Kamran and I arrived at last year’s Big Apple Barbecue in Madison Square Park just as it was closing down. We got free leftover Snapple and ate cheeseburgers at Shake Shack. It was a lovely time but sadly barbequeless.
This year, we planned a little better and decided to go on Sunday when there was a better chance of rain and therefore a better chance that all of the less-barbeque-fanatic types would opt to stay home. We found the menus of each of the 15 pitmasters, bookmarked guides to the best of the festival on our BlackBerrys, and decided to arrive halfway between the lunchtime and dinnertime rushes.
What we found when we arrived was total chaos. The lines stretched for blocks, every last inch of ground was covered either by someone eating barbeque or someone’s sauce-covered trash, and our BlackBerry bookmarks suddenly wouldn’t load. We headed for the information booth and found a map, recognized a couple of names from the guides, and decided to narrow our feasting down to two pitmasters.
We headed toward the tent for Big Bob’s, but the line was so long that we lost track of it halfway back. We found what looked to be the end of something and asked the people there which vendor they were waiting in line for. “We’re not sure,” they said. But we decided that no matter which line we were in, we were going to get barbeque, and that’s all we cared about.
A giant truck and trailor beside us pumped Santogold and Vampire Weekend while people attempted to pitch metal rings into a bucket in order to win mini footballs. Men pushing trash carts blew whistles to get our attention before they ran us over. Local politicians shook hands and passed out color brochures requesting our votes.
It would’ve been, you know, not totally miserable had there been any end in sight. And with long lines come all of the people willing to do anything to get at the front of them. An old man appeared to Kamran’s right and stayed there, sort of hovering between us and the people behind us and if to confuse one of us into thinking he was legitimately with the other. We learned the best way to stand to discourage people from wanting to cross through the line using the space in front of us.
These people want some BBQ!
After fifty minutes, we were finally to the portion of the line that was actually stanchioned off, and we felt like we were safe. But just then, this man in a green t-shirt somehow got in front of us and seemed to be talking on his cellphone just to avoid a confrontation when we got brave enough to call him out on being a line-cutter. Kamran did this slick little shoulder maneuver that got us in front of him, but then he excused himself and pushed ahead of us. I was about ready to bust out my shiv, but the guy ducked under the stanchion and joined a group of people holding a bulldog puppy. A few minutes later, the guy somehow ended up with a plate of barbeque while we still waited in line.
Totally intense line craziness and that jerk in the green shirt on the left.
We reached the tent and paid, but juuuuust as it was our turn to get a sandwich, the pan of barbeque ran out, and the man scooping pork parts held us up. While we waited, he gnawed on the super-spice-infused burnt bark and didn’t offer any to us, even though it’s obviously the best part. When the pitmaster brought him a new tray of chopped shoulder, he tried to pour the bark into the new dish, but the pitmaster said it wasn’t fresh enough and threw it away. Which both impressed me and made me sad.
Blurry Pitmaster Chris Lilly with Dana Cowin, who we nerdily recognized from an episode of “Top Chef”.
With our pulled pork sandwiches and our sides of coleslaw finally in hand, we decided there was absolutely no way we were going to stand in line at any of the other stands and scuttled away as quickly as we could to a quiet side street to gobble. In the end, our sandwiches with half white sauce and half traditional BBQ sauce were delicious, but having been to another barbeque joint that Friday night, we couldn’t help but think that sitting down and not having to wait an hour for a sandwich far outweighed any extra tastiness that pork might have had. And we’re not sure it actually had any extra tastiness, anyway.
In defense of the Big Apple Barbecue, my friend Ash arrived right at start time on Sunday morning and said she was able to get quite a sampling of pig before the lines got crazy. And they do offer a fast pass that lets you skip the line . . . for $100 per person. I like that each vendor only sold one type of pork and one side, and I like that they did a great job of giving each tent the same sort of sign telling what was on their menu and how much it cost. However, maybe next year the workers with purple flags on tall poles who were supposed to be marking the end of each line could stop chatting with the crowd and actually mark the ends of the lines, ifyouknowhatImean.
Not that I’ll be there to see it, since Kamran and I have agreed to treat each other to a nice sit-down dinner at any of the local barbeques next year instead.