Out for a late lunch on Saturday, Joseph Bretner wanted something to “break up the monotony” of his usual foods.
So the doorman for a building on East 23rd Street strolled around the corner and into the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party where, with his grey uniform and measured gait, he stood out amongst the mad throng of people shuffling slowly up the queues on Madison Avenue.
The crowds were testament to not only the barbecues’ quality and variety, but also their affordability. A plate of barbecue and coleslaw, pickles, or a vegetable of some sort cost eight dollars, a cup of beer six, the fried pie and other desserts four. And, further distinguishing itself from the Great Googa Mooga festival, where a thimble of beer cost seven dollars, the block party invited barbecue teams from across the nation—Texas, Alabama, Missouri and more.
The lines, however, could still be daunting. Some of the more insane ones stretched over three street blocks. Weary partiers slouched over their paper plates on the temporary benches. One family, learning from last year’s showers, brought their own beach umbrella to shield them from the rain or sun.
Other veterans of the annual barbecue party came armed with FastPasses: a $125 special ticket that let festivalgoers skip lines. Rob Manfredo, who watched the crowds burgeon over the last ten years, saw value in saving time. “I know the FastPass saves time–it’s worth spending the extra money for it,” he said, intending to grab some fried pies for his wife and son.
The fun wasn’t limited to the customers. Leaning slightly against his green banner, Ramel Bethea, one of the flag holders without whom it would be impossible to navigate the Gordian knot of queues, remained cheerful despite the heat and the crowds. “I even got a tip, just by standing out here,” he said. (Two dollars from Australian tourists.)
Mr. Bethea, however, was not getting paid in cash, but in barbecue. “I just head around the back and tell one of the guys to hand me something or give me a soda,” he said, gesturing toward the steaming grills of a South Carolinian pig pickin’ stand.
Lauren Sapienza, who mixed coleslaw at Baker’s Ribs, revealed that the vendors have their fun too.
“One of the guys from Hill Country came over and said, ‘Will you guys give us a rack of ribs, and we’ll trade you some brisket?’” she said. “We’ll do that throughout the two days, we’ll just trade between each other and get to try everybody’s [barbecue].”
Sounded deliciously fun. And Ms. Sapienza looked like she knew it, as she danced away to “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Interwoven with “Where the skies are blue” are different lyrics from other stereos, small bands and the main concert located within Madison Square Park. Inside the park Christine Colby, a woman with bright red hair mouthing the words to “The House of Bamboo,” grinned sheepishly when asked about the food. “I’m vegetarian!” she laughed. She was here mainly for Saturday afternoon’s final concert lineup, Southern Culture on the Skids, whom she and her blue-haired friend Ilise Carter had been listening to for the past 20 years.
William Joa, another veteran of the block party we spoke to, summed up the festival best. “I live in New York City,” he said. “But if I didn’t I would still make my way to New York City for this barbecue.”