Thursday, October 15, 2009

BBQ Blogs to Check Out

I've posted a couple of good barbecue blogs to the left side that you might want to check out. The first is called 3rd Degree BBQ by Andrew Bernstein. The other is called Full Custom Gospel BBQ by Daniel Vaughn. Both are worth checking out and offer some great spots to eat all over the U.S.

I'm off to Martin's Barbecue Joint in Nolensville this afternoon.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Music City BBQ Festival

24 slabs of ribs, 40 lbs of pork shoulder, six whole ducks and one ridiculously good time. That was the final tally for our teams at the first annual Music City BBQ Festival in downtown Nashville.

Part college reunion and part bbq competition, the weekend turned out to be a first class sh&t show. And I mean that in a good way. We entered two teams, Nice Racks and Marr-B-Q, in the backyard division. My friend Andy Moats and I captained Nice Racks, while Adam and Aaron Marr were at the helm of Marr-B-Q. Dave Morris played Switzerland.

The pre-event emails might as well have had “VEGAS” in the subject line. The gloves were off from the opening salvo when it was suggested that Nice Racks needed to be called Nice “rhymes with rocks”. A Zima reference soon followed and it was downhill from there.

In order to do the weekend justice, I’m going to try my best to recount it chronologically.


2:52 PM- Andy sends email with subject line: “Nice Racks gets mention in Tennessean” with a link to the article

4:33 PM- The Marrs respond with a claim that the Metromix is a social website for metrosexuals. More Zima references.

7:00 PM- Andy and I drive to his family’s Golden Rule BBQ restaurant in Clarksville, TN to pick up supplies (the original Golden Rule is in Birmingham).


12:30 PM- Andy and I blow up the inflatable pig in the driveway. The last time I was that excited for a giant toy was when my grandparents pulled up on Christmas morning with beanbag chairs and the Cobra Rattler plane.

2:30 PM- After a grocery run and loading the trailer with smoker, chairs, coolers and astro-turf (a touch of class), we arrive at the site. The location was awesome. Downtown Nashville on 1st Ave, stumbling distance from Broadway and the honky tonks.

3:00 PM- The Marrs leave Atlanta.

3:01 PM- the first sh%t talking text is sent. This would continue for the entire drive.

4:00 PM- The LA Grillers arrive next to us. A father, son, grandfather/father-in-law team, these guys were a wonderful addition to our weekend. The LA stood for Lower Antioch, and they would turn out to be everything you could hope for in a competition neighbor.

6:30 PM- The Marrs arrive and the first beer of the long weekend is cracked. Aaron has a fantastic ‘stach for the weekend. His wife is less than thrilled.

8:00 PM- Adam realizes his truck is dead.
8:15 PM- Adam gets a jump from the LA Grillers.
8:16 PM- Adam closes the door with the truck running.
8:16:01 PM- Adam locks his keys in his truck.
8:16:10 PM- I fall on the ground laughing with tears in my eyes.
8:16:11 PM- Adam is not amused

8:30ish PM- Cops show up to help open the car. With a slim jim in the door and a cop working to open it, a lady walks up to Adam and asks “y’all lock your keys in the car”. Adam approaches meltdown. Luckily the future Darwin winner walked away before things got ugly.

8:45 PM- I pick up a 1/6 barrel keg of Blackstone’s porter. Quite possibly the best beer you’ll put in your mouth (if you like porter). Thanks to Kent for providing Nice Racks with good beer.

9:00 PM- Prep ribs a little bit and sit on the back deck until way too late in the evening.


8:00 AM- I awaken the Marr brothers to a triumphant yell and a suggestion of what they can do to themselves after finding the bbq festival story mentioning Nice Racks on the front page of the Tennessean weekend section. They don't share my excitment.

9:00 AM- A potential showstopper occurs as Aaron and I drop the Marr’s glass jar of secret rub while loading the trailer.

9:15 AM- Adam makes up a rub from my spices from memory. Crisis averted.

10:00 AM- We arrive at the site and decide that in the spirit of friendship, we will merge Nice Racks and Marr-B-Q into one team with two entries, splitting any prize money and avoiding situations like you see at the YMCA where grown men in jerseys scream at each other during pickup basketball games. We vow to focus our sh$t talking on the LA Grillers.

10:01 AM- First beers. At this point Marr-B-Q “gears up”…t-shirts, head bands, sweat bands and aprons. Nice Racks makes mental notes for next year.

10:02 AM- Start charcoal chimney to get fire going. Nice Racks is using a 10-year-old Oklahoma Joe’s smoker with a firebox on the side and Marr-B-Q is using a Weber charcoal grill. The LA Grillers are using a Green Egg. Cheaters.

The fun (and sometimes frustrating) part about barbecue is that you are responsible for every part of the process. Unlike cooking in an oven where you punch in a temperature and just worry about prepping the food, with barbecue you have to decide what type of fuel you want (mix of charcoal and hickory for us), figure out the right amount to get the temperature you want (around 225), and then you have to make sure the smoker stays at that temperature for 8 hours or so. I’ll probably add fire about once an hour for twelve hours. While not a Herculean task by any means, keeping the smoker at temperature does get a little more challenging when things like weather, beer and bantering with the LA Grillers get in the way.

10:30 AM- “Meat Inspection”- Thankfully we didn’t need the services of our in-house urologist, Dr. Dave, for this process. At every bbq competition they come around and make sure that the meat is held at the proper temperature (or just on ice) so that you won’t kill the judges.

