Saturday, January 14, 2012

Fish and Grits 24/7

Friday January 6th 2012

Fish and Grits 24/7, 8th and Division, Nashville, TN

My apologies, it has been quite some time since my last entry. Mediocrity has infected the Nashville restaurant scene in a way I wouldn’t wish upon the worst of them. With the exception of El Tapatio the city is completely devoid of exciting places to eat. Even the really bad restaurants lack any aspect of humor. You’re not like “Oh my god that was so ridiculously shitty!”, its more like, “Yeah that wasn’t too good.” There just isn’t any passion on either end of the spectrum. Over time this ground down my motivation to write the blog, basically there just wasn’t anything to say. A few places popped up in my travels that would have been nice to write about (Best Sandwiches in Brussels, Grimaldi’s Pizza in Brooklyn, Time Out in Chapel Hill), but it didn’t occur to me to document the moment because I was so out of the routine. Luckily this absence of inspiration was recently broken by the somewhat new restaurant Fish and Grits 24/7.

After 9PM, Taco Bell is basically your only option in Nashville, which is why the 24/7 under the Fish and Grits really caught my eye. There were a few occasions, where without luck, I attempted to persuade people to drive over there and get something to eat. But why, in Nashville, would you want to drive across town to go to a restaurant? Statistically it would be a complete waste of time and money. So it took a few months before I was able to get inside. I was at Frugal MacDoogal, the discount liquor warehouse across the street, buying a six pack of German beer, eyeing the restaurant through the window.

“You ever checked out the Fish and Grits place across the street?”, I asked the cashier.

“You know I never have,” He responded, “but I’ve actually heard good things.”… Did you catch that? It’s a direct quote and he said ‘actually’, as in it was surprising to him that someone would say good things about a restaurant in town. I picked up on it instantly and decided now was the time, I was right there, I had the means, and for the first time in a while, the motivation.

It was more of a sit down place than I had thought it would be, I was expecting something more along the lines of the Fry Corner in Wilmington, Delaware (sadly visited in the pre-blog days), a grease soaked, standing space only, sharpie on notebook paper menu type of restaurant, ready to be robbed at gunpoint at any moment. Instead they boasted a rather large dining room in which the waitress flailed about manically despite having only one table occupied.

“Can I order something to go?”, I asked. She scurried up to the counter and began explaining the menu to me, pointing out their specialties, making recommendations. Having come to a decision I placed my order for the fried tilapia with cheese grits.

“Ok honey,” She said “You want that with the eggs and home fries?” Woah! Hold up! This took me back quite a bit, it was 8pm, I came in wanting what it said on the sign outside; fish and grits, I wasn’t trying to get involved in breakfast, not at that time.

“That’s what it comes with?” I asked.

“Yeah, but you could substitute another two sides if you’d like.” Although it’s regrettable, I ended up going with the fries and cole slaw. I hadn’t been expecting the offer of eggs and home fries and was too caught off guard to realize that it would have been the proper way to go. I took a seat by the door and waited while my order was put in.

“Oh Girls! Girls, this is Camile!”, the waitress shouted to the lone table of college girls in the other room when the restaurants unnecessary second waitress, Camile, came in the door. Apparently they had discussed Camile earlier in the visit, as when Camile went over to the table for a round of handshakes and introductions, the girls told her, ‘we’ve heard a lot about you.’ Camile seemed unphased by this greeting and exhaustedly shuffled off into the buildings nether regions.

This was about the time they decided to play the juke box. “What should I play? What should play?” the one girl repeated. “Meatloaf!”, one of her friends yelled, to which she shrugged, seeming unconvinced. “Take Me Home Tonight. Eddie Money.”, another one yelled in a tone so assertive it left the song no option but to be played. Our waitresses mouth dropped open over the table she was wiping off at the first note in the song and hung there agape over the table for longer than expected. At first I thought she was shocked at the ladies choice of song, then I considered that judging by the current attendance, she could have been amazed that the juke box was simply being played at all, it could have been the first time. Then I realized that the homeless guy who snuck in the door next to me had grabbed a handful of mints off the counter and disappeared back into the night. She ran defensively towards the door swatting her hands at the air and the idea of the theft, scowling through the window in the direction of the getaway.

Eventually my food was done and she called me to the counter where she began to whisper in my ear the money saving strategy she had taken with my meal, “Here’s what I did, we went ahead and made it into a sandwich for you, just because it’s a little cheaper that way. Go ahead, take a look ok?”. She quickly swung the Styrofoam box open, just long enough for me to catch a glimpse of the fried tilapia and bed of fries.

