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blog-Skyline Inn

I may live in New York City, but I don’t much care for crowds, which is why you will never find me at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, the lighting of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, the Belmont Stakes, or any concert any time in Central Park. That’s what television is for.

But I do make an exception for the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, which took over Madison Square Park and the surrounding streets this past Saturday and Sunday. Perhaps it’s because I was there for its debut, on a rainy—okay, teeming—June weekend in 2003. Or because even though the event has grown like gangbusters since then, it still feels neighborly.

Then again, it could be the quick, cadenced thunka-thunka-thunka of a virtuoso chopper turning a whole hog into the ultimate blend of fat and lean in the middle of Manhattan that makes me feel at one with the universe. Especially when the background hullabaloo eventually resolves itself into colorful Festival of India parade floats and beaming Hare Krishnas. “You need vegetarian food?” someone asked. “Come down to Washington Square!”

Tempting, but no thanks. I’d skipped breakfast so I would be ready for an early lunch— a chopped-pork sandwich from the Skyline Inn (Ayden, North Carolina), where Sam Jones is upholding the family tradition (since 1830) of wood-cooked whole-hog barbecue. I haven’t made a pilgrimage to Skyline for ages, so I was delighted that Sam had made the trek north.

This was his first visit to the BABBP (so much faster to type), and I sure hope he plans on coming back. Like all great eastern North Carolina–style barbecue sandwiches, Skyline’s is unapologetically plain: just that chopped whole hog topped with a delicate, fresh-tasting coleslaw and served on a bun. The meat is cooked long, low, and slow until it passes tender to become lush, almost creamy. It’s chopped to pieces, judiciously larded with bits of crisp, salty skin, and then seasoned lightly—some would say austerely—with a thin, vinegar-based sauce. Heaven.

A few days later, I’m still recovering from a pork hangover, but it was worth it. Why hold back? After all, there was Mike Mills, from 17th Street Bar & Grill (Murphysboro, Illinois), with his prize-winning baby backs (“If it was easy, everybody would be doing it”). Covered with an outer layer of spicy, crisp-tender  “bark,” these are the  gold standard of ribdom, and the baked beans—all too often a throw-away side—are superb. The fact that 17th Street delivers nationwide is enough to make me rethink a forthcoming dinner party or two.

As always, North Carolina pit master Ed Mitchell supplied gravitas in more ways than one—his thick pork sandwich and generous heap of long, crisp shreds of coleslaw (really more of a vegetable side than condiment) caused its cardboard tray to buckle. Too massive to eat on the sidewalk, Ed’s sandwich was the reason I’d packed a ziplock bag or two and carried a tote. That evening, my husband was over the moon.

What were some other highlights? Well, I swung by BlackJack Barbecue, up from Charleston, for some mustardy South Carolina ‘cue. Jimmy Hagood and his crew were busy tending the cooker; by the end of the weekend, I heard they’d smoked 3,000 pounds of pork butts. Kenny Callaghan, from Blue Smoke, did New York proud …. And the juicy smoked pork hot links, offset by Saltines and a dollop of pimento cheese (a piquant, refreshing embellishment), from Jim ‘n Nick’s Community Bar-B-Q, in Birmingham, hit the spot.

blog-jim n nicks

The BABBP, by the way, is the genius child of restaurateur Danny Meyer, who, back in 2003, wanted “to promote the cultural value of American Barbecue.” Danny and his Union Square Hospitality Group, Blue Smoke restaurant, and the Jazz Standard jazz club (as well as presenting sponsor Southern Living magazine) continue to wrangle almost 20 pit masters (this year, from Alabama, the Carolinas, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas), coordinating big rigs, cookers with smokestacks, musical performances, and free seminars with aplomb. Their ongoing support of the Madison Square Park Conservancy is one reason the little park—when not dense with tailgaters and eau de woodsmoke—looks like Paris. I never fail to appreciate this; when I first moved to New York, you couldn’t walk through Madison Square, day or night, without being mugged or worse.

I ended my binge at the turf staked out by Scott’s Bar-B-Que, from Hemingway, South Carolina, which is right near Myrtle Beach. No surprise, then, that Rodney Scott‘s swagger and savoir-faire always seem to create a party within a party (click here for his BBQ mix tape, courtesy of Garden & Gun magazine). That’s a splayed whole hog you’re looking at below, ready to be mopped with a pungent barbecue sauce. It was cooked spoon-tender—à la cuillère—and served on a slice of white bread. More heaven.

blog-scott's bbq

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