11:00 AM Start prepping ribs and shoulders (15 racks and 2 shoulders).

It’s kind of cool to see every team lined up working. There’s not a lot of talking…it’s kind of like a longer version of Iron Chef. Everyone is on the clock to make sure they get their times right, and while still in a good mood, there’s definitely an element of competition going on.

12:30ish- Cooks Meeting- all of the backyard cooks gathered to talk about the rules of the contest, turn in times, and suggested servings for the judges (6 samples with enough for two bites each). Two things we noticed about the cook’s meeting:

1) Adam and I were the only cooks to bring beer to the meeting

2) It’s odd to see a giant redneck with a beard and camouflage UT hat ask “so would you recommend a garnish or not”

1:00 PM- Ribs go on the smoker. My plan is to smoke them for about three hours with just the rub on them. Then I’ll baste them with our sauce and wrap them in foil, putting them back on the smoker at the opposite end as the firebox. I’ll unwrap them with about a half hour to go. That way they get a good smoke flavor and stay moist without getting overdone or too bitter from the hickory.

1:30 PM- Herb from the LA Grillers asks if we’ll help carry his trophy back.

1:31 PM- We inform Herb that the YMCA bbq festival is next week and everybody will get a trophy.

3:00 PM- Adam pulls open the lid on his smoker to find that a couple of his racks are burning. Not good. The triage unit comes running with foil and Marr-B-Q sauce. The barbecue godfather, Danny Marr, is called in for a consultation. There is debate as to whether they saved the ribs in time.

4:30 PM- Nice Racks ribs are starting to pull away from the bone. Time to pull them off, lightly sauce them and wrap them in foil.

6:15 PM- Open up the foil and let the slabs caramelize a little…the sauce and the moisture from the foil need to cook off a little.

6:40 PM- With 20 minutes to go, both teams are scrambling to find their best six pieces. I enlist the help of some trusted advisors to make last minute sauce and rub adjustments. I’m pretty pleased with the results. Adam seems to think that the Marr-B-Q ribs will finish runner-up to the last place entry. Both us place our best offerings on a bed of parsley in the numbered containers the organizers provided us with.

6:55 PM- I’m not going to lie, I was pretty excited about turning in my first competition entry. The thirty minutes leading up to turn-in actually made me a little nervous.

6:57 PM- Nice Racks and Marr-B-Q make our way down 1st Ave to the turn-in table.

I think they should have theme music for folks as they make the walk… the scene in Office Space where everyone is walking in slow motion to “Damn It Feels Good to be a Gangsta” comes to mind.

7:00 PM- “I just turned in turd-on-a-bone” was Adam’s description of Marr-B-Q’s entry. The rest of us disagreed whole-heartedly…I thought his ribs were pretty damn good. We’d find out Saturday at 6 PM what the judges thought.

7:02 PM- With the competition over, it was time to eat some bbq and really start drinking. In the words of the immortal Tex…“It’s On”.

We go through all of our ribs in about twenty minutes. A couple hours later, the first pork shoulder goes as fast as we can put in the platter.

Special thanks to Tim for bringing the hoecakes…they were so good that by the weekend he was known as “Timmy Hoe Cakes”. Hopefully for his sake that nickname doesn’t stick.

10:45 PM- Just as we’re getting ready to head to Broadway, I decide to check the coolers with the meat. The ice is all but melted in the meat cooler.


Of course the ice truck has long been shut down, leaving us with three options:

1) try and get a cab as the concert at the arena was letting out
2) drag a cooler to the hotel nearby and pull a bush league move by draining every icemaker they have
3) take the pull-cart to the gas station on the other side of the river

Wow those options all sucked. For whatever reason, option 3 seemed like the best idea, so Andy and I took the “rickshaw” across the Shelby Street Bridge all the way to the Exxon.

Here’s a picture of me dragging the ice back across the bridge. It seemed like a noble venture the first ¼ of a mile, but then the reality set in that it was at least a mile and a half to the store. If you Google buzzkill, you’ll see this picture.

12:15 AM- When we left there were probably twenty people and the girls in the group were starting the late-night-girl-dancing that guys for years have mistaken as code for “so you’re saying there’s a chance”. We returned to find just Adam, Dave and LA Grillers Mike rocking out to Journey. Needless to say I was a little disappointed. No offense, fellas.

12:30 AM- Our shoulders and ribs on ice, we head down to Roberts for some PBRs, completely oblivious to the fact that we look like bus boys who just got off the “sloppy joe night” shift at Sizzler.

2:00 AM- We return to our tent for some late night whiskey shots and “pork tacos”- a phrase Adam used to describe open faced pulled pork sandwiches with Cool Ranch Doritos on top. This seems like a great idea at the time.

3:00 AM- Cab drops us off at home.


9:00 AM- “What A&*hole made this a two day festival?” is the first thought that runs through my throbbing head. A look around the room for the cat that pooped in my mouth turns up empty and I begrudgingly get up to start the whole process over again.

10:30 AM- Dave drops his fruitcup on the grass outside the gates of the festival. He’s got a long drive to Memphis ahead of him for a wedding. His wife Betsy deserves a wife of the year award for letting Dave join us on Friday and putting up with what I can only imagine was not his A game at the wedding.

We take inventory of our beer situation, realizing that of the two kegs that we “floated” the night before, only about ½-¾ of each were actually consumed. An unspoken understanding went through the group that maybe we couldn’t quite bring it like we used to. That notion, however, would not stop us from trying as Aaron went to restock our supplies.