“Looks awesome.” I told her

“And since you’re a paying customer,” She said with an added aggravated laugh and a glance out the window, “I can give you some of these.” She put a generous portion of mints into my bag. “You gotta come back and see us again sometime now you hear?” I agreed, because even though I hadn’t tasted the food yet, quite a bit had happened in the 8 or so minutes I’d been inside the place. This is bleak, but it was sincerely one of the more eventful experiences I’ve had in Nashville. “Oh, it gets crazy in here around 3am.” She confessed to me.

“It’s crazy in here right now.” I told her.

“I had some customers once who told me they read about the place on Yelp and whoever had reviewed it was talking about the crazy woman who was running all over the restaurant pretending to be the waitress, and I was like, ‘Hey! That’s me!’”. I left pleased. Even without a single taste of the food I knew it had to be one of the best restaurants in Nashville. No other place has even come close to achieving this type of character, at least in a positive manner.

Back at home I eagerly cracked open the box and peered over the contents excitedly. This is when the confusion began to set in. I remembered back to what I had originally ordered; fried tilapia with cheese grits, and then I recalled what she told me I was getting; ‘we made it into a sandwich for you.’. Equations collided in my brain, none of this added up. First of all, the grits could not be located. I suspected them to be hiding under the fish, but there were only fries down there. After it was determined that no grits were included in the meal, I began to realize that there was nothing resembling a sandwich anywhere in this box either. There were the fixings for a sandwich; lettuce, tomato, onion, and fish, but not only were they not arranged together as a sandwich, there was no bread in which they could be encased. Although I was sad I wouldn’t be eating grits, because I had really been looking forward to them, and although I was wishing I had just accepted the eggs and home fries, the incompleteness of my meal and the mental energy that I, and also the waitress presumably, put into deciphering it made me like the place even more. The food I did get was decent, which means it was above average for Nashville, but the environment was truly special.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Di Fara Pizza

Saturday November 27th 2010

Di Fara Pizza, 1424 Avenue J, Brooklyn, NY

I’ve said it before that New York is the only city in America where you can get a decent pizza. Sure there might be the occasional place hidden away in some other town (but definitely not Chicago) where they’ve got an acceptable one, but the ratio of consistency reigns far higher than anywhere else in the city of New York. In all my other visits to the city I’ve sustained myself on affordable slices from a variety of pizza joints within a convenient proximity to where I was hanging out, places that despite being far superior to anyplace I’d go in Providence or Philly or where ever, still were not even close to the best for New York. There’s been a few places I’d heard the folklore of, legendary, near mythical New York pizza places, but few had tales as impressive as Di Fara’s. Di Fara’s, as I’d heard the story, was a Brooklyn pizza joint run by this one guy who has worked there every day for like sixty years or something, and he’s the only one who makes the pizzas. He’ll have an assistant to take care of all the bullshit like stocking the soda cooler and sweeping the place up, just so all of his attention is concentrated solely on the pies, each of which is made entirely to order, taking an hour plus to complete.

Luckily the northbound traffic wasn’t as bad as the southbound and the Philly contingent arrived before we did, and they arrived just in time, placing the last order before Di Fara’s assistant locked the door. Apparently everyday at 4pm they lock the doors for a few hours to catch up on orders. We got there about a half hour later and mimed to the other half of our group through the windows, until when the time was right the assistant unlocked the doors, unleashing a trapped horde of people who had been forced to stand around waiting inside post meal. Stealthily, we swam upstream through the exodus crowd and got inside undetected. I was able to catch this glimpse of the owner taking a pie out of the oven, sprinkling a handful of freshly grated parmesan, and with a barbers finesse trim his handheld bouquet of basil with a scissors over the top. Despite the surly city crowds that congested his counter area waiting impatiently for their food, despite the state of disrepair they’d left his dining room in, and the gusts of cold air they brought inside with their selfish desires to leave, he remained focused, working very slowly, not allowing his natural pace to be compromised by the increasing demands and pressures. He strode between the oven and his prep area with a geriatric caution, balancing steaming pizzas at varying degrees of doneness on his paddle (some with crusts approaching the char-zone), almost oblivious to the wild crowd that nearly threatened to cross over onto his side. This is one of the only scenes I’ve witnessed that I would feel comfortable using the word ‘Zen’ to describe. I got the feeling that even if no one was coming to his restaurant and ordering the pizzas that he’d still just make them all day anyways, it just so happened that there were other people around paying him money. This is clearly his calling.

