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
Ingredients for the Magic Dust:
- 2 tablespoons paprika
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 tablespoon granulated garlic
- 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons mustard powder
- 2 teaspoons cayenne
Ingredients for the beans:
- 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
- 2 tablespoons Magic Dust
- 2 28-ounces cans pork and beans
- 1 15-ounce can large red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
- 1 15-ounce can chili beans
- 1 15-ounce can large butter beans, drained and rinsed
- 1 15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed
- 8 slices bacon
- To make the Magic Dust, mix together all the ingredients. You'll need 2 tablespoons for the recipe, but the rest will keep in a tightly covered container, and can be used as a seasoning and a meat rub.
- To make the beans, preheat the oven to 350° F.
- 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.
- Add the beans stirring gently just enough to evenly distribute the mixture, then pour into 13×9-inch baking dish. Lay the bacon strips, ribs or pork across the top.
- Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 45 minutes.
- Remove the foil and bake for an additional 15 minutes or until bubbly. Serve warm.