10:35 AM- We get to the site to find LA Grillers Mike has cleaned out the ashes from our smoker and already put a couple loads of lit charcoal into our firebox, thus saving us at least an hour of cooking time. I could have hugged the guy. Not to go off on a barbecue koombaya rant, but the people at barbecue festivals are just good people. They all look out for one another, even though they’re competing.

11:00 AM- Our hangover shaken off, Adam and I get to work seasoning 9 racks of ribs and four boston butts. Once those are on the smoker, we turn our attention to the whole ducks that we had marinating overnight. We wrap them in bacon and put them on Marr-B-Q’s grill for a little over an hour.

11:15 AM- Adam sears his calf on my lit charcoal chimney. Burning flesh anyone?

12:00 PM- The day of gluttony begins.

The duck came off much better than we expected…while one was a little dry, most of them were really pretty good. I think the duck started what became one of the coolest parts of the weekend…sharing samples with our neighbors.

We started out by taking some duck over to our neighbors on either side.

They returned the favor with chicken.

Then we did smoked sausage with a little sauce on Tim’s Hoe Cakes….you talk about baby-making good.

Then some ribs from next door…

Then our ribs…

Then some smoked wings from our other neighbor….

Then some ribs from our friends at Jimmy Carl’s…

And beer. Lots of beer.

It just doesn’t get much better than that.

6:00 PM- We make our way down to Riverfront Park for the announcement of the winners. I’m not sure if I’d been down there since Dancing in the District back in high school.

6:05 PM- The music stops and the tournament organizers take the stage. Hats off to Frank, Brian and Tom for doing an awesome job with the event.

6:10 PM “And the winner of the Backyard division for ribs goes to….MARR-B-Q!!!

With that announcement our group erupted in the type of noise usually reserved for lottery winners and the victims of panty raids. With proud parents Danny and Pam looking on, Adam and Aaron took the stage to claim their prize. It took about 5 minutes for our crew to shut up. Sorry about that Frank.

Much to the chagrin of some of our competitors, Marr-B-Q made the best ribs of our division on a Weber Grill. Just goes to show you that there’s a lot more to barbecuing than fancy rigs.

There was a writeup of the big win in the Cleveland, TN newspaper (Marr-B-Q’s birthplace). What I like most about the article(which has been taken down) is that most readers won’t know that the sweet ‘stach Aaron is sporting is a joke.

7:00 PM- We pull two shoulders off of the smoker. They had a great flavor but were pretty tough; no doubt a result of my mismanagement of the smoker temp throughout the afternoon. Luckily most folks had pickled their taste buds with some celebratory shots, so the texture wasn’t a big hang up.

Saturday night is the night all of the teams let loose, and at almost every tent there was a party. It was fun to visit the people who had become new friends over the weekend. Everyone was eager to share a beer and a story, and after a few hours it became clear that Sunday morning was really going to suck. Not just your garden variety of sucking…we’re talking early Sunday morning flight home after a bachelor party sucking.

10:30 PM- We pull the final two shoulders off the smoker. They’re just about perfect. Falling apart tender, great smoke ring and very flavorful. Unfortunately we’re all ridiculously full and ready to go out, so we wrap them in foil and leave them on the side of the smoker for a post-bar snack.

10:45 PM- 2 AM- One of those nights where everyone is in a good mood and every place we go is playing a great mix of 80s butt rock and old-school country.

2:30 AM- The last two men standing, Adam and I head back to our tent in eager anticipation of tearing into the shoulders we left.

2:33 AM- The shoulders are gone.

Someone went through everything edible we had, including the nasty duck carcasses that had been sitting out for twelve hours.

We wondered how something like that could happen until we saw the off-duty cop sound asleep in his car at the “security” gate.

While I was pissed at the time, looking back it was probably for the best that Adam and I didn’t have 12 pounds of pork shoulder between the two of us. We’ve been known to overindulge at times, especially when left unattended late at night.

Finale- I’m going to leave off the god-awful cleanup on Sunday, but suffice it to say that after three days of a highly abnormal sleep/alcohol ratio, Sunday was a strong, swift kick in the nannies.

That being said, the weekend was an absolute blast. It’s rare that an event lives up to expectations, but our first bbq competition went above and beyond. If you like bbq and are looking for a good excuse to get your friends together, I highly recommend next year’s Music City BBQ Festival in late August.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Jimmy Carl's Lunch Box-Nashville, TN

“You got the money to start a barbecue restaurant from winning a game show?”

That’s how my conversation with the owners of Jimmy Carl’s Lunch Box started earlier this summer at Yazoo Brewery. A couple of beers later, Russell Nelson and Pat Isbey had told me how Russell won $14,600 on Trivia Pursuit- America Plays, hosted by Peter Brady (Christopher Knight). Soon after, a phone call to Pat put the wheels in motion, beginning what is arguably the best business start-up story ever.

While there is plenty more to the story than just winning some money, that teaser alone was enough to get me interested in checking out Jimmy Carl’s, which is named after the original drummer in Frank Zappa’s band.

Pat & Russell opened Jimmy Carl’s Lunch Box on May 6th inside the Station Inn, which is a legendary music venue in Nashville. Set amid the trendy Gulch area, the Station Inn is a total dive that is famous for bluegrass. A draft beer joint in what’s now a fancy-lad-drink part of town, the Station Inn is a Nashville relic. Long before condos with names like Velocity and Icon made the Gulch the place to be seen in the latest designer t-shirt, the Station Inn was hosting famous bluegrass jams seven nights a week.

