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.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Sam's Kebab Gyros

Friday October 1st 2010

Sam’s Kebab Gyros, Hwy 70S at Old Hickory Blvd, Nashville, TN

Taking a break in the middle of a 13 hour shift a couple weeks back I set out on an extended journey to find something decent to eat, my only options in relatively close proximity being Krystal, Whitt’s, and the fancy restaurant at my work where even with my 50% discount I still can’t justify eating. Working deep in the outskirts of the city, practically on the county line, I had to do a good deal of rural excursion style driving before locating a prime suburban business district. Like a landing strip the options unfolded before me; Captain D’s, KFC, Hardees, it wasn’t looking any better than where I’d come from. In desperation I shifted my focus towards locating a Wendy’s, tricking myself into believing that could make me happy. The good lord had his eye on me that day my friends, and he batted that fast food demon in front of the subway with a casual nonchalance only a sentient being could have. There, off to my left, tucked snugly between the TJ Max and CVS, the similarly bold red lettering managed to capture my attention, ‘Kebab Gyros’ emblazoned on the structures beige plaster façade for all the world to see. An obstacle presented itself; I was in the wrong lane. I could just go a little further up and flip around, I thought to myself before remembering the difference in size between my vehicle and the majority of others on the road. I clicked on my left blinker (which I later discovered to be broken) and forced the comical smidge of a car next to me to stop in its tracks, tooting its kazoo-esque horn, as I eased my way across the lane into the parking lot.

I ordered a Gyro, what else, agreed to have everything available stuffed inside, and watched hesitantly as Sam (I would presume) sculpted what looked to be a rather tiny, neat, and compact sandwich. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, it seemed too delicate and precise compared to the Gyros I was used to, but lone behold it proceeded to thoroughly impress me. The meat was sliced painstakingly thin and came packed in with generous helpings of taboule, lettuce, tomatoes, feta cheese, and tzatziki sauce. I’m not sure how it all fit in there really, an optical illusion perhaps. They had me sold, I returned the next day to try the chicken sandwich and grape leaves, both of which were soaked in oil and brutalized my stomach for the remainder of my nighttime shift, pointing cars in the general direction they might find someplace to park. Had they sold me? Was I rushing this? Did things get serious too fast? I think so. I took three weeks to think it over, and returned with slight reluctance to try their Gyro sandwich lunch special.

Sam’s assistant sprinkled a layer of seasoning salt across my basket of fries, glancing at me first with the shaker poised readily in his hand, looking for an expression of approval to which I obliged, taking my seat after hitting the iced tea dispenser. Positioned in view of all patrons is an oversized widescreen television, blaring CNN at considerable volume. It demands the attention of all in the restaurant, acting like a debriefing station, subjecting all customers to a barrage of inconsequential information you have no choice but to absorb along with your food. Their story on young conservatives brewing up trouble at a gay rights rally proved to be upsetting, leaving me with hate for all involved parties by the end of the segment, a feeling which seemed to linger in the air around the entire restaurant. New customers would walk through the door approaching the counter with an irritable attitude and disgusted expression, for which the television vibe could be the only thing responsible. I shoveled in the crispy fries and the Gyro that seemed somewhat less full than the previous one, emptying the contents of my tray into the tzatziki sauce smeared trash can, and escaping the medias hypnotism. My final opinion on this place has still yet to fully form, one part of me would like to move on and leave it a thing of the past, while the other part knows theres really no better place to eat and can clearly see future CNN stories transfixing my thoughts while food involuntarily finds its way to my mouth. Time will tell.