As Scott Shafer and his hard-nosed band of Orange warriors prepare for our inaugural season on the gridirons of the ACC, another equally important battle will be taking place in backyards and parking lots all along this fine Atlantic Coast of ours. Battles that will feature Hickory instead of helmets, baby backs instead of running backs, and pork shoulder instead of shoulder pads.
Indeed, entering the ACC places Syracuse smack dab in the heart of America’s bar-b-que culture, and like opinions on our football team, there’s a general sense among the BBQ blue bloods of Georgia and The Carolinas that we lack the history, talent and know-how to compete…that our geography prohibits us from being taken seriously as truly worthy tailgate combatants on a Fall Saturday.
Nonsense! Football was invented in the northeast, yet is is the south that dominates...why can't we Nunes Magicians turn the tables a bit when it comes to bar-b-que??? Well I'm glad you asked!
Introducing a new two-part
typical Invisible Swordsman puff piece series titled "The ‘Cue is in the House!". A training camp of sorts for the backyard and parking lot grill masters inside Orange nation. In the series, we'll review the basics of bar-b-que, explore regional differences in style and preparation, help you develop your own BBQ skills, and ultimately offer some suggestions as to how you can add some hard-nosed New York flavor to your ’cue. Ultimately, we hope you’ll learn a thing or two, impress your friends, and show our new neighbors down south that we’ve got the chops to beat them at their own game!
So, let's get started.
It goes without saying that bar-b-que is one of the defining and universally popular elements of Southern culture. The pig has been the omnipresent food staple and central element of social celebrations in the South since the Colonial Era, and is deeply ingrained in the heart of ACC country, the American South and even the Midwest. Over time it has evolved and developed regional subtleties ranging from sauces to accompaniments, to the meat itself, and in most cases the result has been fantastic (exception: Kentucky 'cue often features mutton...shall we just rescind Louisville's membership now?). Point is, regardless of the variety, good BBQ can be found, and even made just about anywhere and by anyone.
To drive home this point, I've enlisted the help of someone with true credibility when it comes to making and eating great bar-b-que: John Stage, owner of Syracuse's nationally acclaimed Dinosaur Bar-B-Que! John has spent much of his adult life riding Harley Davidsons through the American South, and has used his extensive knowledge of bar-b-que to grow Dinosaur from a mobile food service business to perhaps the gem of Northeast 'cue, featuring seven locations across New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey.
TNIAAM: I know a little bit about your background which included many days on the roads of America on your bike, and am highly jealous that you have spent so much time not only traveling through the heart of bar-b-que country, but that you've taken this passion and brought great 'cue to Syracuse and the Northeast. Did your grade-school Myers Briggs personality test tell you that you would be a motorcycle rider and restauranteur, or did you sort of find your way into this career?
JS: Well, I've always been an entrepreneur in one way shape or form, although not always in the most positive way! I got started in the food business at biker events. Back in 1983, a friend and I set up a stand by cutting a 55 gallon drum in half and started serving sausages, peppers and onions to the people at these events. We always called ourselves Dinosaur Bar-b-que, but we knew very little about real southern bar-b-que. Once we started crossing the Mason Dixon line and went to these events, I got bit by the Southern bar-b-que bug...the REAL bar-b-que bug.
TNIAAM: So by now you've travelled extensively in the South, and developed an extensive appreciation for how BBQ is a staple of Southern culture. It seems like it is becoming a staple up here in the North as well. When did this happen?
JS: BBQ is very much a major part of southern culture. And only recently has it started making it's way to the Northern states. In the 80s when I started going down South there was no bar-b-que in the North, it was a regional Southern thing. The explosion of bar-b-que up here has only happened in the last decade.
TNIAAM: Bar-b-que means different things to different parts of the US. Can you explain some of the differences, and what should we be prepared to eat on our travels to The Carolinas, Georgia and the Florida Panhandle?
JS: With some exceptions, when we are talking about bar-b-que, we are talking about pork and beef. When I think of pulled pork, I think of Memphis. When I think of beef, I think of Texas brisket. The rest of the southeast, it comes down to pulled pork and less about brisket. The sauces vary in different parts (of the ACC) featuring tomato, vinegar or mustard, but its usually made with pulled pork.
TNIAAM: Having personally relocated to Virginia a few years ago, I was very quickly alerted by my neighbors that bar-b-que-ing and grilling are two fundamentally different things.
JS: Definitely. Real bar-b-que is about slowly cooking meat over a long period of time over low, indirect heat and smoke. Grilling is more or less cooking meat over a direct heat source.
TNIAAM: Let's talk tools of the trade for a moment. Most of us have some form of a grill, but are overwhelmed by options including varying wood chips, smokers, smoker boxes, mops, etc. For the novice cook, is there a suggested "starter kit" of common tools that can get us ready to make great bar-b-que?
JS: You need coals, a grill and wood, but I wouldn't focus on the tools up front. For someone new to making bar-b-que, the first thing you should do is learn to work with heat. You have to understand how to build heat, get it to a certain temperature, and maintain it over a long period of time. You are basically working with tough cuts of meat, and in order to break it down, you have to be consistent and be patient. Once you develop that skill, you can make great barbecue. My advice is to practice a lot, and hone your skills.
TNIAAM: Fair enough. Okay, it's a Fall Saturday, and I'm looking to add some New York edge to some great meat. Do you have some suggestions as to how we can honor the roots of Southern bar-b-que while offering a unique NYS flavor to the food?
JS: At Dinosaur, there is a little bit of New York in everything we cook. You can't escape where you are from. We apply the tradition and style of making southern bar-b-que, but we take the side dishes, the rubs, and put our own spin on things. Certain things like beans and cole slaw, you can't mess with...good is good. But when you are in New York, you take some licenses with your side dishes. We do a lot of Syracuse style things. Serving salt potatoes, or adding NY cheddar to a dish as examples. We also focus on establishing more of a New York atmosphere in the types of spaces we use for the restaurants. I'm here in Harlem today, and we operate out of an old meat packing plant. In Brooklyn, we occupy an old tool and dye shop. Whether you look inside or outside, you see New York! We want that kind of atmosphere.
TNIAAM: So, as much as I hope you will open up a restaurant closer to D.C., I take it you won't be operating out of a nondescript strip mall in Fairfax County?
JS: (laughs) Definitely not.
TNIAAM: Our new conference will offer SU fans the opportunity to travel to Raleigh/Durham, Atlanta, South Carolina and the Florida panhandle. Any recommendations for great bar-b-que spots?
JS: There are lots of great spots all over the South. I would simply start by getting on line and searching for "good bar-b-que" in the area you are planning to visit. What I would do though, is when I arrive outside a restaurant, I'd take a look around the place...look to see what the smoker looks like, what wood they are using, and the overall aroma of the food...I do a little reconnaissance work before I walk in to eat! I would use your eyes and nose to determine if it's a good spot.
TNIAAM: Good Lord I'm hungry now... John, many thanks for speaking with us today. You may know Dinosaur holds a special place in many an SU fan's heart, and we wish you continued success bringing great 'cue to our part of the world.
JS: Thank you.
Thanks again to John and Dinosaur Bar-B-Que for sitting down with us. So, Magicians, with this serving as a starting point, we'll shift our attention to the "full pads" portion of our training camp, where we'll offer up some recipes that can help you gain the skills to develop BCS-level bar-b-que wherever your grill or smoker takes you!
Take five, hydrate, and I'll see you back here tomorrow!