This plays well for Jimmy Carl’s, as one of the hardest parts about opening a new barbecue restaurant is trying to replicate the character of the places that have been doing it for 30 years. By leasing a place with personality dripping from the walls, Jimmy Carl’s checked that hurdle off the list.

The first time I went there for lunch, I was impressed by the giant smoker that sits parked outside the Station Inn. With the smell of hickory and smoked ribs, chicken and pork wafting to the parking lot, the smoker sets the stage for what’s in store on the inside.

After several successful visits trying everything on the menu, my go-to order is the smoked thighs with beans and a rib tasting (2 bones). The chicken has a great smoke taste and is very well seasoned. The juicy dark meat explodes with flavor when you take the first bite and there is more than enough of it to fill you up.

The ribs are very good as well, and I love that they offer the sampler as a way to get the best of both worlds without feeling like a total tank ass. Pat, who mans the smoker, starts the ribs out with a rub of salt, pepper, chili powder and cumin. He places them on a grill first for a few minutes, then wraps them in foil before putting them on the smoker. After a while he unwraps the ribs and lets the smoke sink in. Before serving he puts a little bit of honey on top and finishes them on the grill.

I had never seen a preparation method like that before, but it’s hard to argue with the results. The ribs have a great flavor-the honey, cumin and chili powder seem to balance each other out and the smoke ring is very prevalent.

Pat is probably one of the few pitmasters out there that has been formally trained in a gourmet kitchen (Rumours East under Hernan Borda). His knowledge of food preparation and experience with different flavor combinations allows him to prepare some outside-the-box, yet delicious barbecue dishes. I’m not one that likes to stray too far from the traditional barbecue path, and I’m happy to say that Pat succeeds in pulling off his unique twists to the timeless classics.

The beans, for instance, are baby-making good. They are loaded with pulled pork, and packed full of flavor. They start by caramelizing onions similar to the preparation for a french-onion soup (a nod to his formal training), only he uses drippings from the smoked pork shoulder to add a great smokey flavor from the beginning. Then comes the beans, seasonings, sauce and loads of pork. I don’t like baked beans and I think they’re fantastic. In addition to the beans they offer a spicy slaw and a macaroni salad, both of which I liked. They have two sauces, hot and mild. Try them both.

Smoked bologna is a unique item on the menu, and it’s actually pretty damn good. Throw out whatever mental image you have of soggy, luke warm sandwiches from grade school and give it a shot. Probably not healthy enough to eat every time, but definitely worth trying, maybe as an appetizer if you have a group.

The food at Jimmy Carl’s stands on its own merit. It’s legitimately good barbecue in a town tragically lacking a barbecue superstar.

In addition to the food, Russell and Pat are great guys that go out of their way to make you feel at home. Russell handles the front of the house and if they’re not slammed he’s more than happy to sit down and chat with you about their food, sports or really just about anything. On your second trip, Pat will welcome you back as you pass him outside on the smoker and likely will come visit your table before you leave as well.

They’re the kind of guys you want to have a beer with, which I imagine they’d be more than happy to do with you if they’re not catering an event at night.

So if you’re in the mood for barbecue, get a group of your coworkers together and do something a little different for lunch. There is plenty of free parking and it’s easy to get in and out in an hour.

Jimmy Carl’s Lunch Box is open Tuesday through Friday for lunch (11-3) and they’re also available for catering.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Mississippi Delta, Handy Andy & Mo's

The Mississippi Delta struck me as the land that time forgot. As I drove south on the Delta Blues trail, the only way you could notice it was 2009 was the cars on the road. Other than that, it could just as easily have been 1959 in most of the historic towns.

There is a mix of sentiment and sadness in the Delta. On one hand you have the rich historical ties to the blues, and on the other you have a deep, almost third-world standard of living for many of the residents. There are amazing old buildings next to abandoned storefronts and charming homes are one street over from houses that should be condemned. There is alcohol abuse, rampant obesity, and poverty, but there is also a strong sense of community, friendliness and a genuinely welcoming attitude. I didn’t see any outward signs of the racism the state is known for, which made me naively hopeful.

I did however hear some things on the radio from the area church services that made me realize that the “thought leaders” for the communities weren’t quite on the cutting edge of open-mindedness. The preachers seemed blissfully unaware of how much hate surrounded their message of “God’s love”, which is apparently reserved for heterosexual churchgoers, women who obey their husbands and men who aren’t afraid to show a little discipline to their family. While I’d never listened to radio church service before, I found myself unable to turn the station...the kind of sensation you have when you pass a wreck on the interstate. You don’t want to look, but you find yourself staring. As offputting as the sermons were, there was an infectious, almost magnetic quality to the gospel music that followed. Confusing and tragic, yet somehow uplifting. But enough about church.

The Delta Blues Society has done a great job with the historic markers along the blues highway, and I spent the entire day driving down Highway 61 to Greenville and then back up Route 1 along the Mississippi River to Clarksdale. With Muddy Water’s complete compilation as my companion, I drove through cotton fields from town to town, stopping a couple of times for sweet tea and once for fried chicken (and holy bejesus was it good).

Back in Clarksdale, I pulled into the Shack Up Inn, an old cotton gin plantation that has been transformed into the coolest motel I’ve ever seen. In addition to the ten rooms inside of the actual gin building, they remodeled about ten old shacks on the property.

Each one is named after a person or theme, and mine was named Pinetop after Willie “Pinetop” Perkins, a legendary blues piano player who stayed there while working on the Hopson Plantation as a sharecropper.

