Memphis in May 2019

Monk: For my second Memphis in May with the Cotton Pickin’ Porkers, they finished a very respectable 12th out of 35 teams in whole hog (just missing a call) in addition to 18th out of 118 in tomato sauce, 23rd out of 95 in mustard sauce, and 71st out of 145 in wings. Not bad for a group of guys that gets together once a year to do this festival, even if they’ve been doing it for the past 29 straight years (one of only a handful of teams that can claim that). In any case, Memphis once again proved to be a fun weekend of barbecue and drinks. Can’t wait for next year!

Cotton Pickin’ Porkers

Some of the other tents

Speedy, Mrs. Monk and me

Miscellaneous shots from the festival weekend

The Cuegrass Festival is a Must for Raleigh Barbecue and Bluegrass Fans

Monk: Every April, the streets in front of The Pit in Raleigh shut down for a block party featuring the always undefeated combination of barbecue, beer, and bluegrass music. This year, the festival took place on April 20th and offered smoking of the pig kind on a near picture-perfect day in downtown Raleigh.

I had previously attended one other Cuegrass back in 2014 on a similarly sunny and picturesque day (although my memory is that it was a little warmer that year). This year, friend of the blog Susong and I stopped by Lexington Barbecue for lunch on the way so weren’t particularly hungry for $6 barbecue sammies from The Pit. I did take note that they had gone up in price from $5 some time in the past 5 years and that they are still served in the same foil paper packaging that Chic-Fil-A uses.

While I was too full for barbecue I did, however, partake in some beer as well as the bluegrass music, catching Alan Barnosky solo on the Beer & Banjos Stage on the side street Commerce Place once I got settled before checking out local 4-piece bluegrass group Old Habits on the Main Stage. Old Habits were a fun band of 40-something year old (presumably) dads who did play some originals but also mixed in some crowd-pleasing covers such as “The Weight” by The Band.

Plenty of other folks made it out to watch Old Habits as well.

After catching the full set from Old Habits, Susong and I wrapped it up with a few minutes of Billie Feather back on the Beer & Banjos stage before catching a few minutes of the decidedly non-bluegrass Will Hoge before heading out.

Cuegrass is an extremely family friendly event, from the face painting and games on the side street to the low key environment of watching the bands on blankets and tailgate chairs at both stages. Several kids were dancing and enjoying the sounds of Old Habits, who noted that it was the first (and perhaps only) time that anyone had ever flossed to one of their songs (sadly, I did not capture this ). I can’t recommend the event enough and hope to be back much sooner than the 5 years it took me between my first and second visit.

More photos after the jump:

The 4th Annual Free Range and order/fire Pig Pickin’ featuring Lewis Donald of Sweet Lew’s BBQ

Each year for the past four, order/fire, a Charlotte-based culinary web series, and Free Range Brewing have collaborated on an annual pig pickin’ and viewing of the latest episode of the web series. You may recall two years ago they featured Sam Jones from Skylight Inn/Sam Jones BBQ. While I missed last year’s edition, this year they featured Lewis Donald from Sweet Lew’s BBQ, with all proceeds going towards a great cause, the Community Culinary School of Charlotte, a non-profit that provides workforce training and job placement assistance in the food service industry for adults who face barriers to successful employment. Definitely a great cause, and one in-line with some of the values of Sweet Lew’s (more on that in a bit).

The location is the same, but the surroundings are completely different, with apartments now surrounding the Free Range Brewing building whereas it was an empty lot just two years ago. Because of the potential for inclement weather Saturday night, Lewis and order/fire host Marc Jacksina opted to utilize the covered Sweet Lew’s smokehouse for the majority of smoking before relocating to the brewery Sunday morning.

As I arrived shortly after doors opened, Lewis and his two sons were beginning to pull from the pig and before long the sound of chopping filled the back patio. Speaking of the pig, Beeler’s Pure Pork (who supplies pork shoulders for Sweet Lew’s BBQ) had graciously donated a 95 lb pig for the event, which allowed more of the funds to go to the Community Culinary School of Charlotte. Duke’s Bread donated the rolls, again allowing more of the funds to go to CCSC.

