The barbecue crawl is a peculiar pursuit among food lovers. Few foods outside barbecue inspire day- and week-long outings in which enthusiasts consume variants of that same item several times a day. It’s like a wine tour, except with mountains of meat at each stop rather than a thimble of vino.
I’ve gone on several of these deals around the country, and they are always, as you can imagine, gut punches. You have to strategize carefully. You fuss over what you have for breakfast. You all but design a spreadsheet for what you ‘ll eat, and how much of it, at each stop.
One misstep and you can pay for days in ways too horrific to detail. (Suffice to say, you should stock up on magazines in your bathroom.)
Last week, I led a local ’cue crawl with a retiree “in my 70s” named Betty L. Newell and a 29-year-old 911 dispatcher named Janelle R. Thomas. For winning their categories in the Smoke Signals Barbecue Sauce Recipe Contest, held in May, the two women embarked on a tour of three barbecue restaurants with me as their guide.
Before we left, I was concerned. These were not seasoned barbecue hounds. As far as I knew, neither had been on one of these trips in their lives. Anything could happen.
We began at 11 a.m. at Rocklands Barbeque in Arlington, arrived around 1 p.m. at Pork Barrel BBQ in Alexandria and concluded at Hill Country about 3 p.m. Each restaurant provided a tour of its kitchen, explanations of its cooking methods and a ridiculous feast.
Three barbecue restaurants within four hours is manageable (believe it or not), but even that number can present challenges, especially for the uninitiated, such as Newell and Thomas.
I’ve learned that you never arrive hungry at the first place. You’ll over-eat, then be ruined for the rest of the day. I have a light breakfast, something like yogurt and fruit, maybe a nibble of toast. Just enough to take the edge off, but not enough to fill me up.
I immediately felt bad when we sat down at a Rocklands table laden with baby back ribs, spare ribs, sausage, brisket and chicken, then watched as a glistening pork butt was set down to the women’s squeals of delight. I had not prepared them.
“Go easy,” I kept cautioning.
They tried everything. And the endless sides.
Far from complaining about how they could not possibly eat at the next place, though, they were rarin’ to go. Off we went to Pork Barrel, where the scene was repeated. There was more of the same at Hill Country, but with added foods, including beef ribs and beef clod (shoulder) and prime rib. Oh, yes, and smoked bourbon. And, of course, dessert. Three of them. Or was it four?
Not even then, at the end of a day that would fell lesser mortals, did Newell and Thomas show signs of barbecue buyer’s remorse. They rocked the crawl as well as anyone I’ve ever journeyed with. No, let me be more plain: They rocked the crawl as well as any guy I’ve journeyed with. These trips are nearly always comprised of men and inevitably macho displays of eating prowess.
Here were these two women, both rookies, showing incredible enthusiasm throughout every stop, their humor, excitement and appetite never flagging.
I asked them later what they had for breakfast. Thomas had a McDonald’s sausage biscuit. Newell had nothing. “I never eat breakfast,” she said.
One went heavy, the other calorie-free. Me with my carefully calculated yogurt; shows what I know.
Maybe it has something to do with barbecue being in their bones. Thomas grew up in South Carolina, where she remembers eating smoked whole hog at family gatherings. As a kid, Newell, a Washington native, visited relatives in Ayden, N.C., home to one of the great barbecue shrines, the Skylight Inn.
Or maybe it has to do with dedication. Thomas revamped her work schedule to come on the tour. Newell travelled two and a half hours one way on Amtrak from her home in the Shenandoah Valley — and went back the same day.
Whatever it was, the two were veritable Bryce Harpers, showing this grizzled veteran how it’s done.
Next time I go out, maybe I’ll down a sausage biscuit on the way.