In addition to the unique accommodations, the thing I really liked best about the Shack Up Inn was that everyone would sit out on their porch when the sun was setting and drink a beer or two. Most folks would walk around and visit with their neighbors, creating a communal experience usually reserved for overseas travel. If you go in the summer, make sure to bring bug spray for the mosquitoes. They are vicious.

On Monday morning I woke up and headed for the Delta Blues Museum in downtown Clarksdale, which was an hour very well spent. On the way back to Nashville, I went to Handy Andy’s Grocery and BBQ in Oxford, MS.

It’s a cool mini-mart looking place that’s mostly a bbq restaurant. I would recommend knowing what you want to order, as the lady behind the counter is long on sass and short on patience. After fumbling through the menu I got a pork sandwich, which was good but not great.

An hour later or so later in Tupelo, I passed a red gas station that said “Mo’s BBQ”. Immediate U-turn. Mo’s has a smokehouse off to the side of it, and the smell of hickory was evident when I opened the door.

Inside Mo’s is more convenience store than restaurant, so I took my sandwich to go. I was pleasantly surprised when I tried the pork by itself. Great smoke ring, tender, juicy and full of flavor. The sauce complimented it well and the slaw, well the slaw was slaw, but overall it was a great experience. The guy behind the counter was really friendly and enthusiastic...he made you excited to order.

As I sat enjoying the sandwich on the hood of my car, I noticed the sign out front. I really don’t think I need to add any commentary.

If you ever find yourself in Tupelo, I would head to Mo’s for sure.

My BBQ/Delta Blues tour over, I reluctantly headed back home via the Natchez Trace Parkway.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Red's- Clarksdale, MS

I came to the Delta in search of an authentic juke joint. The kind of place you read about in magazines but aren’t sure really exists. The kind of place you pull up to and wonder whether it’s safe to get out of the car. The kind of place where you can get lost in the blues for hours.

I got a recommendation for a juke joint called Red’s from the guys at Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art. They said it was on the street I drove in on, which I found strange because I didn’t see a thing on my way in. I drove back the same way, carefully checking out what amounted to a lot of abandoned buildings until I hit the end of the block. Nothing. I turned around and drove back up the street, beginning to think I was the victim of some sort of inside joke Clarksdale plays on tourists.

As I was sitting at a stop sign, I looked to my right and was drawn to a couple of old smokers sitting outside a presumably condemned building. Next to the smokers was an old refrigerator, some trash cans that hadn’t been emptied in a while and some extra plywood- probably leftover from boarding up the windows. When I drove forward just a bit, I noticed that the refrigerator was blocking a sign that said “Red’s Blues Club”.

My first thought was “are you shitting me?”, quickly followed by “this is fantastic”.

I parked my car and walked over to the front door. In front of the building was a guy looking for something on the floor of his car. When I got closer I asked him if Red’s was open. He responded “it can be”, at which point I knew I was talking with Red himself.

Red was probably 55-60ish. He had a stocky build and wore sunglasses, an open shirt and a white hat. I imagine this was his signature look. He told me to go inside and that he’d be in as soon as he could find his keys.

Walking into Red’s, I knew I’d found exactly what I was looking for. It was only about 5:30, but it might as well have been midnight inside. Red’s has no windows, and the only light comes from beer neons and some red rope light in the shape of music notes along the walls. R.L. Burnside was blaring from the house speakers.

The place is tiny, maybe 20x40, with a giant fan roaring in the corner in an attempt to make up for the poor window unit’s valiant but feeble attempt at beating the oppressive Delta heat. When Red walked in, he went behind the counter and brought out two 24 oz Budweisers, sheepishly acknowledging that his keys were in his pocket the whole time.

He walked over to the wall and asked if I knew who was in the picture. Thankfully I recognized John Lee Hooker, and my correct answer earned me some sort of “tourist with a clue” status.

For the next hour Red and I sat and talked about the blues. He told me about all of the people who had come through his joint. Mostly they were names I’d heard of or seen on compilation records but wasn’t really that familiar with-T-Model Ford, Junior Kimbrough, Big T, Lightnin' Malcolm, and Big Jack Johnson.

Our conversation was intermittent. We’d talk for a while, then sit in a silence for a few minutes. But it didn’t seem awkward. I was just soaking everything in, figuring that when Red wanted to talk he would. Every now and then he’d pop up and take me over to another picture on the wall, pointing out Carlos Santana in one of them and Buddy Guy in another.

After a couple of beers, I told Red that I was doing a bbq tour of the country. His head perked up- I’m assuming his eyes opened a little wider as well but couldn’t be sure. Red kept his sunglasses on the entire evening, inside and out. I told him I went to Abe’s but was disappointed. Without saying a word, he pointed his head towards the door, and we walked back out front.

In one of those “it doesn’t get much better than this moments”, Red opened up one of the smokers on the sidewalk to reveal a pork shoulder covered up in foil. Are you kidding me? He took off the foil to reveal a beautiful dark brown hunk of barbecue goodness. Red’s doesn’t serve food, so he was just doing this for himself. And luckily me.

“Go inside and get the knife and white bread”, he barked in my direction. I went inside and found a huge grill knife that hadn’t been cleaned in years sitting next to a half loaf of Wonder Bread. Not wanting to come off as the city-boy patsy that I am, I took the knife out as is and proceeded to slice into the shoulder.

Sitting out on the sidewalk, sweat running down my face, eating smoked shoulder on white bread with the owner of a Delta juke joint. That’s good living.

