A Most Frustrating Brooklyn Barbecue: A Tale

The Command Center
The Command Center

 

It was time again for me to host the annual company barbecue. That meant 30 or more people coming over to the apartment in Brooklyn. That meant pounds and pound of meat. It meant bags and bags of charcoal. It meant hours and hours of work.

All of which is to say I was excited! And agitated. And nervous. A lot could go wrong, starting with the annual prediction of 60% chance of rain. I have a back yard just big enough for 30-some-odd people. I have an apartment that is smaller than the back yard. So, you do the math. But the chance of rain diminished throughout the week until the weather on the day of the actual event looked like it was supposed to be sunshine and lollipops. The day of cooking, on the other hand, looked to be a steady fall of rain.

Oh, yes. This is a two-day cooking affair. Three days if you include shopping. But it was all under control. I’ve done this before. Even if I haven’t mastered my brisket (shut up) just yet, I have the process down to a science.

THURSDAY MORNING: THE GROCERY RUN
This might actually be the worst part of the ordeal. In the rest of the America, you walk out to your car in your garage, drive it to the store, park in a parking lot, shop for all your stuff — and if it’s a Walmart or Target Supercenter, I mean ALL of it — then head home and unload.

This is not how it is done in Brooklyn. And with a barbecue this size, where a 16-pound brisket is just one of the supplies, walking to Key Food around the corner with the granny cart isn’t an option.

So: Reserve a Zip Car for 6 in the morning. (Did I mention this has to be done before work?). Wake up. Go get the Zip Car. Drive to Lowe’s. (Lowe’s has a parking lot. We love Lowe’s. Too bad they don’t sell meat.) After Lowe’s, drive over to Western Beef for groceries and meat. Struggle with the layout of the store because you never shop there and a drunk designed the place, but the prices are insanely low compared to Key Food. After Western Beef, head to Key Food for the fancy things that Western Beef didn’t have. Return home. Double park. Unload everything into the building “lobby” while praying the car doesn’t get stolen — or, more important, someone doesn’t run off with your meat (shut up). Everything in the lobby? Good. Open the door to frantically barking poodles, give them a treat and lock them in a bedroom so they can’t escape. Feel guilty for locking them in. Move everything into the apartment. Find space for 30 pounds of meat in your fridge. Put everything edible on counters so the dogs can’t get it. Leave everything else on the floor and pray that you didn’t forget something like chocolate or butter down there and that Cara won’t come home to this mess and beat you. Return Zip Car. Go to work. Come home. Rub your meat (shut up) in preparation for the Friday cook.

Two bags on sale for $10. Ten damn dollars! That's amazing for New York.
Two bags on sale for $10. Ten damn dollars! That’s amazing for New York.

Easy-peasy! Like I said, I’ve got this down to a science. In fact, I got to Western Beef five minutes before they opened. I had the store to myself. And I sort of remembered where everything was. I also remembered to stash things in the cart in such a way that when I went into the humongous walk-in fridge for the meat, I’d have enough room for it all. Check of the clock? I was ahead of schedule!

So I rolled into the walk-in and… they have no brisket. THEY HAVE NO BRISKET!!! A store that calls itself Western Beef has no brisket? (If you’re a Pink Floyd fan, yes, that’s supposed to sound like “How can you have your pudding if you don’t eat your meat?) I wheeled the buggy around the beef shelves twice just to make sure. Nope no brisket. But they did have 30-pound cuts of clod. WHICH WAS NOT HELPFUL! They’ve got goat, lamb, pork, chicken, sausages of mysterious origin, whole beef rib racks, cut up beef rips, whole beef clods, but NO BRISKET.

Does it or does it not say BEEF right there on the sign?
Does it or does it not say BEEF right there on the sign?

I ask the guys behind the counter, “You have any whole briskets back there?”

“Nah, we don’t got that.”

I would have pulled one of those “let me see your manager” hissy-fits, but I figure there’s three of them with sharp knives and they’re already covered in blood, so it wouldn’t turn out well. I get two pork shoulders, some ribs, pay up, hop in the Zip Car and head over to Paisano’s, a proper butcher, in my old neighborhood.

By the way, if you haven't bought my latest novel, SHAME ON YOU.
By the way, if you haven’t bought my latest novel, SHAME ON YOU.

Now, you may be asking, “Ken, is a brisket that necessary?” After the ringing in your ears stops from me slapping you so hard, allow me to answer: “Yes. A brisket is necessary. I dream of brisket. A good brisket is better than perfect pork. A slow child or advance monkey can make pulled pork, which, don’t get me wrong, is delicious, but it is not brisket. The people who come to my barbecue to eat meat come for the brisket.”

So I needed a full brisket. And I knew Paisano’s would have one. I also knew it would be a little more expensive than Western Beef. So I begin driving.
By this point it’s after 8 a.m., which means the traffic is out. And the garbage trucks, which tend to block the entirety of the smaller streets. My old neighborhood is one mile — ONE MILE — from my current neighborhood. It takes me 45 minutes. I have to extend the Zip Car reservation by half an hour to 9:30.

Cobble Hill, my old neighborhood, has no parking on a week day. I double park, run in. Yes, they have whole briskets. The day is saved! (But not my wallet. The main benefit of Western Beef is the price. Typically $70 for a 16-pounder. Paisano’s? Oof. $122. Granted, it’s a better piece of meat, but yeesh.)

And NO parking ticket, surprisingly enough.

I make it back, double park, unload the Zip Car, lock the dogs in the back room,  get the meat in the fridge, spill a bag of carrots all over the floor, almost forget to let the dogs out of the bedroom, make it back to the Zip Car — NO TICKET — and get it back to the garage at 9:29.