After what we estimated to be an hour and a half wait (which I came excited about, and proved to be fun), the pizza was born. Party Tom retrieved it from the counter and sort of plunked it on our table in which I felt was a rather disrespectful and negligent manner for something that had been so delicately and lovingly crafted. Could we go back in time, I would have gotten it from the counter, supported the box from each corner as I carried it to the table, laying it down like an infant child, peeling the lid back slowly, causing a shroud of steam to obscure the jewel bespectacled pie, allowing it to fade into focus in a dreamlike fashion as the mist dissipated, but hey, it didn’t work out that way. So in an unceremonious style we each separated a slice and began to eat. A silence befell the table.

The crust was quite thin, crunchy but not overdone, it had a slight stretch, provided a good chew, and had a nice sour tinge to it. The sauce was of the pulverized tomato variety, containing large tomato chunks, very simple and nice. The mozzarella cheese was portioned out not in a modest or skimpy way, but definitely wasn’t overindulgent. That combined with the dusting of parmesan provided ample cheese flavor. This wasn’t a pizza that relied solely on the cheese, it was entirely about all the ingredients combining to form one thing, all aspects were as important. Of course everyone just sat around the table saying things like “Hmmm…yeah this is good.”, but you could tell everyone knew they should be saying something more, its just that no one could tell what. You could give someone these very same ingredients, and they’d have trouble replicating it, there is a simplistic genius at work that has been perfected over decades of near constant practice that I don’t know could be matched.

Not to bring things down, but before you go to get a pizza here, be warned that one large, yet pretty regular sized, pie is $28 dollars. Split between five people it was pretty affordable, but no one got filled up, we all just had a tasting, a wonderful tasting, but yes just a tasting. You’d really be dropping some cash here to walk out food coma style. While eating, I noticed at least two newspaper cut outs they had framed on the wall in which defenders of their prices were interviewed. The headline of one was “$4 for a slice too much? This man thinks not.” And it’s $5 a slice nowadays.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Gold Stone Noodle Restaurant

Sunday November 21st 2010

Gold Stone Noodle Restaurant, 226 Spadina Ave, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

After successfully escaping the stiff interrogations and vehicle searching of Canada’s grumpy border patrol, just barely managing not to laugh at the torrent of “Eh’s” that, yes, actually spilled from their mouths like a country wide case of tourettes, we rolled into the Toronto night for a glimpse at the other side of the border. I’ve always been a firm believer that southern Ontario, the part that juts rudely between New York and Michigan, should really be a part of the U.S., I mean, they’re coming down awfully far there, if you look at a map, that should be ours. We should trade them Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and a part of northern Maine and call it a day. Sadly however, the Canadian’s have it and they put up Tim Horton’s and Future Shop’s wherever they could. My first purchase across enemy lines was what sunk it into my head that we really were in a different country, two tall cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon at the bar. It was loud, I couldn’t hear the guy too well, so I just handed him a 10. He gave me the cans, poked around at the cash register for a while and that was it, no change. Five Canadian dollars for a tall can of Pabst! And I hadn’t been ripped off, well clearly I had, but that was the real price. I’m sure some goofballs in NYC pay that and like it, but I guess that’s why I try not to go there.

Price wise, I was pretty soured on Canada, until when our show had ended and we were hitting the road around 1:30 AM, I turned left on Spadina Ave and noticed the plethora of Asian restaurants, most of which still seemed to be open. I hadn’t really eaten anything since John’s pancake spread that morning, and simply not being allowed to fill up on beer, I needed sustenance. The Gold Stone Noodle Restaurant, as you can see, is a pretty eye catching place, brightly lit, large glass windows, it was clearly open and very inviting.

Their menu was lengthy, containing more dishes than I cared to browse through, it was the mention of noodles in the restaurants name that had really caught my attention. All their soups and noodle dishes, contradicting my expectations, were priced appropriately, actually maybe even lower than they needed to be. What I settled on, deciding that option offered the most variety in a single bowl, was the wonton noodle soup with pork and duck.

This bowl, this one here, this bountiful gift of noodles, duck, pork, and shrimp filled wonton’s (which weren’t even mentioned in the description) was $6.95 Canadian, which is about the same as the U.S.. I started comparing my, albeit limited, knowledge of Canadian item prices, and realized what an amazing deal I had gotten. If you think of Pabst as a currency, which I suggest you don’t do for long, I was only paying 1 and 1/3rd Pabsts for this amazing and completely filling bowl of food!

The broth, which I had several spoonfuls of first (the customary way to begin a bowl of soup, I think) had the flavor of rice and dark chicken meat, but was rather light and refreshing. The mass of noodles lurking at the bottom were not as I expected, thin, almost tough noodles of a dull orange color, which even with further submergence time in the warm broth refused to soften. Their flavor was strong, not able to be pinpointed, Val referred to them as “Gamey” which isn’t a word you hear thrown around in noodle speak too often.