Just when I thought life couldn’t get much better, Robert “Wolfman” Belfour pulled up and started getting ready for his evening show. To be honest I’d never head of the guy before, but he looked exactly how you would hope a blues musician would. Sixty-nine years old, Mr. Belfour had salt and pepper hair, and wore glasses and a suit. He had an easily inducible laugh that revealed a kindred spirit and a lifetime of stories.

Red told him that I was looking to get educated about the blues, and after he set up he told me to pull up a stool. Smoking a Doral and drinking a Bud Light, he started with telling me that he grew up watching his father play the guitar with a pocket knife for a slide. Once older he’d work during the day and play at nights on the weekends. Back in the old days, before there were clubs, he said they just went to somebody’s house where there was gambling and liquor. They’d give you $5 and all the liquor you could drink. Drunk on homemade white whiskey, he’d play until the sun came up, when everybody would walk home.

He talked about playing on Beale Street back when “Beale was alive”, his eyes lighting up as he took his own trip down memory lane. He threw out names like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, friends and influences of his through the years. I just sat there in silence, drinking deeply from all of the stories he was telling.

After forty-five minutes and a couple of beers, a few more people strolled in, and Mr. Belfour decided it was time to play. And play he did. For almost four hours straight, he sat up on stage and played the best solo blues show I’ve ever seen. He told me earlier that he never learned chords, which meant he played only notes on the guitar. All I can say is wow. In between songs he would conduct his own, much cooler version of VH-1 Storytellers. There’s a clip or two of him on YouTube that I’d recommend checking out.

At one point I decided to walk down the street to Ground Zero Blues, Morgan Freeman’s club that he opened a few years back to revitalize his hometown. Red had mentioned it in the afternoon, saying its “popular with the white tourists”. Had I not just come from Red’s, I would have thought that Ground Zero was great. I was after all a white tourist. It was much bigger and had a full band of really skilled blues players playing the familiar blues favorites.

But you can find a place like that in most cities in America, so I decided to head back to Red’s after two songs. On the way back I could see why most people might not go to Red’s. Not that it looks nice during the day, but once the sun goes down it looks like a real hellhole from the outside. And if you couldn’t hear the music playing, the only indication that a show was going on was a sheet of paper with “Tonight: Robert Belfour, $5 cover”.

I walked back in and took my same bar stool. Red welcomed me back with an “I told you so” look, sliding another 24 oz Budweiser down the bar to me.

Sometime after 1 in the morning, Mr. Belfour finally stopped playing. After a few minutes he walked over to the bar. I thanked him for everything and he said “hope you enjoyed it son”. Before I could respond Red belted out “I told you he’s good”.

Possibly the understatement of the year. After walking back to my hotel through the outskirts of Clarksdale (which I do NOT recommend doing by yourself at 2 AM), I couldn’t go to sleep for a couple hours. I just sat there thinking about all of the stories I heard and how cool the day/night was. For a dive bar loving, blues listening, barbecue eating idiot like myself, it just might have been the perfect day.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Abe's Bar-B-Q in Clarksdale, MS

After finishing the judging school, I headed south to Clarksdale, MS, home of the Delta Blues and Abe’s Bar-B-Q.

I had wanted to do a Delta Blues tour as part of my 3 week barbecue excursion, but Hurricane Ike pushed my travels farther north and the trip was postponed until now. In researching the Delta, I kept coming across a place called Abe’s Bar-B-Q. It got rave reviews time and again, so I was really looking forward to this little stop.

I pulled into town and drove straight up to the restaurant. From the outside, Abe’s has absolutely everything a legendary barbecue place should have, and then some.

History- Check. Abe’s has been open since 1924

Cool location- Check. Abe’s has character inside and out

Loyal following- Check. People love this place

Cool story- Check and check mate. Abe’s sits at the crossroads of highways 61 and 49, which is the famous intersection where blues legend Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil in order to play the blues. It simply doesn’t get much cooler than that.

I walked into the front door of Abe’s and happily took a seat at a booth. Articles from magazines and newspapers featuring Abe’s covered the walls. One in particular caught my attention, as it explained that the sauce was so good that then Governor Bilbo named it “comeback sauce” because he always kept coming back for it.

After the waitress brought me sweet tea and took my order for a rib plate, I decided to walk around the place and look at the articles and pictures on the wall. I could not have been more excited to eat. There was blues music playing in the background. Smoke from the pit lingered faintly in the air. I almost needed a drool bib.

And then I heard it. The unmistakable, unforgiveable sound of a microwave door opening in a barbecue restaurant. My head snapped towards the counter just in time to see the door close back.

A few seconds later, the waitress brought over my food and confirmed my worst barbecue fear. When I went to try the ribs, my fingers were met with the scalding heat that can only come from something that’s been nuked.

Microwaved. Are you kidding me? Why in the world would you spend hours smoking something only to ruin it by heating it up in the antithesis of a slow cooker? You might as well put a frickin’ McRib on my plate.

The ribs were so bad that I had couldn’t finish them. Not only were they rubbery, but they didn’t taste smokey at all. If I didn’t know better, I would say they were par-boiled as well.

I wanted to give Abe’s the benefit of the doubt, so I ordered a pork sandwich, praying to God that it didn’t get warmed up in the microwave as well. Fortunately I watched them prepare it by putting the meat on the flat grill as they toasted the bun. Not a slow heat, but better than a microwave. The sandwich came with slaw and their famous Comeback sauce.

