On a recent weekday evening, three cars pulled into the parking lot of Big Poppa's Chicken and Ribs in Harvey and nine men--some carrying notebooks and digital cameras--crowded in to place their order: a slab of spareribs, rib tips, and hot links, sauce on the side. The food was unpacked and arranged on a counter, but a stout man forbade the others to touch it until he'd taken its picture. Then the group began its work.
"I think this is the first smoke ring of the day," declared Gary Wiviott, the big guy with the camera, referring to the pinkish tinge meat takes on in its outer ring, under the char, when it's been smoked properly. The group fanned out and began buttonholing customers about their barbecue preferences. Wiviott persuaded the owner, Mike Qaisi, to let him behind the bulletproof glass barrier separating the staff from the customers. He examined the aquarium-style smoker in the kitchen while peppering Qaisi with questions about how he cares for his ribs: "How do you keep them? Do you wrap them in foil? Do you freeze them? What kind of wood? Where do you get the wood?"
For the group, Big Poppa's was the midpoint of a six-hour survey of south-side and south-suburban barbecue shacks. All of the men are regular posters on the online discussion board Chowhound, and several are contributors to the upcoming Slow Food Guide to Chicago. Wiviott, an accomplished home smoker and proud barbecue snob, is a member of something called the Society for Preservation of Traditional Southern Barbecue. The group's mission was to identify the finest barbecue shacks they could find, establishments that sell a very different style of pork from what's served at the sit-down, north-side "meat Jell-O" palaces that represent what has become known as "Chicago style" barbecue.
Anyone can steam or bake a slab of ribs, hide its inferior taste and texture with sugary glop, slap it on a hot grill, and call it barbecue, says Wiviott. "Those shouldn't be called barbecue ribs. Barbecue implies that there's some kind of wood smoke involved." The group was looking for artists who slow-smoke their pork over smoldering hardwood, often in tempered glass and metal aquarium smokers said to have been developed in Chicago in the early 50s. Such work is difficult, time-consuming, and not always profitable, and honest pitmen are not as common as you'd expect in a city with such a rich barbecue tradition. Most take shortcuts, using low-quality pork, briquettes instead of lump charcoal, or skimping on the wood. Some dispense with fire altogether, baking or boiling their ribs instead. Some freeze and re-serve leftovers or wrap hot pork in tinfoil, which renders it mealy and mushy and leaches out the smoke flavor.
Slow Food is an international organization devoted to ecologically sound food production, regional and seasonal culinary traditions, and slowing down to enjoy cooking and eating. Joel Smith, by day a CBOE trader and the majordomo of the scouting trips, had taken over the Slow Food guide's chapter on barbecue after exhausting himself eating and writing for the Italian section. Applying the organization's standards to barbecue, arguably the most American of food cultures, turned out to be daunting. The south and west sides are dense with small, low-profile barbecue shacks and fast-food holes-in-the-wall masquerading as the same. Smith, who grew up in Dallas and has been known to carry a bottle of Sonny Bryan's barbecue sauce around with him, enlisted the help of fellow Chowhounds and Slow Food members.
Peter Engler, a genetic researcher at the U. of C., had already compiled a list of over 100 potential shacks from the Yellow Pages, the Internet, and personal reconnaissance. "He lives and breathes investigating food places," says Smith. "He sits down and tabulates lists of places he wants to go to and try."
Smith plotted Engler's list on a city map and targeted group excursions in particularly high densities on the south and west sides. The work was frustrating. Many shacks had gone out of business or sold barbecue in name only. Many new unlisted places had since opened up. Barbecue shacks "live and die like spring wildflowers," Smith says.
The scarcity of good ribs is disappointing to Wiviott, who said he got tired of eating so much "shitty barbecue." Lem's and Barbara Ann's, both in the Greater Grand Crossing area, were already well-known and strong favorites, yet the fear of missing some treasure among the hundreds of nominal shacks in the city spurred the group on to obsessive levels of investigation. Four major outings and many smaller "surgical strikes" were launched, but in the end the group was only able to sample the pork at some 30 spots. Some of their best leads came from asking fellow customers about their favorites. That's how the group discovered Exsenator's in Markham and George's Rib House in Harvey, which led them to expand their coverage to the south suburbs.
"Barbara Ann's rib tips are, for me, maybe the best in the city," says Smith. "When I sink my teeth into those, it's layers of deep smoky flavor that just blow you away. It's the difference between an $8 bottle of wine and a $50 bottle. Exsenator's was a good example of a $14 bottle of wine. I wouldn't turn my nose up at it, but it wasn't profound. And when you have profound barbecue, you know it."
One group member who'd taken it upon himself to mount a solo exploration of Division Street by bus stumbled upon the unassuming eight-month-old Honey 1 Barbeque in Austin, run by father and son Robert and Robert Adams. The senior Adams, who hails from Marianna, Arkansas, makes exactly the sort of barbecue the group was looking for: slow-smoked over a small, well-managed fire and suffused with layers of flavor. They made repeated visits and spent hours around the smoker with Adams, talking barbecue. A good sign of his commitment is that he's frequently out of ribs. He refuses to serve ribs that have been sitting for a long time, so he smokes what he knows he can sell. When he runs out, it's another two or two and a half hours before more are ready (so call ahead).
Smith wrote up the group's findings, and they'll be published in the Slow Food guide late this summer. But even after all their painstaking research, he and his cohorts believe they've only scratched the surface. "What started out being a compendium of good places," says Smith, "became this quest for quality cooking at its deepest, most fundamental level."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson, Bruce Powell.