Duck isn’t a meat I have a lot of experience with, which is part of the reason why I was excited about getting it, I wanted to give it another shot. I don’t want to say I don’t like it, but it definitely isn’t for me. Thick, oily, dense, slimy meat, cooked with the skin on, providing an extra wiggle on the way down. It tasted alright, but my attention was really consumed by the pork. The pork, which luckily resembled the bulk of the meat, was hard, compacted into flaking chunks, which peeled away in delicious layers. Sweet pig crystals, tangled up in the bowl.

Shrimp, yeah…I dunno, I never saw the big deal, sure I’ll have one, I guess. Honestly, if I knew there was gonna be shrimp in this, I probably wouldn’t have gotten it, but it actually took me a minute to notice they were in there. I popped a couple of the wrapped wonton’s, hoping they’d be filled with a slurry of sickly gray Asian mystery meat, felt satisfied enough, but after two when I went to look at how discolored the interior meat mixture was, there was just a baby shrimp all tucked away inside. I was indifferent.

I tried as best as I could, but I don’t think I made it even half way through the bowl, and overall I did like it, it was just way too much to handle. Shrimp, pork, duck, noodles, broth, woah, Canada, chill out! Toronto, based on this one experience, seems like a great city to eat in, but next time I’m gonna have to hit up the duty free shop on the way in, rock that BYOB style wherever I go.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Fat Mo's

Tuesday November 9th 2010

Fat Mo’s, 351 White Bridge PK and 2620 Franklin PK, Nashville, TN

Fat Mo’s (spelled here at the White Bridge location as one continuous word) is a Nashville area burger stand chain which can be seen furthering the congestion at clogged intersections around town. Two drive up windows, instead of easing cars through in half the time, attracts traffic from all directions, often times resulting in two cars facing head to head attempting to order and people leaning out through the passenger windows, jumbling up the whole parking lot. I almost always opt for the walk up window.

The White Bridge Ave location, in the heart of West Nashville, is the most convenient Fat Mo’s to my house and daily life, yet I always hear it spoken of negatively. Someone’s always saying that one sucks and that the one on 8th Ave (aka Franklin Pike) is better. While driving about en route to the post office before a lengthy session in the EEG isolation booth at Vanderbilt, I found myself thinking of Mo, and unable to recall my last visit, swung by the one on White Bridge and picked up a Fat Mo with cheese.

What had gotten me thinking about Fat Mo’s again recently was this years Best of Nashville poll in the local arts paper, where (apparently clueless) readers vote on their favorite establishments in town. The Best Burger category was given to national chain Five Guys! I mean, yes there are a couple in Nashville, but theres a couple of those things everywhere at this point, and they are pretty decent, but I had imagined that the poll was supposed to feature, you know, specifically local businesses, like Fat Mo’s, which I figured would at least have been a runner up in that category. It was not.

Due to the oppressive sun which beat through the windows of the van in a seasonally uncharacteristic move, I consumed the burger rather hastily in the hotel next door’s parking lot and started to think maybe Mo’s didn’t really have a shot at runner up in that category after all. The burger had been crafted rather carelessly, it was kind of overdone, and with the condiments and accoutrements all huddled on one side, extremely hard to handle . I opened it up to take a picture of the inside, but no one would have wanted to see that, so I settled for the side shot, during which an unidentified juice leaked out onto the crotch of my pants. I chomped through the rest of it emotionlessly and continued on with my day.

A few hours later there I was, in the Vanderbilt isolation booth, insane cranial wire cap affixed to my head, doing a study on musical notation. My focus however lied on Fat Mo’s and the clumsy burger I had just eaten there. Thoughts ran through my head; Is the one on 8th actually better? Does a national chain actually make the best burger in this city? And then I realized as the study attendant yelled at me for moving too much for the third time, that when this was all over, which hopefully was going to be real soon, I was to be paid $35. That Fat Mo with cheese was starting to wear off, the onset of hunger was creeping back in, was a side by side, a Mo to Mo comparison in order? I shrugged the thought away at first. You can’t go to Fat Mo’s twice in one day you filthy bastard! What an awful idea! Go home and make some food, save the $35. But then the other side spoke up. Hey, a side by side would be good for the blog. There isn’t really anything to eat at home anyways. I’m already like halfway to 8th ave. What am I gonna do with this $35? Save it?

