That was one helluva barbecue year – and we still have a few days to go. Who knows? Maybe somebody will open yet another barbecue restaurant before the new year comes around.
In the Washington area, more than a half-dozen new barbecue restaurants opened in 2011, at least a couple of them long-awaited major players, including the Penn Quarter outlet of the New York City-based Hill Country Barbecue. Several barbecue trucks started trolling the District’s streets, and barbecue even made inroads at some of the city’s top restaurants. I’m not one to shy from a horn to toot: In May, I inaugurated the Smoke Signals Barbecue Sauce Recipe Contest.
On the national barbecue scene, politics dished up some memorable barbecue-related gaffes – a 20-year-old quote from Texas Governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry that unfavorably compared North Carolina barbecue to “road kill” flashed through the ’cue-osphere while First Lady Michelle Obama, announcing the choice of Charlotte as the site of the Democratic National Convention next summer, was widely derided for saying the city, which is known as a mediocre ’cue city, had “great” barbecue .
A storm of a different sort (an actual one) challenged the grand-daddy of barbecue contests, and a newcomer on the scene was crowned the best barbecue restaurant in America.
Meanwhile, TLC aired another season of “BBQ Pitmasters,” Food Network offered up “Best in Smoke” and CBS served Memorial Day weekend viewers “Ultimate Barbecue Showdown,”
In a year with as much going on as this one, I thought I’d acknowledge one barbecue-meister in particular with what I am calling the Smoke Signals Golden Rib Award. It comes with no financial reward. It doesn’t have have a trophy. But it does provide the recipient bragging rights (such as they are).
The award goes to a person I believe is singularly significant in the world of barbecue. There are many deserving candidates. Three that spring immediately to mind are:
Carolyn Wells, president of the Kansas City Barbeque Society. Wells steered the group to its 25th anniversary this past year and helped it become the largest contest sanctioning organization extant, with members across the globe.
Diane Hampton, executive vice-president of the Memphis in May Barbecue Contest. When floods ravaged the region, she oversaw the mammoth task of moving the huge event in just a few days from its longtime home on the banks of the Mississippi River to an inland fairgrounds site, where 250 teams competed and tens of thousands attended.
Aaron Franklin, pitmaster of Franklin Barbecue in Austin. Franklin closed his barbecue food-truck and, last spring, opened a tiny brick-and-mortar restaurant. A few short months later, Bon Appetit magazine hailed it as “The Best Barbecue in America.”
The person, though, who clearly stands out is a resident of the nation’s capital: Heath Hall, president of Pork Barrel BBQ. Yes, it’s a homer’s choice. But with accomplishments in food, business, and do-goodism, he basically ran the table.
Hall co-founded Pork Barrel in late 2008 with his fellow former Senate staffer, Brett Thompson. Since then, the two have presided over a winning barbecue team, a nationwide sauce and rub company, and a social network site for barbecue enthusiasts called BackyardBBQ.com. The pair were also part of a four-person co-ownership team that in early December opened the much-anticipated Pork Barrel BBQ restaurant in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood.
Why Hall and not Thompson? Because the award goes to just one person and Hall is the wizard behind the sauce, rub and meat recipes – and because he cut short his South Carolina vacation with his fiancé to start testing the smoker oven at the new restaurant when he learned the permits had finally been approved. That’s dedication. (I wouldn’t be surprised if Hall’s wedding vow includes the words, “With this ’cue, I thee wed.”)
Pork Barrel took first place at the National Capital Barbecue Battle, held in the District but attracting championship-caliber teams from throughout the country and adjudicated by KCBS judges. It put out a line of barbecue peanuts and even dabbled in perfumes, putting out Que barbecue cologne.
Meanwhile, Pork Barrel partnered with another barbecue team to raise more than $6,000 for the USO in Fort Riley, Kan. It also donated $1,000 to the small, impoverished town of Turkey, Texas, after entering into a Thanksgiving day fray with the animal rights group PETA.
The level of activity reflects in microcosm the frenetic barbecue scene generally. Because Hall enjoyed incredible success in an amazing barbecue year, he wins the 2011 Smoke Signals Golden Rib Award.
Congratulations to him and to everyone on the barbecue scene. Here’s toasting in 2012 with a lightly charred, tenderly smoked pork rib. Cheers!