Playing with Fire: Sweating it out with Barbecue Pit Master Ricky Parker

Traveling west between Nashville and Memphis, across the rhinestone buckle of the Bible Belt, I headed deeper into the South’s other and equally worshipped belt—that of barbecue. Every few miles, advertisements for pulled-pork sandwiches shared billboard space with promises of salvation from ministers who looked as if they should be presiding over a congregation of used-car salesmen, not sinners. Stapled to telephone poles were handmade signs with the letters “BBQ” and a hastily drawn arrow underneath.

2006 Bert Greene Award


Few things other than barbecue could wrench me from the familiar comfort of my air-conditioned New York apartment and drop me into western Tennessee, especially in the torpid heat of late June. It wasn’t because of any abiding love for the food, but rather because of a colossal, unmitigated lack of understanding. Having been raised in New England during the culinarily unenlightened ’60s, I took anything my father put on our hibachi to be barbecue. Steak? Yep. Hot dogs? Certainly. And while you’re at it, why not grilled cheese made with Velveeta? But later, as the cult of pork crept north, I found myself at swank eateries downing Kansas-, Texas-, and Memphis-style barbecue, and I was none the wiser. It seems no two people who have ever huddled over a pit have agreed upon what animal to cook, how to cook it, whether to sauce it, or when to season it. There isn’t a technique that confounds me more, and, considering how barbecue is suddenly the food of the moment, I figured I needed to learn more.

I contacted my friend southern food writer John T. Edge, a short, wiry man whose face has the scrubbed shine of a just-opened lichee nut, and asked him where I could go to learn about barbecue firsthand. Read more »

Grilling with the Steak Whisperer

When Waldy Malouf, owner of Beacon Restaurant in New York City, broke his ankle in several places, I couldn’t have been happier. Nothing against Malouf. If anything, he’s a friendly bear of a guy, unlike the pan-throwing heathens I had the bad luck to work with when I was a waiter. Nor was it thinly veiled sadomasochistic tendencies that warmed me inside when I got word of his misfortune. Rather it was something far more sinister: grilling season. It was fast approaching, and I couldn’t present my claque of culinistas with yet another platter of incinerated chicken breasts. Because Malouf had to hang up his tongs temporarily, thanks to a cast that came up to his knee, I did what any desperate cook would do. I ambushed him at home, in Connecticut. Read more »

The Lazy Man’s Brunch

Deep-Dish Brioche French Toast by David Leite

Although Sansabelt pants, Clapper light switches, and robovacs are looked upon with great fondness by the motivationally challenged (read: lazy) among us, the ne plus ultra for the lounging class is Sunday brunch. You can eat it in bed or at the breakfast table — in flannel, either pink polka-dotted or gray — and any time between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Even the term brunch is the result of quintessential laziness. Instead of racking our brains for a unique name, we simply made an amalgam by scrunching together breakfast and lunch into one poetic term.

The problem, though, with being among the multitudes who consider Sunday morning the next best thing to a national holiday — hence our right to sleep late — is that few of us have the constitution to rouse ourselves to actually cook. The idea of stumbling out of bed clear-headed enough to wield sharp objects and making something that would astound friends is, quite frankly, foreign to us. That’s why there are restaurants.

Still, there are advantages to lazily brunching at home, so I was intrigued when I encountered a particularly appealing deep-dish French toast while loafing at the Black Boar Inn in Ogunquit, Maine. Impressed by its craggy, deeply toasted top, warm chunks of cream cheese, and a strata of nuts and raisins, I requested the recipe.

As with many restaurant recipes, what emerged from the oven bore little resemblance to what we had eaten that crisp autumn morning. Impossible-to-copy chef improvisations, extra steps, and tiring techniques undoubtedly went into the making of the dish. What interested me, though, was the instruction to the cook to let the whole thing sit overnight in the refrigerator. Now this was approaching the land of leisure cooking. It meant that if I set the table the night before, I could get up at a decadently late 10 a.m. and have brunch ready for a tableful of guests by 11:45 a.m. This was almost as luxurious as switching to Daylight Standard Time.

I set about tearing apart the recipe military-style in order to build it up lazy-man-style. First, a brioche loaf would be used instead of plain bread, to offer extra egg richness and flavor. Brown sugar and warm spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, would be added to the beaten eggs to save a step. And when the French toast was baking, a drizzle of melted butter on top would eliminate having to slather it on. My guests would need only warmed maple syrup — 45 seconds in the microwave, max.

The Saturday-night assembly took all of 20 minutes, including cleanup. I put the dish in the fridge and watched “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” But all through the show I was consumed by one obsessive thought: Should I use paper plates? Once a lounger, I guess, always a lounger.

Deep-Dish Brioche French Toast

Photo © 2004 Maryellen Baker. All rights reserved.

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