A Night in New York, and the Ribs Are Smokin'

It's quite possible that dead hogs outnumbered humans in New York City's Madison Square Park on Friday night. Barbecue experts were out smoking their fare in preparation for this weekend's Big Apple Barbecue Block Party.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.

In New York City parks in the middle of the night, you can usually find drunks, criminals and other never-do-wells. But one weekend every year, they're joined by roasting pigs and the good old boys who base them. The Big Apple Barbecue Block Party takes place today and tomorrow, but the real smoking action occurred last night in the wee hours while Manhattan slept.

NPR's Robert Smith was out there and sent us an audio postcard.

ROBERT SMITH: It's sundown in New York City and already a smoky haze has descended upon Midtown Manhattan, but don't worry, it's the smoke from dozens of barbecue masters from around the country who have lined their rigs up around Madison Square Park for the night. They'll be cooking for the festival tomorrow, but tonight it's like walking through the history of barbecue.

Mr. GARY ROARK(ph) (Resident, Yazoo City, Mississippi): My name is Gary Roark. I'm from Yazoo City, Mississippi. We're about 40 miles north of Jackson.

SMITH: What's it like being a small town boy in the big city?

Mr. ROARK: Scary sometimes, especially the driving. Pickup truck pulling an 18-foot trailer is kind of scary in all this traffic but, you know, we make do.

SMITH: You got guys here with racks of ribs putting on some sort of secret, is it a secret spice? What's in here?

Mr. ROARK: Magic dust.

Mr. MIKE MILLS(ph): I'm Mike Mills with 17th Street Bar & Grill in Salem, Illinois.

SMITH: So what surprises you about serving New Yorkers?

Mr. MILLS: They stand in line. They don't push. They don't shove. They just wait to be able to get that flavor in their mouth.

SMITH: Do you think the smoke kind of turns them into Southerners a little bit?

Mr. MILLS: Absolutely, it does.

SMITH: If you believe that bigger is better and biggest is best, you have to come right through the corner of 23rd Street in Madison because you have, what, one, two, three, four, five, six rigs here.

Mr. ED MITCHELL(ph) (Resident, Wilson, North Carolina): That's correct.

SMITH: And your name?

Mr. MITCHELL: Ed Mitchell. I'm from Wilson, North Carolina.

SMITH: This is a show of barbecue for us here.

Mr. MITCHELL: That's correct, and this is a show of the art of cooking barbecue, the art of cooking the original barbecue, which is the whole haul(ph).

SMITH: What's it like? It's Friday evening.

Mr. MITCHELL: Yeah.

SMITH: People are going out on the town here in New York City. They're all dressed up, they walked by, all these dead pigs. What do they think? What do they say to you?

Mr. MITCHELL: Well, they say, my goodness, what's going on in New York? They know tomorrow sometime they're going to be feasting real good.

SMITH: Well, wonderful, great to meet you.

Mr. MITCHELL: My pleasure, sir.

SMITH: I'll be stopping by later on to see how it goes.

Mr. MITCHELL: Please do.

SMITH: Well, it's almost midnight in Madison Square Park and the barbecue smokers are going strong. Most of the crews have left just a single person to watch over the ribs and the brisket, make sure nobody takes any.

But New Yorkers, as they're getting out of bars and restaurants, seemed to be drawn by the smoke and crowds of them keep coming through the park here, stopping by to see if they can get a taste or just to see what's going on.

Ms. LAURIE NELSON(ph) (Resident, New York City): Laurie Nelson.

Mr. GARY MALABARKA(ph) (Resident, New York City): Gary Malabarka, New York City.

SMITH: So what do you think the problem is. Why is it taking New York City so long to get good barbecue?

Mr. MALABARKA: It's a different type of lifestyle. New York City is one of the cities that is extremely fast, competitive, it's all about getting ahead. It's not really about relaxing, enjoying life, and so whenever that environment comes to New York City, I think people embrace it, they welcome it, and they'll look forward to it.

SMITH: To be fair, New York City does have some great barbecue restaurants. But their little secret is, they're usually run by Southerners. I'm going to move over here to 26th Street where a restaurant called Rack and Soul has their smoker. And that's an Upper West Side restaurant but the pit master is John Wheeler from Mississippi.

Mr. JOHN WHEELER (Participant, The Big Apple Barbecue Block Party): It's just different, it's just a cultural thing and you know, we do a lot more down south and we got a little bit better at it and they're catching up real quick and they got some great restaurants up here.

SMITH: So we had to basically recruit our talent?

Mr. WHEELER: I didn't want to say that, but yeah.

(Soundbite of snoring)

(Soundbite of an alarm clock)

SMITH: Five-thirty in the morning. Time to go check on the barbecue.

Unidentified Man #1: There he is.

SMITH: Well, I didn't manage to stay up all night, but a lot of these guys didn't get much sleep.

Unidentified Man #2: Good morning. How are you doing?

Unidentified Man #3: What's up, Rob? How are you doing?

SMITH: Actually, I'm in luck. These folks from Yubons(ph) are pulling the smoked pork butt out of the smoker right now.

Mr. ROARK: That's finished product right there. You get to take - you get a little taste of the first batch.

SMITH: Excellent.

Mr. ROARK: Get some little sauce bar, you say - you wouldn't - you get a little taste of both.

SMITH: Thanks. So having cooked this stuff all night, you know, very well, you got to do this again tonight.

Mr. ROARK: Oh, yeah, this is happening again tonight so you catch up on your sleep and (unintelligible) lighter.

SMITH: Sitting next to Gary Roark and about a thousand pounds of pork, I'm Robert Smith, NPR News in Madison Square Park.

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