Lunch was served before the first showing, and with a suggested donation of $10 per plate everyone got a full plate of chopped pork and a roll, with sides of slaw, mac and cheese, and baked beans and a cookie. In a nice bit of synergy, the sides were actually prepared by the CCSC. Lewis was also walking around handing out slices of brisket as long as it lasted. With bellies full, it was time for the first screening of the episode.

Free Range Brewing co-owner Jeff Alexander, order/fire host Chef Marc Jacksina, director Peter Taylor, and Lewis Donald took the stage for some quick words before the episode airing. In speaking with Lewis over the past few months, I’ve gotten a good sense of his vision for Sweet Lew’s BBQ – to be a community restaurant that is fully integrated with the Belmont neighborhood – but this episode really fleshed it out so much more through the conversation between Lewis and Marc. It’s hard to believe its only been about 5 months now, but Lewis clearly loves being in the Belmont neighborhood and was putting in work to build ties with neighbors starting with the construction of the restaurant last fall. And he’s got more great ideas for the coming months, from his continued practice of hiring teens from the neighborhood to a back-to-school carnival with free haircuts for kids next August. My social work wife was just eating up the backstory and vision, and for good reason because it’s something you don’t always see from a restaurant.

But the conversation also revealed more of Lewis as a person, from his background growing up in Cleveland, OH to his path in the food industry over the past 20 years, with stops in California, Hawaii, West Virginia, and ultimately Charlotte. Lewis has just about seen it all in the types of roles he’s had, from fast food, country clubs, fine dining, and corporate positions. Lewis is a guy who self-admittedly doesn’t talk a lot, but I was glad Marc was able to get quite a bit out of him in their discussion. Great stuff, and I’ll be sure to post the episode once its available online because it’s one you don’t want to miss.

Finally, a note on Free Range Brewing. I love what they have continued to do since they began operation. They actively promote a family-friendly atmosphere in which they want the NoDa community to gather. In addition to the annual pig pickin’, they host the other viewings of order/fire episodes as well as partner with local farmers and artists. If you live in Charlotte and haven’t been yet, I urge you to check them out well before next year’s pig pickin’.

Checking Back In: Richard’s Bar-B-Q in Salisbury, NC

Monk: The last (and only) time I had visited Richard’s Bar-B-Q in Salisbury was nearly 5 years ago and I mostly enjoyed my meal there, preferring it to the other Salisbury joint on the NC Barbecue Trail, Wink’s King of Barbeque.

Richard’s was the choice for a Monk family lunch meet up over the holidays, providing an in-between spot between Charlotte and Pittsboro.
Pulling in, the one thing that struck me was the spelling of “Bar-B-Q” on all of Richard’s signage. By my recollection, you tend to see “barbecue,” “bbq,” “barbeque,” “bar-b-que,” or “bar-b-cue” spellings more often, but even thought its clearly a valid spelling, I don’t recall really noticing “bar-b-q” in too many places in my travels. A minor thing for sure, but perhaps worth noting in the future.

As for the ‘cue itself, I found the barbecue to have the necessary smoke but lacking the tang and spice I noted on my previous visit. Ditto for the red slaw. Thankfully, the large hush puppies were just as good as I remembered and I ate them until I was well beyond stuffed. In any case, my family and I enjoyed our meal as we lamented the recent closing of Allen & Son in Chapel Hill – most of us, anyways. My aunt said she found that one subpar and preferred the Pittsboro location much more. Now, even though Chapel Hill is gone, I will have to investigate Pittsboro. In any case, back to Richard’s – I still chuckle at the use of large coffee filters as part of the serving apparatus for the trays. Hopefully they won’t fall victim to the recent trend of NC barbecue joint closings anytime soon.

Photos: The 89th Annual Mallard Creek Barbecue

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Monk: This year marked the 89th year that Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church in University City has had its annual barbecue held the fourth Thursday of October, which is part community barbecue and part political meet and greet.

While this year’s was a bit cold and grey and overcast, the sun peeked out enough so that the guests weren’t left feeling too cold eating their barbecue sandwiches ($4) or plates ($10). Plates come with pulled pork, a bowl of Brunswick stew, slaw, and apple sauce. Each table has a loaf of Merita white bread, so you can make a taco of sorts with the barbecue and slaw. Be warned that the hot vinegar sauce on the table is quite good but also quite spicy.