“I guess I’m really doing this.”, I thought to myself driving down 8th Ave, pulling into the Mo’s lot, and walking through the cars up to the window. I ordered yet again, the Fat Mo with cheese, and then with all abandon for my recent earnings, some spicy fries, and something I’d seen their marquee advertising which held by attention, the fried pickle. The first thing I noticed (besides spicy being spelled spisy and onions onoins on the menu), was that it was taking a lot longer to get the food, which I think is a good thing. Everything is apparently made fresh to order here, which had startled me a bit at the White Bridge one, because the burger was ready in no time, I half expected it rare which made its dryness that much more surprising.

Now lets talk about that pickle. $2.75 for one pickle dipped in some batter and made disgusting I thought was a little steep, but I was willing to try it, and actually you get your moneys worth, because you get a platter of spears, equaling I would assume close to one and 3/4ths pickles. It reminded me of a cheap mozzarella stick that had been under cooked in the microwave, where the scalding batter holds its form like a suit of armor and the chilled insides bounce around in the center. The soggy texture and strong vinegar taste of wilted pickle mixed with the grease soaked dull crunch of the battered shell did little to impress me, and in the end I found the portion to be quite too large.

The 8th Ave Fat Mo, was I gotta say, a lot better than the White Bridge one. For starters it had been made with some level of precision, the toppings (which included a few not seen on my White Bridge burger) were all evenly dispersed, and with all the weight distributed evenly, no threat of crumbling or spillage was detected. The only thing was, and I suspect this to be my fault and not Fat Mo’s, that I felt worse after eating at the 8th Ave one, even the next day. Yes, possibly because it was my second Fat Mo of the day, which I know is wrong, and maybe throwing in the fried pickles and fries didn’t help either, but what can I say, I had to find out which one was better, if the rumors were true, and now we all know.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Interstate Barbecue

Wednesday October 13th 2010

Interstate Barbecue, S 3rd and Mallory, Memphis, TN

When I would ask former residents and frequent visitors of the city of Memphis what barbecue place to check out on my visit to town, usually an entire list would be presented, but Interstate Barbecue was the only place that seemed to make it onto every one, so naturally that’s exactly where we went. Earning its name, we only travelled a few blocks north of the exit from I-55, through the desolate neglect and disrepair that Memphis is so famous for before arriving at the destination. I almost turned into the wrong parking lot at first because that one was full of cars, luckily I caught the mistake in time and sprawled the van out alone in front of this magnificent mural.

For a place that had come so recommended, sported such a nice exterior painting, and seemed to hold some level of fame judging by the People Magazine and USA Today awards boasted about on their menu, I expected more of a crowd. The huddle of waitresses around the front door learning about October being popcorn popping month from the news on TV (a good news topic for a city with one of the highest murder rates), instructed us to sit wherever we’d like. A nightmare for anyone too indecisive as every table in the rather large dining area remained wide open, but somehow we managed, settling comfortably into a booth and reading up on what we could eat.

The easiest and safest bet seemed to be the pulled pork sandwich, initially I thought about ordering the small and getting a side of cole slaw, but I furthered the convenience by saying “me too” after Crom ordered his large. We passed a few moments with some more local news absurdity (“…authorities believe he is no longer wearing his orange prison jump suit…”) before the food was delivered. It was the kind of sandwich that needs to be sized up first, you must view it from all angles, you have to invision picking it up in a variety of positions, a game plan on how to start eating it must be deduced before action is taken. And so I did, rotating it by the plate, treating my eyes to 360 degrees of molten pork decadence, while my brain did the number crunching in an attempt to figure out the most effective way to get it off the plate. In what proved to be incorrect I held the top bun in place with the four fingers of each of my hands while my thumbs acted as a support for the already sauce moistened bottom. This operation should have been reversed, as on lift off a good portion of pork, sauce, and slaw spilled out onto the plate. That’s right, slaw right there in the sandwich.

The first time I had a BBQ pulled pork sandwich I remember feeling a little slighted, like ‘This is is? It’s just some sloppy pork chunks in a roll?’. I wasn’t like ‘Wheres the lettuce and tomato?’ or anything, but I’d expected at least one other ingredient, although I wasn’t sure what. As the years passed I forgot about that attitude and grew to love pulled pork sandwiches just like that, nice and simple, but then as soon as I tasted it mixed in with the creamy and unexpected crunch of the slaw additive, I remembered exactly why I had felt that way. There was a reason after all why I’d wanted to order a side of slaw, thankfully I hadn’t. I’m not sure if slaw right there in the sandwich without even asking for it is a Memphis thing, but I approve.

