13 June, 2010

Hey! I'm on the radio!

I would like to thank Deborah Miller and Jay White, my colleagues and hosts of SideDish, for interviewing me on SideDish. If you haven't heard it, you should run over to WCHL website and click on the "click here to listen" link. I am very flattered by the opportunity to talk about doing what I love.

During the interview Jay quizzed me on my blog and the desire to write down my thoughts about food. I guess there's a certain amount of vanity involved in addition to the desire to educate but, for me, it also has something to do with sharing the wonder and excitement that I feel when working with someone who is doing something special. One of those people was Ed Mitchell.

For those of you who are not familiar with Ed and his work, you should check out The Pit, in Downtown Raleigh. I could go on about the Pit, but the best way to find out about it is to go there. If you get there early on a Friday or a Saturday night, you might even catch Mr. Mitchell roaming the restaurant talking to everybody. I say you "might" because Ed is also on the Barbecue circuit and this weekend (June 12-13, 2010) he is attending the Big Apple BBQ Block Party.

Well, I say "attending" but the Big Apple BBQ Block Party is hard work for those who go to cook. In 2008 when I was working at the Pit for Mr. Mitchell, I was impressed by the heroic story of sheer volume. I was so impressed that I wrote up a quick little thing that I had hoped to sell as a blog idea for the restaurant. I pulled it out recently and reviewed it. I'm not as happy with it as I was when I wrote it, but it was what led me to start a blog in the first place. The excitment and desire to report "from the trenches", as it were, was almost overwhelming.

I shyly passed it on to Ed. He complimented it and suggested a few revisions for accuracy.

Now when Ed compliments something, he does it in a big way. Even though it wouldn't work out as a blog for the restaurant, his words encouraged me to keep at it. To reach higher. And that is one of Ed's real talents. In my experience, when time afforded him the opportunity to watch over the restaurant directly, he always offered kind words and encouragement to the staff. He corrected gently, but firmly. He picked you up and dusted you off when you fell down. He did that for me and I can't thank him enough for it.

Ed gets a lot of attention from the media, appearing on Good Morning America and battling it out with Bobby Flay last year, but he always takes the time to chat a little with whoever he meets. He'll tell you his whole story if there's time. If you're interested, you can follow the "pearls from the press" link on the Pit's website, but for my money, the best is the Southern Foodways Southern BBQ Trail oral history project. Here is a link to Ed's interview.

In the end of the story about my "Report from the Big Apple BBQ Block Party 2008", I think it was the beginning of this blog, but somehow it never made it onto the blog itself. So for the interest of posterity, here it is:


Report from the Big Apple BBQ Block Party 2008:

Regi King, Ed and Aubrey Mitchell, triumphantly returned from the Big Apple BBQ Block Party in New York City this past Monday. The first person I saw when I came into work was Regi our morning kitchen manager.

"How was New York?" I asked.

"It was work," was the short answer. Regi went on to describe two hour lines at the booth, almost 800 pounds of coleslaw (mixed by hand), and winning first place at the festival in Madison Park. They cooked 24 hogs for Saturday and Sunday. The festival required each vendor to produce a certain amount each day to satisfy the crowd of barbecue seekers; a quota. Our team had sold out of their supply by 4:30pm on Saturday and 3:30 pm on Sunday. The first place prize was a foregone conclusion with Ed and Aubrey at the helm.

Ryan Mitchell, Ed's son, was also there chopping barbecue and entertaining crowds in much the same way his father does. At 30 years old, we are assured a long reign and great things from him in the future.

"Ed is a celebrity up there," Regi explained. Many people came by to snap pictures of the team and of Ed himself. Of course everyone came to enjoy one of his famous chopped whole hog sandwiches.

The next person out of the door is Aubrey Mitchell.

"My main man," he calls me. Every time he calls me that, I cannot help but blush and feel important at the same time.

If Ed is the front man, then Aubrey is the Pit. Every morning, he is working over the steel and brick, charcoal-fired pits at the restaurant; chopping the hog, pulling the pork and every other little thing that comes from the pits. He presides over lunch and is the Pit's direct link to the 150 year old tradition of Mitchell family barbecue. Ed learned this tradition from his grandfather, Lawyer Sanders, his father, Willie Mitchell and a host of uncles. Following Lawyer's passing, Willie began to teach Aubrey, who was followed by Stevie (the youngest of the Mitchell brothers), to make Mitchell Family barbecue. As you can see, he is no less important. Aubrey's son, A.J. (Aubrey Mitchell, Jr. - 8 years old) is following in his footsteps and was interviewed by television reporters during the festival because, in Aubrey's words: "Daddy's workin'!"

Maybe that's why we don't hear so much about one of the most important men at the Pit.

Aubrey regales me with stories and details from the festival: The eclectic mix of people. The heat; 101 degrees in the sun. The hard work of cooking hogs overnight in time for the festival opening on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Everyone came home with suitcases full of clothes wet from sweat and reeking of smoke.

Twenty four hogs, Each weighing in at around 160 pounds each ("green weight" or dressed for the pit). In two days. By way of contrast, the restaurant cooks two hogs a night. That's enough to supply chopped hog for a day's business. Now, compare that with the thirty-five pound pig that Ed cooked for his mother's lunch that day in 1990. The one that started it all.

That's a lot of chopped hog. 1,459 pounds to be exact.

That's the thing about barbecue. It's work. It's hot. It's painful (a casual brush against the pit is enough to raise a blister). Aubrey explains that their barbecue is done the same way in the raised pits (or the extremely heavy "portable" pits) as it was when it was done in hole in the ground; an actual pit. There simply aren't any shortcuts and there haven't been for 150 years.

Maybe that's why first place was a foregone conclusion.

"You ought to know," Aubrey reminds me, "who you're stepping into the ring with, if you're gonna fight."