A reader comment on a Linkdown from a few weeks back complained about the use of rice in the Brunswick stew, which I didn’t realize was a bit controversial. Critics will say that it is used as a cheat to make more of the stew without meat. I’ll say that I have never felt very strongly about Brunswick stew, so it works for me. Perusing the event website, this question must come up a lot since there is a FAQ dedicated to answering it.

Mallard Creek’s Brunswick Stew Recipe?

We are proud of the heritage and quality of our stew, in fact we got loads of compliments every year.  It’s always an early sellout, we just can’t make enough – it’s a multiday process and involves over 100 folks to cook and package the stew.  Occasionally we get questions and comments about the inclusion of rice in the stew.  Our Brunswick Stew recipe has been passed down for many generations in our Church – and it is a stew – not a soup.  Like barbecue, stews are very personal and regional in taste and recipe. We are very proud of our stew, and let us assure you that the inclusion of rice is original to the recipe – and has not been added to stretch the recipe.  On the practical side, some stews have potatoes – but don’t store/freeze/reheat well, your Mallard Creek Stew will not break down as much, since the rice holds better.  While we don’t share specific recipes, we cook our own mix of chicken, beef and pork for the stew – and there is approximately 6 times as much meat vs rice (by weight) in each serving of stew.  The meat is finely ground after cooking, so sometimes folks don’t realize it.  By the way, we use a gluten free rice too! Remember that stews were intended to be a cost-effective source of nutrition, in their origin. We appreciate your own personal taste, feel free to come enjoy our stew, barbecue, slaw and fellowship.  We would love to have you!

I was glad to make it back this year after taking last year off due to having strep throat. If you ever do make it out, be sure to steer clear of going during normal lunch hours unless you are in a position to wait for an hour or more in your car. Going closer to 2pm still left me a 25 minute or so wait in the car. I’ve also had success going after 5pm but then you run the risk of popular items like Brunswick stew running out. No matter when you are able to make it out to the Mallard Creek Barbecue, you will enjoy some of the better barbecue in Charlotte, albeit cue that’s only available one day a year.

Photos: Smoked Mackerel on a Stick at Oktoberfest

Monk: No linkdown this week but enjoy a couple of photos of smoked fish on a stick outside of the Fischer-Vroni tent at Oktoberfest in Munich. You can see in the first photo how the smaller fish are lined on either side of a long pit of charcoal so they get a light smoke bath. The larger ones in the second photo get similar treatment though not necessarily in as efficient a use of space.

I was too shy to try these guys but if you want to read more, check out this piece from Munchies.

What I Ate at BBQ Alley at Memphis in May

Monk: The Memphis in May Barbecue Fest has a few barbecue vendors inside the grounds and while local health regulations prohibit teams from serving barbecue to the general public if you are lucky you might find some barbecue teams handing out samples – for instance the Traeger team was handing out brisket samples all weekend. Another option for barbecue that weekend was BBQ Alley, a “consumer experience” where you can purchase $15 tickets which give you 5 samples of barbecue dishes from Big Green Egg as well as 3 notable restaurants – this year those restaurants were Paradise Grill in Atoka, TN, Dr. BBQ in St. Petersburg, and B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque in Savannah and Atlanta.

Speedy came in town for a few hours around lunchtime on the Saturday of Barbecue Fest so we decided to check BBQ Alley out. I only ended up having four of the five dishes served but here they are in the order that I tried them.

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Pork loin with rice from Big Green Egg/Leisure Boys

I’m not familiar with them but Leisure Boys appeared to be cooking on behalf of Big Green Egg. This well-seasoned pork loin was a fine start the the BBQ Alley experience.

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Snake River Farms ribeye and pork loin with garlic bread from Dr. BBQ

I didn’t snap a photo but the man himself, Dr. BBQ, was hard at work behind the table working the Green Egg to produce this ribeye from Snake River Farms in Idaho.

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Mike’s BBQ Smoked Wings from Paradise Grill

Paradise Grill is a barbecue restaurant in Atoka, about 40 minutes outside of Memphis, and they brought “Mike’s BBQ Smoked Wings” to BBQ Alley. I remember it being a very solid smoked wing.

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Brisket from B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque

The couple of brisket bites from B’s Cracklin’ Barbeque were the best of the bunch (as to be expected) but the best part was meeting pitmaster Bryan Furman and speaking with him for a couple of minutes. Bryan actually grew up in Charlotte and graduated from West Mecklenburg High School, so we talked about Charlotte a little bit in addition to his restaurant and experience at Memphis in May. Brian is a super nice guy, and was even kind enough for a quick photo. If you are in Savannah or Atlanta, go to B’s!