Utensils needed to be applied eventually as the sandwich deteriorated with each bite into a pile of barbecue rubble and refuse smeared haphazardly across the plate. In time I was able to leave the plate decorated only with streaks of sauce and overlooked bread crumbs, finishing up my iced tea before the two of us sat in a period of reflection on our meal. The sheer amount we’d eaten didn’t exactly register until we stood up, at which point the sandwich which felt as if it sat whole inside my stomach, sunk from whatever higher plane it sat on, plunging deep into the depths of some inner pit. A good pummeling of the gut.

While paying at the register we noticed that the restaurant had an entire other half, more like a to go area with some bench seating that wasn’t full, but busy with customers. It dawned on us that we were the weirdos eating on the other side.

Life and health insurance advertisements, previously unseen, decorated the parking lot where we aimlessly strolled for a few minutes, sighing and breathing heavily before returning to the comfortable seating of the van and setting out to find Bruce St without directions or knowledge of the city, which ended up working. It was hours before I recovered, and I didn’t go without a seat all night long.


Sunday October 10th, 2010

24 HOUR BARBECUE, Nashville, TN

On my 19th birthday I accepted a ride to Brooklyn with some friends. With no kind of plan we didn’t so much celebrate it as much as we did just wander around, showing up at peoples apartments, buying things at bodegas, crashing parties, and exploring well into the next morning. Throughout our walk we continually noticed a small black and white poster, 8.5 X 11, stapled amongst the clutter of seemingly similar advertisements on telephone poles and sides of buildings. This specific poster had our attention. Quite simply it read, ’24 Hour BBQ’, written in an ‘urban’ font to make it look as though it had been spray painted with a stencil, there was no date, no time, no address, no vague hint at a location for this theoretical event, just a clear and precise definition of what it was; a 24 hour BBQ. We didn’t know what to make of it, someone eventually said “Cool” after we’d been scratching out chins over it for a while.

Being cast out of what looked to be our last rooftop party of the evening, we navigated the streets with the assistance of 99 cent Colt 45’s, which is to say without rhyme, reason, or purpose, searching for a place to spend the last hour of darkness. Having strayed off the main road we passed through a once industrial center in the process of being gussied up for artist lofts, and into a neighborhood where homes and a plethora of auto repair shops lived side by side in harmony. We turned left, we turned right, we walked straight, uncertain of where we’d end up, of where or what our final destination was. It hadn’t occurred to me that a higher power was guiding us, that its hand lay firmly upon my shoulders, pivoting me to the left, where there directly in front of me lay the fabled, the secretive and secluded, the very real 24 hour BBQ.

Now based on its heavy advertising lining the hip streets of Brooklyn, based on the idea itself, I expected, as you well might, a fantastical blow out; beautiful people, a couple hundred of them, dancing, looking cool, manning top of the line grills, having the time of their lives being privileged enough to be in the know about this secret society of barbecuing. Not the case! What I cautiously approached were two timid indie rockers sitting on a stoop, pushing a couple pork chops around on a small camping style charcoal grill, while two muscular Latino men from the auto body shop across the street who appeared to be well into the next weeks alcohol ration, berated them from the sidewalk, cackling between enormous mouthfuls of pork. A small stack of the flyers we’d seen lay next to the grill. I was confused, I had to clarify.

“This is the 24 Hour Barbecue?”, I asked, interrupting the jeering cries of the drunken mechanics.

“Yeah….yeah it is…”, the indie rockers responded invitingly, clearly overwhelmed with desperation to have some fresh blood in the mix, a force to help combat the one that was so obviously dominating, “You found it!” We sat down, got a rundown of what was going on, pretty self explanatory really, 24 hours of grilling, no real reason for it, kicked them a couple bucks for some burgers and ears of corn, managed to will away the auto shop guys, and under an intrusive ray of sunlight, bid our hosts farewell and carried on with whatever it was we were doing.

Flash forward, Summer 2008, Nashville, TN. Where as when I was 19, I had no grill, no knowledge of how to operate one, certainly no cash to buy food to cook, and really no desire to do those things anyways, but at 24 with the newly acquired Weber full size charcoal grill acting as centerpiece for our front lawn, money from the bagel route, and a desire to barbecue, a lot of grilling was being done. We were neck deep in the Summer of Sausage, the grill was getting far more use than the stove. Naturally I thought back to that weird day in Brooklyn, spending dawn munching a burger with two flannel shirted Caucasians and belligerent Latinos, stumbling upon their bizarre quest by pure fate. A 24 hour BBQ was beginning to sound like something I could maybe get into.