Then I head to work, where I sit there stewing over the morning and worrying that Lucy, the white poodle, will somehow get into one of the plastic shopping bags and choke herself. She has a knack for trouble, that one.

THURSDAY NIGHT: THE RUBBING (shut up)
For the first time in three years, I don’t cut myself while trimming the brisket. Huzzah! It might have something to do with a better cut of meat — one that doesn’t have the kind of fat that reminds me of a hobo’s toenails.

Now that's a pretty piece of cow.
Now that’s a pretty piece of cow.

Brisket gets a salt and pepper rub. Not much else. This time around, the pork — I got two ten-pound shoulders — gets Memphis Dust from AmazingRibs.com.  Like I said, pork is relatively easy, so I feel like I can experiment. Besides, AmazingRibs.com is pretty much the best barbecue website in the world. They’ve got a scientist on hand who actually does barbecue science rather than barbecue myth. Ever here of the stall? Of evaporative cooling? Well, you should. Also, if you think putting the meat fat-side up so the fat melts and bastes the meat is a thing, you’re completely wrong. In fact, I love AmazingRibs.com so much, I paid to be a member. I even started telling this story on its message board where the general response to a $122 brisket was: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. That’s why I love those guys.

The pork shoulders.
The pork shoulders.

I also put up the pop-up tent thing over the smoker in preparation for rain.

FRIDAY MORNING: THE COOK, DAY ONE
7 a.m. It’s not raining. Well, not steadily or hard. Cloudy, though.

Because I have a lot of meat and because my offset smoker takes a little time to get to temperature — especially in crappy weather, I get two charcoal chimneys going. Afterburner’s yall!

"Danger Zone" -- Sterling Archer (also, Kenny Loggins)
“Danger Zone” — Sterling Archer (also, Kenny Loggins)

It’s now drizzling. And there’s no wind. And the smoke from two charcoal chimneys is just sitting between the buildings. Hanging there. Going nowhere. I keep it away from my building with a fan, because my upstairs neighbor’s kid has asthma. It’s a lot of smoke.

I hear fire trucks. Uh-oh. I rush out to the front of my apartment and see nothing. Phew. Head back to the back yard and five minutes later two firemen come out of the building on the other side of the fence. They’re looking at the building they’ve come out of and not at the dude one yard over surrounded in a cloud of billowing smoke.

“Hey, guys. That’s probably me.”

They seemed kind of annoyed. “Try not to make so much smoke next time.”

The neighbor who called them comes out. “We got a ton of fire trucks.” “Sorry,” I say. “Eh. It wasn’t your fault,” he says. Sort of surprised he was that cool about it. When he goes back in, I notice he has a charcoal chimney and a Weber on his little patio. He understands. I think too late that I should have offered to bring them all some meat when it was done. Besides, offering them meat likely would have jinxed me. (I was too nervous to snap a clear picture of the fireman.)

The smoke smokes, the meat cooks, slowly. While that happens, I make my efforts and cleaning the apartment. This year we decide not bothering much with the floors because, hey, 30 people in and out are going to trash them within five minutes. We’re smart like that.

I make it through the day without further visits from the FDNY or NYPD or anyone of the sort. But every time I get more coal ready, I stress. More stressful is I’m going to have to do it again the next day.

Yes. It’s a two day process. When the meat gets up to 180 internal, I take it off, wrap it tight, put it in construction bags and drop it in ice. It will cook again tomorrow.

Friday night, I make potato salad, brine the chicken (five pounds) and rub down the ribs that I will serve only to myself.

SATURDAY: THE COOK, DAY TWO
7 a.m. I wake up to a beautiful sunny day with just enough breeze to thin out the smoke. Seven percent chance of rain for the win.

Sunshine!
Sunshine!

As much as I want to get things going fast, I don’t go with the two chimneys. Better safe than sorry. Once up to temp, I get the chicken and the ribs into the smoker. About an hour into that, I take the brisket and shoulders out of the cooler so they can maybe get up to room temp by the time I need to throw them back on.

The dogs don’t understand why I’m in the back yard playing with meat (shut up) and not allowing them out.

"This is some bullshit is what this is. I'm gonna go puke on the bed."
“This is some bullshit is what this is. I’m gonna go puke on the bed.”

10 a.m., I pull the now-smoked chicken, put it in a pan, wrap it, and stash it in the oven in the house for safe-keeping.

It’s clouded up, which keeps things relatively cool outside.

I put on the brisket and shoulders. From here on out, it will be a matter of just getting them up to 205.

Well, that and cleaning off the outdoor furniture, setting up the tables, running to the store for enough ice to ice the beer and such, last minute cleaning (by which I mean we throw everything into our bedroom and close the door). I also eat a half rack of ribs and some potato salad because I am the boss and I can.

You can look, but you can't touch.
You can look, but you can’t touch.

It all gets done in time for …

SATURDAY, 4 p.m.: THE HAPPENING
Well, let’s back up to 3:59 p.m. at which point IT STARTS DRIZZLING! That’s right, 65% chance of rain on Friday and next to nothing. Seven percent chance on Saturday and it’s cloudy most of the day and starts raining right when people are supposed to show up! Heckuva a job weather.com. Ya jerks.

4:15 p.m. The drizzle stops.

The meat comes out. Everything is sliced or chopped or pulled and served. A good time is had by all. And bourbon and beer, too.

Time to chop, then eat.
Time to chop, then eat.
Chicken.
Chicken.
That shoulder's got some crust!
That shoulder’s got some crust!
Just a small bit of the pork.
Just a small bit of the pork.

And, of course …

The brisket. Bark! Bark!
The brisket. Bark! Bark!

I forgot to get pictures of the slices. And after it was all over, there were only two slices left. Oh well.

THE END.

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