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Bryan Furman of the awesome B’s Cracklin’ Bar-B-Que in Savannah and Atlanta

All in all, BBQ Alley was maybe a little pricey for what you get but was a chance to try some legit barbecue while at Memphis in May Barbecue Fest.

Memphis in May 2018, or How I Spent an Entire Weekend Between Dave Grohl and the World Champion Barbecue Team The Shed

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Monk: I’m not a competition barbecue guy in that I haven’t ever participated in one and I don’t really go out of my way to attend them. The ones I’ve been to have mainly been smaller ones in Charlotte when its easy and convenient. However, when my neighbor, a former Memphis resident, insisted I come with him and join his former barbecue team at the 2018 edition of Memphis in May, it was hard to turn that opportunity down.

The Cotton Pickin’ Porkers have been competing in the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest for over 20 years and is comprised of a great group of guys: Bob is the team captain, Sleepy was the lead pitmaster, Heavy plays the role of muscle and bouncer, and there were countless others who filled various roles on the team. And they all welcomed me in pretty quickly. I wasn’t going to be expected to help with the whole hog – they’ve got their process down – but I would try to pitch in where I could whether that meant picking up kegs for the booth from the gate, leading flip cup tournaments, or setting up tables and chairs for dinner. Their booth, and my home for the weekend, was a two story structure with a smoker in the center with dedicated prep area, lots of tents providing shade, a frozen margarita machine running 24/7, and 3 kegs available at all times (though the two craft beer kegs were for team members only).

On one side of our booth was a team called The Beached Pig out of Nashville, who had a peculiar setup in that they were the only team who had a chain link fence surrounding their area with black fabric panels providing privacy. I would later come to learn why: Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters was on their team for the weekend. And he was just hanging out drinking beer and shooting the breeze…literally all weekend long. No security, no entourage, just Dave and his apparent buddies from The Beached Pig competition team (though I never did learn what the connection was).

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On the other side was the team from The Shed, the famed barbecue restaurant in Ocean Springs, MS, that had an army of workers and camera crews following them around all weekend and documenting on video and photo. Oh, not to mention they had some recent success at the competition – just a small matter of being 2015 Grand Champions. Cotton Pickin’ Porkers has had some success themselves in whole hog – a 4th in 2013 and a 3rd in 2014 – but if our immediate neighbors were any indication, it was going to be a tough competition.

Whole hog prep began Friday morning. The hog was trimmed before I arrived there mid-morning and yellow mustard was being slathered all over before a rub (dubbed “Uber Rub”) was applied to the inside of the hog. A handful of Boston butts were also brought out and some where butterflied while others stayed in tact but all were injected with a solution. These would be placed on top of the hog in the smoker so that certain parts of the hog – the loin in particular – wouldn’t dry out before the fattier parts cook. Being a newbie, I don’t know if this is a common technique in competitions but it was something I hadn’t seen before. Then, the hog with the shoulders on top was loaded into the smoker, its home for the next 24 or so hours.

Our smoker set up was certainly different than The Shed, who sat their hogs (that’s right, plural) upright in their custom smoker made from an old pickup truck.

A few hours later, the team rotated the hog in the smoker and adding towels. I assume the towels are to retain moisture but never got exactly what purpose they served.

Another two or so hours after that, the hog was pulled out again and covered in foil. This time, the hog was left in (I believe) for the night until early Saturday morning.

At that point, the Cotton Pickin’ Porkers booth turns into a dinner for the team and their invited guests before a straight up dance party, going into the late hours. Now if you are Sleepy, one of the head pitmasters, you are calling it quits somewhat early after dinner so that you can wake up and get back to the booth at 5am the next morning to tend to the hog. If you are someone like me who has no specific responsibilities, you stay late and rage. Many jello shots, Kahlua strawberries (yes, you read that right), margaritas, and beers later, I called it a night (but not before getting a late night soul burger at Earnestine and Hazel’s). After a slow start to the morning, I didn’t make an appearance until close to 11 the next morning.

