April 18, 2010

My friends are eating barbecue with their hands. It seems I'm having dinner with the Flintstones.

The four of us stood on the pavement outside the restaurant. Teddy, a New Yorker who became a wild enthusiast about the world of barbecue to the point of buying a pick-up truck, a giant mobile pit, and competing; Liza, my best friend who showed up wearing blue jeans, rhinestones and cowboy boots; Brian, her beefy boyfriend. And me. The wheat-free vegetarian.

We were about to enter a massive "barbecue market" in Manhattan, the kind of place where people eat meat Texas-style. Where you order by the pound. Where it's cooked "low and slow" and served on brown paper.

I was excited. This would offer a glimpse into a world I'm not a part of. A world of acid reflux, hardened arteries and special sauces. Plus, I was confident I would find something edible in between the brisket chomp and baked beans with burnt ends. My forensic eating skills would be tested. It's good to put yourself in adverse situations every now and then. Liza reaches into her purse and pulls out a sample of smoked bacon ordered off the internet. I'm already feeling left out. I'm alarmed as well. When did Liza start carrying bacon in her purse?

Apparently, when people are about to consume large quantities of meat, they take leave of their senses. Just then, Teddy declares: "Time to eat! From rooter to tooter!"

I don't know what to say to that.

Luckily, I don't have to say anything because as the front door opens, the smell is so overwhelming, it renders me speechless. There's a smoky cloud of oak being burned in the pit. I inhale and feel my cholesterol levels go up.

Once inside, we stand in a queue. "Smell that?" Teddy asks. What he's saying is a verbal nod of appreciation rather than an actual question. Because the only way not to smell it would be if I had no nose.

As we wait to be seated a large man walks in with his party and calls out, "All right fellas. Take off your belts." Given that the expression is usually "Loosen your belts", this is serious business.

This might explain why everything is super-sized. The space, the portions and especially the patrons who resemble bears about to go into hibernation, filling up while they can. I know where to go if I ever need to boost my self-esteem. Hanging around people who eat barbecue, I feel like Kate Moss.

At the table I quickly learn that there really is only one topic of conversation: grilling. How to grill, where to grill, grills that were stolen, grills that were frozen; at one point Liza and Brian tell a story in unison about grilling pork chops on the patio.

Bacon in her purse, pork chops on the patio - what's next? A platter of meat on a stick? Turns out, yes. A platter of meat on a stick? Turns out, yes.A platter with a variety of cuts arrives - beef rib, prime rib, brisket moist and brisket lean with super-sized toothpicks stuck into each chunk. They dig in and the conversation is on pause. There's a lot of chewing.

I ask the waitress about the sides. There are three sizes: Good Eatin', Heapin' Helpin' and Feed Your Family. I have questions. Collard greens are made with pork? They are. She suggests the macaroni and cheese but that doesn't work. Wheat. The sweet potato bourbon mash has bourbon. Anything without bourbon?

She looks right at me and says, "Let me get you the special menu."

The special menu is a food allergy checklist and I am delighted to find a cucumber salad. I look over at Liza and she's holding up a brontosaurus rib. The men are eating with their hands. Essentially, I'm having dinner with the Flintstones.

The meal doesn't have an end - it keeps going until it reaches the Topping Off stage. Topping off is what it's called when filling a car's petrol tank, the hose automatically shuts off when it's nearly full, and yet, you decide to squeeze the trigger and add more petrol until it's overflowing. Now, apply this to eating.

"It's like heading downhill when the brakes have gone out." Teddy says, reaching, in slow motion, for another rib.

I get it.Eating vast quantities of barbecued meat is the ultimate alpha male excuse to be out of control in an environment where it's not only permitted, but encouraged. It's the sort of eating that, while taking another bite, inspires the words, "I don't know what's wrong with me, I'm so full."

The following day, they all have food hangovers. Brian even took the bottle of antacid to work with him. Clothes smell of meat, they'll be digesting for weeks and Liza says she'll go back for sure, only next time, she'll have the chicken. When I ask why she replies, "Stick with what you know."