Doing some research, I typed “24 hour BBQ” into Google, expecting to be presented with dozens of comically depressing photo albums of sickly folks well over their food capacities approaching the 21st hour, and hopefully some sort of account of my Brooklyn friends experience. However the only page to surface in the search results was a MySpace blog entry from a Portland, OR man who had attempted several 24 hour BBQ’s and wrote in detail about his last one. He described saving up his food stamps for three months (funny its always broke people who try and do things like this), cooked all day long, and within the last three hours collapsed from fatigue and over satiation on his way to get a beer from the fridge. No big deal really, except his rule was that something needed to be on the grill at all times. He awoke startled several minutes later and rushed to the living room where he found his friends passed out on the couch in unflattering positions with The Simpsons playing on the TV, in a mad panic he scurried out the back door to find that just in the nick of time two girls he didn’t even know had shown up and thrown some steaks on the grill! Saved! It sounded like a fun I would need to experience, so next Summer in the rather barbecue unfriendly city of Philadelphia, it happened.

Not unlike many first attempts, our 24 hour BBQ was rife with flaws that became immediately apparent in the next days retrospect. Foolishly Rick and I accepted a 7AM moving job the day of, waking up at 6:15 to drive out to the burbs, load some lady’s furniture into the van and drive it back down to the city. So after a night of spotty sleep and a rigorous mornings worth of labor, we began the festivities at noon. Scott Otis who had caught wind of the occasion and hopped a Bolt Bus down to Philly, underestimated the effects of Old Crow and wandered off into North Philly the night of his arrival only to return several hours late to the barbecue the next day.

And so at noon on that late August day it began, propane tank locked in firmly, we sparked it up in Rick’s backyard and threw on some ‘beef chips’ we’d picked up at the Asian market, each cracking a bottle of Pabst to symbolize the blowing of the whistle. A modest handful of folks swung by to partake in a quick snack, ushering themselves out before too long to busy themselves with another distraction, and when the scenery of Rick’s house and the I-95 underpass got stale, we moved along. Having done a decent job of filling an entire shopping cart with food while shopping for this day, we saved ourselves the trouble of tediously loading it into the van bag by bag, and instead after casting a suspicious glance around the parking lot, hoisted the whole thing up into the back. This was no childish thievery, this was a calculated move. When switching locations, how else was one supposed to transport a hot grill? I coasted down the road in the van, applying no pressure whatsoever to the gas pedal, riding alongside Rick and Noah as they pushed the grill in its adorable stroller, cooking a single piece of corn. Noticing a road side produce stand, we did a drive by purchase of additional corn and tomatoes, before arriving at the Hazzard St warehouse, a location where we only basked in comfort for an hour or so before the rain came.

It came hard that day, weighing heavily on the protective tarp we ramshackily erected out front, relieving itself of liquid when it could bare no more, sending ample streams onto unsuspecting laps. Forced to seek a suitable enclosure, for six people in the van huddled around a smoking grill was proving to inadequate, we drove off, abandoning the shopping cart and its squid ring décor. Bratwursts rotated themselves with the movement of the van, switching which side was on the flame with each turn I took, while several spotters made sure they (and we, I suppose) were safe. We ended up at Lance’s house, dry via the luxury of his enclosed porch. This is where we ended up spending the bulk of our time, cooking jumbo sized turkey legs, burgers, ribs, and this is where we had the largest crowd.

Strolling the thin line between night and morning our crowd began to dwindle, along with our decision making capabilities, common sense, and after the intake of a couple lighter fluid drenched hot dogs, our appetites. Otis lay completely incapacitated, snoring and farting in a blanket of discarded trash on a wooden bench opposite the expansive charcoal grill at which Rick and I sat watching a lone hot dog wrinkle and char. Looking around, we realized quite a mess had been made. Empty beer boxes, cans, gnawed bones, plastic bags lay strewn about the courtyard of a loft complex at which none of us lived, like a pack of scavenging raccoons with no tact or concept of manners had wandered in and had their way with the place. After a failed game of hacky sack played with a bag of sauerkraut left the inside of the house decorated with its shrapnel, we decided it was time to move on. Leaving Scott to fend for himself, and the disaster area to be quarantined by another, Rick and I headed back to Hazzard St around 6AM, with 6 hours to go.

The two of us sat sipping coffee’s on the roof, deliriously debating the future of the grill session.

“I don’t know man,” I started, “maybe we should just go to sleep.” Rick considered it momentarily before being struck by a sudden blast of inspiration.

“No! No way man!” He exclaimed jumping around the roof, pointing at me. “We’ve come all this way. We only got 5 hours to go! We’re finishing it! We’re gonna do it!” I hated to, but I felt it necessary to point out a key issue that would hinder any further progress.

