled over two thirds of the pit masters' masterful creations and took some well deserved downtime to bask in our accomplishment. It was then, while polishing off the bits and pieces still remaining, that barbecue did what it does best—brought people together.
Sitting in lush but soggy grass—courtesy of tropical storm Andrea the day before—in the beautiful Madison Square Park on a perfectly warm June day, a group of folks, unfamiliar with each other before the day began, bonded over all the excellence that had just preceded us. The laughter and good times being enjoyed by all were a testament to communal power of barbecue and the single most important thing that has come out of years of the Block Party for me: friendship.
The rest of the afternoon slowly brought on the final five dishes—an improved whole hog from Scott's that needs no other side than pork cracklings, Checkered Pig's always on point St. Louis Ribs that are exemplary in their tenderness and sauce and spice mixture, Blackjack's pulled pork, Dinosaur Barbecue's brisket sandwich, whose meat, while maybe a little underdone, was given a boost thanks to a spicy jalapeño topping, and Ed Mitchell's whole hog which has never failed to please with its extra tangy and peppery character that mixes with the smoky pork.
Tapped out after completing every single smoked meat in a five hour span, I called it quits for the day and returned Sunday for seconds on my favorite bites, and to take part in the other Block Party offerings, like cooking demos, giveaways, and chatting up the always welcoming pit masters for further insights on their barbecue.
While I finished the weekend overstuffed, content, and a feeling I've once again experienced some of the greatest heights of barbecue, an inkling of a promise unfulfilled continued to stir. With the expanding skill of New York City pitmasters—you can get better brisket just a mile south at Mighty Quinn's—and some glaring omissions that would be enlightening to the local scene—where are the ribs from Memphis or Kansas City institutions?—it would be nice to see the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party evolve and regain some of the past excitement it had in its earlier years. That being said, even if everything stays exactly the same, you'll still find me there year after year, face smeared with sauce, with a wide smile brought on by one of the finest barbecue events this country has to offer.