On Sunday afternoon, searching for nothing more than lunch, I came across a sign of the times, both figuratively and literally.
The literal message was a poster at the Limp Lizard barbecue restaurant in suburban Syracuse, N.Y., seeking donations for volunteers leaving Wednesday for New Jersey to help with post-Sandy relief efforts. The figurative message was that we are all in this together.
Syracuse, which Superstorm Sandy avoided, is a solid five-hour drive from New York City, even further from New Jersey. I asked Chuck Orlando, owner of the three Limp Lizard’s restaurants, what motivated his gesture. “Do you have roots in Jersey?”I wondered.
“No,” he replied. “When I was a little kid, we used to go down there sometimes.”
He went on to tell me that he, his wife and their four daughters spent part of last summer in Wildwood, N.J. “It was just a great time,” he said.
When he watched the devastation wrought by Sandy along the Jersey shore, he called the people from whom he rented the beach house to see if they were all right. They were, he said. But as he watched the TV coverage of the vicious winds and rains, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he should do something.
He got on the phone and called around to his suppliers for donations. “This was at 8:30 Halloween night,” he said. “By 9 the next morning, we had enough pork to feed 3,000 people.” The suppliers donated, as did the Limp Lizard itself. A local bakery donated the buns.
Orlando’s impulse made me think of Operation BBQ Relief, a non-profit organization formed when some guys in Kansas City were moved by the plight of nearby Joplin, Mo., flattened by a tornado in May 2011. The guys, friends from the competition circuit, hopped in their trucks, set up grills in an abandoned parking lot and smoked enough pork shoulder, ribs and chicken to serve more than 100,000 meals to first-responders and residents over 11 days.
I have written about OBR, as they are sometimes known, a few times this year — after Hurricane Isaac smashed into the Gulf Coast last August and after the group was a regional finalist for a philanthropic award . The thing is, the outfit rode like a barbecue cavalry into help after about a dozen disasters since Joplin.
I really didn’t want to have to write about them again. But here we are, in wreckage that is, if anything, far worse than most of the nation realizes. And here they are.
I had wanted to talk about barbecue and the presidential campaign on this Election Day. I intended to review the role that barbecue played on the trail and, as recently as last week, continued to play when Mitt Romney accused President Obama of driving the 82-year-old Richmond institution, Bill’s Barbecue, out of business. I intended to get all snarky about the ad in the important swing state of Virginia, noting that commenters to a Washington Post piece scoffed at the assertion. (One wrote that Bill’s “lost to the competition. Not the economy.”) And a Richmond magazine editor tweeted that Bill’s failed because it was “crap.”
I planned to note that at least a half dozen barbecue restaurants had opened in the Washington area since Obama became president while only one had gone under . Similar growth has occurred in cities nationwide, whether in New York City or Chicago or San Francisco. Meanwhile, in Richmond, Q Barbeque expanded to three outlets while new, successful operations included Alamo BBQ and Halligan Bar & Grill.
But the things that volunteers on the ground are doing to help those in the Northeast was more urgent than what I might add to this Election Day.
During our phone call, Stan Hays told me that OBR had served about 9,500 meals the day before. The group, he told me, had a few volunteers in lower Manhattan — and in Neptune and Hoboken, N.J. On Sunday, the Neptune Township Fire Department picked up cooked food from OBR to deliver to shut-ins throughout town.
“All a lot of people are eating right now is peanut butter sandwiches, cold food,” he said. “We provide hot meals for them.”
Hays expected to set up a site on Staten Island. “This could end up by far being the biggest disaster we’ve worked,” he said, his normally even-keeled tone sounding a bit shaken.
He said that donations included $1,000 from the Illinois BBQ Alliance , 1,000 pounds each of meat and spice rub from a Philadelphia franchise of the Famous Dave’s chain (which also planned to provide manpower), 5,000 pounds of chicken from Koch Foods and a truck full of non-perishable items like aluminum foil, metal pans and canned food from The Shed BBQ & Blues Joint of Ocean Springs, Miss. Alexandria’s Pork Barrel BBQ is giving 25 percent of its online sales through Friday to OBR. Negotiations were underway with a corporate donor for financial aid.
“When we did Isaac, we basically only got back about 35 to 40 percent of what we spent,” he said. “We need a lot more than we’ve got to meet [the post-Sandy] challenge.”
The most pressing needs, he said, were the use of a refrigeration truck and, so volunteers could get a break, a motor home. To volunteer time, money or food, go to the group’s Facebook page.
While OBR will be serving the northern ends of New Jersey, Chuck Orlando will be smoking pork butts this evening, then departing Wednesday morning in two vans and two road pits for Seaside, N.J., where he and a 10-person crew will distribute 1,600 pounds of pork sandwiches, potato chips and bottled water for free.
From California to New York island, this land was not only made for you and me, it was made by you and me. And, when it is broken, it is repaired by you and me. Somehow, that message struck me as particularly resonant on Election Day.