Thursday, June 19, 2008

Does food need a story?

Does food need a story to be delicious? I don’t know, but it sure does help.

Take the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party that occurred in Madison Square Park two weeks ago. This event, which attracts some of the nation’s most laurelled pitmasters from across the nation, is an incredible way for New Yorkers to go on a barbecue tour of America without ever leaving Manhattan.

I hate to say it’s a popularity contest, but some of the pitmasters do garner longer lines than others. Why? Because these pitmasters have a legend, a face, a story behind what they’re serving. And because of that, people are curious about their food.

We had our first heat wave of the season that weekend, and even though there are trees and lawns in Madison Square Park, it’s a fight between concrete and chlorophyll for comfort, and the concrete always wins. Fortunately there was plenty of water, lemonade and cokes on hand, but I still chose to spend most of my time in the comfort of the (slightly) cooler seminar tents.

One of the fine discussions I had the pleasure of attending was a conversation between Ed Levine and John T. Edge, in which they pondered the nature and authenticity of city vs. country barbecue. They ruminated and digressed in a very leisurely and agreeable manner; listening to the two of them was like a long cool sip of iced tea—very refreshing. One of the points John T. brought up was the barbecue restaurant as a “concept.” How can barbecue be defined by a business plan? His conclusion—it can’t and therefore it’s probably not the real deal.

That’s not to say that people that open barbecue places can’t have the business in mind—to not think about making money while serving your customers would be folly. But if you open a restaurant announcing that it’s a barbecue concept, well, that should give a true barbecue lover pause. There’s not much soul or a story in a concept, now is there?

Fortunately, at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, I heard many stories about the food I enjoyed. There was Ed Mitchell and his whole-hog pulled pork, a craft he fell into when he decided to feed his mourning mother after his father died. Then there was the McLemore/Lilly family from Big Bob Gibson’s in Decatur, Alabama—the birthplace of Alabama’s famous white sauce. And there was Mike Mills, aka The Legend, so named because of his numerous barbecue competition wins over the years.

Mike and his daughter Amy, who I had the honor of meeting at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, agree that there are some great stories in the barbecue world. And the two of them have collaborated on an excellent narrative cookbook called Peace, Love and Barbecue. This is a book that once you start reading, you can’t put down—that is unless you’re headed into the kitchen to whip up a recipe or you’re off to the airport to catch the next plane down south to taste some of this food firsthand.

Mike is renown for his baby back ribs and they were indeed succulent and smoky with the right amount of pull in each bite. And the pit beans he served alongside were the perfect complement—porky, tender and sweet, with five different kinds of beans. I asked Amy if I could share the recipe with my readers, and she said, “Of course!” She also noted that it makes a ton and will feed a lot of people or freeze well (if you’re so inclined).


I forgot to ask if these beans had a story, though she did mention that she no longer makes them with honey since the decline in the honey bee population (another story for another day). But what do you think? Do you believe that food served with a side of stories tastes better than food served without?

17th Street’s Tangy Pit Beans (From Peace, Love and Barbecue by Mike Mills and Amy Tunnicliffe Mills)
Ingredients:
2 tablespoons prepared yellow mustard
3 cups ketchup
1 cup diced onion
1 green or red bell pepper, seeded and diced
1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
1/2 cup sorghum or honey
1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons Magic Dust (recipe below)
1 large can (28 ounces) pork and beans
1 can (19 ounces) large red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
1 can (15 1/2 ounces) chili beans
1 can (15 1/2 ounces) large butter beans, drained and rinsed
1 can (15 1/2 ounces) of a fifth bean
4 or 5 slices bacon or a few cooked ribs or some barbecued pulled pork

Method:
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Mix the mustard, ketchup, onion, bell pepper, brown sugar, sorghum or honey, and Magic Dust together in a large bowl. Be sure to work out all the lumps of brown sugar.
3. Add the beans stirring gently with clean hands or a big spoon, just enough to evenly distribute the mixture. Over mixing will cause the skins of the beans to burst and the consistency will become mushy, more like refried beans, which you don’t want.
4. Pour into 13x9-inch baking dish. Lay the bacon strips, ribs or pork across the top.
5. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 45 minutes.
6. Remove the foil and bake for an additional 15 minutes or until bubbly.
Serves 10 to 15

Magic Dust (From Peace, Love and Barbecue by Mike Mills and Amy Tunnicliffe Mills)
Ingredients:
1/2 cup paprika
1/4 cup kosher salt, finely ground
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons of mustard powder
1/4 cup chili powder
1/4 cup ground cumin
2 tablespoons ground black pepper
1/4 cup granulated garlic
2 tablespoons cayenne

Method:
Mix all ingredients and store in a tightly covered container.

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20 comments:

Lisa said...

Food with a story is always better! It engages more of our senses, our eyes or our ears, along with taste and smell and, in the case of ribs, even touch. It makes the experience of food more satisfying and memorable and sometimes it even touches our heart!

Thanks for the story. That magic dust sounds amazing!

Lyra said...

Food with a story is definitely better than food served in a social, historical and cultural vacuum. If you have read the awesome book Mindless Eating, you will have heard about how our brains play a huge part in determining whether something tastes good to us or not. So a good story about the food we are about to eat, or the restaurant where we are going, will predispose us to enjoy it more and consider it better tasting. This is probably why chain restaurants and new restaurants often make up entirely fictitious characters and histories to give their food and their business the historical, social and cultural context that they need to get good sales.