I really wish I could say that I enjoyed the sandwich, but the meat really didn’t have much flavor on its own. The Comeback sauce tasted almost exactly like Arby’s sauce, which isn’t a bad’s just not really what most people think of for a barbecue sauce. When you put everything together, the slaw, sauce and pork actually had a pretty good flavor...just not what I’d consider a traditional barbecue flavor.

Now I will be the first to say that regional differences account for a lot of the intrigue and passion behind barbecue, and that it’s unfair to make blanket generalizations about a place based on one meal. Everybody has a bad day, and maybe I caught them on one. I’m sure the Clarksdale’s residents and Abe’s loyalists would shout from their rooftops in defense of Abe’s. After all, it’s been around since 1924, so they’re obviously doing something right.

But there’s no excuse for microwaving barbecue. Ever. Even at home. That’s just plain silly.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Barbecue Competition Judging School- Memphis

I decided that the next logical step in my barbecue dorkdom was to become a judge for the Memphis in May championship. As I went about exploring the process of how you get to be a judge, I found out that there actually is a pretty elaborate process.

The barbecue competition judging circuit is very similar to the world of professional golf. Each has a “Q” school where you have to prove yourself, and then you have to do well on some satellite tournaments before you get invited to play in the majors.

Fortunately the Memphis Barbecue Network’s version of ‘Cue school is a heck of a lot easier than the PGA’s to get into and to pass. All you really need is a $65 check, the ability to sit through six to eight hours of class and a brain that allows you to score better than 400 on the SAT. You probably don’t even need the last part.

The mental image I had for the barbecue school was of me and about 45 Uncle Jesse-esque characters sitting around a Moose Lodge talking about barbecue the way fishermen talk about fish. While I was looking forward to the experience, there was a part of me that was leery of listening to a bunch of barbecue blowhards yack away for an entire day.

Much to my surprise, when I opened the door to the room I saw a pretty diverse cross-section of folks. I would guess that the ages ranged from 25 to 75, with most folks falling in the 40-50 year old category. Some had experience competing and were looking for pointers; some had spouses that competed and wanted to have something to do to fill the hours on weekend; others just loved barbecue.

Everyone I met was very friendly, which makes sense when you think about it since barbecue is a communal event. While there is an occasional surly pitmaster, for the most part barbecue people are people people. They like to entertain. They like to bring folks together. They like to talk, tell stories and laugh. They can also get a little long winded when talking about their barbecue, but that just goes with the territory.

The morning session was mostly lecture. We went through the different parts of a pig, the format for the contests and how you actually judge barbecue. For anyone interested, here are the highlights:

  • The categories are appearance, presentation, texture, flavor and overall impression.
  • There is a preliminary round and a final round.
  • For the preliminary, the teams are put into groupings of three, and the judges visit each of the three teams tents to score them.
  • There is also a blind judging section where the judges score the three entries without knowing who is who.
  • It’s a comparative judging process, where you score the teams in relation to the other two. In some ways this seems unfair, because if the best three teams are paired together in the first round, only one of them will likely advance. But there really isn’t any other way to do it, since you can’t have every judge taste every team’s entry.
A mysterious multiplier is then applied to each category and the adjusted scores are added up to determine who advances to the finals. I say mysterious because the MBN officials won’t reveal what it is, other than to say that flavor counts the most. In my mind this unnecessarily opens the door for controversy. It doesn’t really make sense to me why they wouldn’t be transparent, especially since many of the competition teams do this for a living and spend thousands of dollars each weekend to be judged.

When I pressed the official on why they aren’t open about the scoring process, the response I got had the feeling of a jovial country club board president defending his membership policy. He gave me a friendly yet elusive “well they don’t really need to know”, followed by one of the competition team members saying “it’s been this way for 30 years”. At the risk of becoming a muckraker, I decided that I’d retire the issue for another day.

The second part of the school was experiential learning. They brought in two competition teams, Pigs with Attitude and Yazoo Barbecue to talk about competing, show us how they present their barbecue and of course, to give us a taste of competition bbq. Pigs with Attitude had only recently started competing, but Yazoo Barbecue had been on the circuit for many years. They split the class into two and we went through a mock presentation of how they greet judges and walk them through the judging process. While they didn’t bring their smokers, they did bring two whole pork shoulders, which we got to sample.

Each team gets between 10 and 15 minutes to do a presentation for the judges. It’s the team’s chance to entertain, educate and build rapport. The two teams had very contrasting styles of presentations.

Yazoo Barbecue was very scripted, polished and well rehearsed. It was very entertaining and educational, though maybe a little intense at times. A husband and wife team, the Yazoo folks walked you through the cooking process and told you why they did certain things and what that would mean for the flavor. When the judges sat down to taste the barbecue, the husband/pitmaster would talk about the different flavors the judges were about to taste, similar to how a good winery owner will walk you through the different flavor sensations of each wine. While some might argue that they’re leading the witness, I think it’s a very clever way to boost the scores. Most people’s palates are not finely tuned enough to pick out different flavor profiles on their own, but if given a little guidance, that sweet/smoky flavor can quickly become caramelized sugar with hints of the peachwood used to smoke it.

The Pigs with Attitude presentation was more like what you’d get at your friend’s cookout. Very down to earth, friendly and humble. A relatively quick presentation, they preferred to get down to business and have you taste their shoulder, rub and sauce rather than tell you about it.