For whole hog, blind box turn-ins are at 12pm noon on Saturday and the judges start coming by at 12:15. Around 11 some of the team starts building the blind box…

…while others dress and garnish the whole hog for the judges presentation.

The three judges come by, one by one, and the team is feeling about as good as possible after its all said and done (well, Sleepy said he never feels good even when they’ve won but at least it was over). A couple judges even come back and give positive feedback, though signaling that we came in behind The Shed but ahead of The Beached Pig out of our block of teams. A bit later, a judge comes by The Shed to let them know that they are finalists and they erupt in wild cheering. Of course, we aren’t so lucky but there’s always a chance to get a call and make the top 10.

My neighbor and I then stepped away to hit up Beale Street for the afternoon only to find that not only did we miss the team photo, but I missed my best chance to meet Dave Grohl. UGH.

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Also while we were away, apparently the competition liaison gave our team captain Bob the impression that we definitely want to show up for awards ceremony. Who knows what exactly that means – could it be a top 10 placement or are they just wanting to make sure that folks show up for the awards (though I doubt this is a problem)?

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Everyone on the team is hopeful for a top 10 and all but we make our way to the stage right at 6 for the awards ceremony…only to not end up getting a call. Our neighbors The Shed not only win 1st place for whole hog but they end up winning the entire shooting match – grand champions for the second time.

Aside from the competition itself, I got to meet a lot of great people at barbecue fest: Jess Pryles of the Hardcore Carnivore cookbook and rubs, Matt Pittman of Meat Church who has judged on BBQ Pitmasters, Bryan Furman of B’s Cracklin’ Barbecue in Savannah and Atlanta was smoking wings and brisket at BBQ Alley, and when Speedy visited for a few hours Saturday we ran into our old buddy Elliot Moss of Buxton Hall Barbecue who was helping out on the Peg Leg Porker shoulder team.

I had always heard what a great time the Memphis in May barbecue fest was, and now I can definitively say so for myself after four days of partying and barbecue. Regardless of the outcome of the competition for us, I had a blast and hope to join the Cotton Pickin’ Porkers again next year and help bring home some hardware.

My first (and last) time at Pete’s BBQ in Fort Mill, SC

Monk: On Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays for Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day weekends for the past 55 years, Pete Wheeles of Pete’s BBQ has been serving up barbecue out of his home in Fort Mill off India Hook Road. Earlier this week, the Charlotte Observer posted a story that this weekend would be the last one of service ever. Pete’s wasn’t really on my radar until that story but I made my way on the Friday of Memorial Day 2018 to check it out while I could. Getting there shortly before 9, I encountered about an hour’s long line of several dozen folks.

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Folks at Pete’s BBQ primarily order bulk orders for their holiday weekend plans – often several pounds of barbecue and several racks of ribs in addition to pounds of slaw or beans – so the line wasn’t moving at quite the clip I would have wanted for my much smaller order. Plus, I had no idea about the actual barbecue itself. After about 20 minutes, the line had moved about 50 feet. This was going to take a little longer than an hour.

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Forty minutes later, I approached the doorway of the shack. But may I say, I love this sign.

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Pete’s only takes cash or check and I had just gotten only $20 cash out of the ATM on my way there. And again, I had no idea of the barbecue itself, so I just went with a pound of barbecue and a pint of sauce and headed back to my car, passing a news truck on the way out.

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Waiting in line, I overheard someone stating that if someone hadn’t had Pete’s BBQ before then they were in for a treat. Unfortunately, that wasn’t quite the case for me. I found the barbecue to be oversauced to the point where I couldn’t detect any smoke in the meat. It wasn’t bad per se, but it just wasn’t my style of barbecue.

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Locals certainly seem to love Pete’s BBQ and showed out on the first day of their last weekend of service ever (some apparently lining up as early as 5am for a 7am opening). If you are reading this on Monday, May 28, 2018 there may still be some barbecue available (though once they run out they run out). If you are reading this anytime after, then you have missed it. Regardless of how I feel about the barbecue (which again, isn’t my style but different strokes etc.), 55 years is quite an achievement.

Congrats to Pete’s BBQ and enjoy the retirement.

Photos: Sights from Memphis in May 2018

I will write up more from my Memphis in May Barbecue Fest experience with the Cotton Pickin’ Porkers competition team once I get some rest but for now here’s a few photos I captured from the festival. More to come…

Monk