I know that personally I like telling stories about food that I cook, especially family recipes, and as a kid growing up, those stories gave the food a special aura that it just wouldn't have had otherwise.

Little Warrior's Mom said...

A simple piece of cornmeal-crusted catfish with a fantastic story is better than a 4 star meal with no story, no passion behind it.

But I'm a Texan. Storytellin' is as much a part of us as the color of our eyes (brown, if the story's a real whopper.)

Tom said...

Love the line about "if it has a business plan it probably ain't real BBQ". Well said and it captures the very essence of people coming together for good times. Glad to see the Big Bob Gibson's reference. I grew up on that stuff.

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

Food with a story is always, always, always better -- just as food eaten outside is always better. Whether the story is about family, tradition, or even the mishaps that resulted in a great recipe, that story is the ingredient that really makes the dish.

Ellen said...

Well--I read your site even though I'm vegetarian...I definitely read for the stories.

Sandi @the WhistleStop Cafe said...

You always do such good job weaving the story. I am checking out that cookbook.
Now this looks yummy for the weekend!

chris said...

wonderful story! having grown up in central and west texas, i find your posts are full of appetite pleasin recipes. would it be too far fetched to discuss the possibility of having a Texas potluck or event of some kind? Would anyone be interested?

tipsytexan said...

Praise the Lord and pass the Butterkrust... I am so over the BBQ concept. I grew up in Texas on BBQ and Tex-Mex (which, incidentally, is almost as appalling when "concepted" ) and look upon a new BBQ restaurant with great skepticism. Who are these people, I wonder? Did they do their time behind the pit somewhere, or are they some nogoodniks with venture capital?

Part of what is so cool about the great BBQ temples in Texas is the patina of age--the story --about them. The greasy tables at the Salt Lick (which prompted one of our relatives from up North to ask: What, they don't have health departments in Texas?); the knives hanging from the tables at Smitty's; the ancient pits.

There is a BBQ concept called "Uncle Billy's Brew-N-Cue" that opened in Austin that I find quite offensive--I think they had T-shirts and Koozies for sale before they opened. And it was shamefully evident that more talent was exhausted on the decor than on the meat. I have heard that the food has gotten better, but there are so many great BBQ joints around here that I don't think I need to revisit the marketeer's interpretation of what a BBQ joint should be--Disneyfied and sanitized.

Michelle said...

Food served up with a side of stories is always better better than food served without.
I'm so glad I visited your blog and found this bean recipe. My family is from Oklahoma and Texas, and this is our kind of food.

SteamyKitchen said...

i think the first photo itself is a story! wonderful post...

Olivia said...

Oh no, I forgot to go to the street party! Mind you, I had no time. I've been getting my new life in order, and tomorrow moving to Bklyn.

But still, way overdue for a good BBQ.

Guess what I cooked at my cousin's today? Tortilla soup! Admittedly, the seasonings were in a packet but the onions and shredded chicken were all mine/his :)

I'm going to have some right now with melted jalapeno jack on top and tortilla chips.

wheresmymind said...

I so need to find a good beans recipe..most times I'm not a huge fan

Homesick Texan said...

Lisa--It's very good--if you make it you'll want to keep a shaker of itclose by as you'll find yourself sprinkling it on everything.

Lyra--I haven't heard of Mindless Eating but it sounds like a must read for me.

Little Warrior's Mom--I agree--give me my great-uncle's catfish stories over a cold four-star meal any day!

Tom--I love the Big Bob Gibson people--they are so warm and genuine!

Lydia--I agree, except I have to say that sometimes food eaten outdoors in NYC is not better--especially when it's during a heat wave.

Ellen--Well now, I'm honored!

Sandi--It's a great cookbook--enjoy!

Chris--That's a terrific idea. If you like, shoot me an email and let's see if we can get something organized.

TipsyTexan--Uncle Billy's Brew-n-Cue? Wow. Even the name is offensive! I can't believe that something like that would even open in the Hill Country. What are people thinking?

Michelle--Welcome! Enjoy!

SteamyKitchen--It was a delicious story--I can say that!

Olivia--Welcome to New York! How exciting that you're now living in Brooklyn--lots of Mexican food there and in Queens!

WheresMyMind--These are sweet and addictive!

Bee said...

Food with story -- yes, please.

It sounds like such a fun event -- I'm a bit jealous. I spend so much time lamenting the lack of Mexican food in England that I've neglected to feel homesick enough for BBQ. This post fixed that!

JR said...

I made these beans tonight. Wow. Delicious.

We Are Never Full said...

what a great post! thank you for this. i'm still really pissed off that i missed that bbq fest! every post i read about it i feel a knife go into my stomach! next year, i guess.

m.L.e. said...

I only count four kinds of beans. Where did I go wrong???

Making these tonight. I am sure they will be delicious, regardless. :)

Homesick Texan said...

m.l.e--Oops, I forgot to list the butter beans. Now there's five. Thanks for the catch!

m.L.e. said...

I improvised with an extra can of kidney. They turned out perfectly! So delicious.

I made the barbeque shrimp, too.

Talk about a flavor sensation.

Thank you for all of the effort that you put into these recipes and stories. I didnt't realize how much Texan I had in me until I started reading your blog.

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