“Well, you know, we haven’t actually grilled anything for the past two hours.” This unseen realization, the sad fact that we’d already met defeat without even realizing it was a crushing blow to our brains already pulverized into fragility by 18 straight hours of barbecue lifestylings. We sat in a somber silence for several minutes, drinking coffee, before coming to the conclusion to watch Norm MacDonalds “Dirty Work”. I passed out moments into the film, awakening reluctantly around noon to a blue television screen, from Rick’s pokes to the back.

“Wake up.” He instructed me. “Scott found his way back somehow. We’re grilling out on the roof.” And it all began again. We didn’t win that one, but at least we did everything we could to see it through.

Believe it or not, I learned a lot that day, well, I learned a lot about having 24 hour BBQ’s. For example I realized that a core group of at least four people completely committed to being awake the entire time would be necessary to its success. Two just wasn’t enough. Fluctuating groups of people, hungry people, willing to eat when the grillmasters had pushed themselves to the limit, was also essential. An earlier start time seemed to make sense, sure it might be a little rough waking up and getting the grill all ready for 8 AM, but goddamn wouldn’t it feel great to be able to fall asleep at that time the next morning! Time consuming foods could also be of assistance. No ones hungry? Time to slow cook that rack of ribs for three hours!

Back in Nashville, a city who’s porches and yards do much to invite outdoor grilling, at 10:53 AM on 10/10/10 the first strip of bacon was laid across the grates of a hot grill. Val was inside preparing a potato salad while I worked on a breakfast in the backyard, cooking up bacon on the propane, and with two skillets, eggs and pancakes on the charcoal. A moderate crowd patiently materialized while the hours went by unnoticed in a true southern pace. Ribs and pork tenderloins were both slow cooked on indirect heat for a couple of hours, brats boiled all day long on the stove inside before being grilled up at nightfall, vegetable kabobs and a reserve stash of corn got tapped into before too long, and before we knew it the initial 1/3rd of the barbecue had passed us by in what proved to be a surprisingly pleasant and relaxing occasion packed full of good tasting carefully prepared foods. Thinking back to the last one, it was a little shocking. For the time being at least, things seemed to be operating smoothly.

Around 8PM the crowd was herded down to Betty’s bar and grill for the Risky Flutes, Bill Nace, Diagram A show, and Crom got right to work cooking up flower shaped burgers on the family style gas grill on the back patio. Without snags, obstacles, or outside interference, we continued to the Wrenwood Avenue house after the show at around 1AM. Equipped with two charcoal grills, one steering wheel sized and the other a deep cauldron with the circumference of an oil drum fastened to a wheel bound plastic base, we ended up opting to cook in the tiny one, and start a fire in the jumbo sized one which was already maimed and disfigured from previous blazes. Leslie ran around the yard collecting various twigs and random lawn refuse which she unnecessarily soaked in lighter fluid and began to burn, while I prepped up the charcoal in the other grill for some filets of tilapia, and Crom sautéed his Rhode Island style meat sauce for the hot wieners which were eventually to be made (the later the better).

Following suit with nature, around 4AM, the people who hadn’t already left began to tire. Ryan, who had been interjecting snide remarks like “You’re not really barbecuing you know, this is just grilling.”, and “You’re not really cooking that fish as much as you are smoking it right now.”, all night, continued to nod off next to the fire which was now roaring mightily with the addition of a neighbors discarded wicker chair, who’s flaming legs constantly threated to roll off the grill and onto his back. Hypnotized by the fire, I began to fade, snapping back into clarity only from the occasional spilling of a beer left unattended in my pocket. Crom, Ryan, and I sat there together but distant, very silent, entranced by the fire, and having told ourselves we were ‘taking a break’ from grilling, I began to see what was happening, our fates were sealed, the end was near.

Without warning, I woke up. My body reformed assuming a position more natural than the sitting down slumped over one I had fallen asleep in. It was 8:30 AM, I was quite cold sitting in the metal rocking chair in the front yard, freshly awoken, and alone. Confused, unable to see through a thick mental fog, I gathered up my things (a cooler and a bag of charcoal), drove home, humorously including myself in the morning rush hour traffic, and got in bed.

The score stands two to zero and I’m thinking I might leave it that way. No sense as far as I can tell in pushing it further, trying it again. Clearly, I am not the man for the job. Two failures deep and I’d say I’m a knowledgeable man in the art of 24 hour barbecuing, not the best executioner, but if I were hired as a planner and a coach for someone elses I’m confident I’d be able to guide them to a victory. A lot was learned from the first one, many of those things were reiterated to me in the second, and I won’t take the information for granted. Come next Summer, we’ll see how I’m feeling.