The best part was watching them pull apart the different cuts of the shoulder. They would start by effortlessly pulling out the three large bones, a sign that the barbecue was tender and done. Then they would pull away some of the beautiful, dark outer layer to reveal a deep smoke ring and then place four different samples on the plate. Fortunately we were able to taste the barbecue as well, and it was interesting to see how some parts were full of flavor and moisture, while others were a little dry. My guess is that the shoulders were cooked earlier in the morning and probably continued to cook in the foil a bit too much in parts. But the flavor was great for both teams.

From there we all sat down at the tables and went through a blind judging exercise. Three containers full of barbecue sat in front of us, and before we could start tasting we had to judge on appearance. It’s actually pretty hard to score barbecue, especially when comparing it to another. While it’s easy to say “I like this one best”, it’s harder to quantify why you like it. I ended up having to go back and forth between a few samples, which is tough because the second round of samples is colder than the first. An enjoyable dilemma to have for sure.

After the judging was over, we had a Q&A session with the MBN officials and the teams and then took a test to gauge our barbecue judging IQ. Fortunately I passed, along with everyone else in the class. So I’m officially a trained barbecue judge with a credential that designates me as a blowhard with an opinion that matters.

Barbecue aside, the coolest part about the day for me was seeing how the teams, judges and officials interact. Sure they argued over some things and bickered about others, but they did so in the way that you argue with your brother or sister. Most of the time they were going back and forth telling stories, laughing about their experiences and talking about how they love the friendships that they get to make with folks from all over the country. It’s very similar to the bond you find among brewers, artists and musicians. People that are passionate about their craft really seem to look out for one another and are usually very welcoming. Probably because they love what they do.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

J.D.'s BBQ Barn-Somewhere in West TN

I got off the interstate at the Lexington, TN exit in search of a place I had heard about and eaten from, but never been to. A friend’s mother used to bring it up on her way from Jackson to Nashville and I remembered her describing the place as an old country shack with a huge smokehouse attached to it. How I remember that from ten years ago is beyond me.

I pulled up to a place called Scott’s at about 4:30 PM and knew that I was at the right spot. The smokehouse seemed to be twice the size of the restaurant. As I pulled in, my excitement was met with the reality that I was the only car in the lot. For a brief second, I had a Griswaldian moment where I thought that maybe I was the first one there, but the sign on the door confirmed my worst fears. Sorry Folks, Park’s Closed, the moose out front shoulda told ya.

Sold Out. Son of a bitch.

I parked the car and went to look at the giant smokehouse for a moment or two before reluctantly getting back in my car, determined to return another day.

I’m not always a believer that one door opens when another closes, but in this case it did. Twenty miles south of Lexington, at the intersection of highways 22 and 100, at a place called J.D.’s Barbecue Barn.

The intersection of 22 and 100 doesn’t even have a name. You won’t find the town on a map, which meant that J.D.’s had a chance to be legendary.

When I walked into the small building, J.D. himself greeted me with an almost-friendly “what can we getch u?”. Now J.D. is a man who is not afraid to sample some of his own product, and his thick southern accent is exactly what you’d hope for in a place like this. Behind him was a young girl I would assume was kinfolk of some kind.

A quick look around the joint told me that most folks probably do takeout. There were three tables, one of which was occupied by a guy that will likely be there the next time I go back.

Knowing that I was eating at the Bar-B-Q Shop in a couple hours, I reluctantly limited my order to a small pork sandwich with slaw and hot sauce. “Is that all you want” I heard come from the guy in the corner, his tone intimating that his teenage daughter would order more than I did. I regrettably had already reached into the cooler at the moment he said that, and when I pulled out a Diet Coke, I sheepishly waited for him to say “you city boys really are pussies, aren’t ya”.

Fortunately he didn't say a word, and I eagerly took my sandwich to a table eight feet away on the other side of the room.

I’m happy to say that the pulled pork sandwich at J.D.’s was one of the best I’ve ever had. The meat was well smoked, and the sandwich had a great mix of juicy inside meat mixed in with chunks of the outside bark. The slaw was purple and there was just enough of it to add a little bit of texture, but not much in terms of flavor-which I believe if you’re going to add slaw is the only way to do it.

The sauce was hands down the best vinegar sauce I’ve had (sorry North Carolina). The spice mixture he puts in it really gives it a great flavor, whereas normally the vinegar overpowers whatever spices get put in there. This one had a slightly salty/sugary balance that really worked well.

I savored every bite, counting my blessings that Scott’s was closed.

After I ate I asked J.D. if I could take a look at his pit, which he happily agreed to show me. He smokes over hickory, doing shoulder, ribs and chicken. He no longer does whole hogs he said, lamenting the fact that there just aren’t many small hog farmers anymore.

J.D. told me that he’s had this place for two years,and before this one he’d had another closer to Lexington that he and a partner ran for five years. When I complimented him on his sauce, he told me that he got the recipe from a non-blood relative of his aunt’s.

He recounted the story of how he got the recipe...

“the guy who gave me this was one of those guys that does everything spot on. Don’t matter if it’s hunting, fishing or fixing cars, he does everything spot on. So right before I was getting ready to start my first place we’re driving somewhere and he looks over and says “so you reckon you’re fixin to open a barbecue pit”...when I said yeah, he said “get you a pencil and right this down”....then gave me this recipe from memory”.

That’s one hell of a family heirloom.

After standing out and sweating near the pits chatting for another five minutes, we shook hands and parted ways, with the promise that I would be back.

I pulled onto old Highway 100 for Memphis, rolled the windows down and turned the music up, thankful for the unexpected surprises that life throws at you every now and then.