In search of the Holy Grill
A barbeque pilgrimage brings the gospel of Low ’n’ Slow and the trinity of Spice, Sauce and Holy Smoke to Whistler
By G.D. Maxwell
I never believed it would actually happen and kept the possibility it would locked somewhere inside, where you hide the things you want most from the doubts you’ll ever get them. Paul Street had been talking about his "plan" to turn Dusty’s into a barbeque smokehouse for maybe two years.
I figured Paul, Dusty’s manager, was just being cruel. He knew I was deep into barbeque withdrawal. In almost 20 years since I’d moved to Canada, I hadn’t found any barbeque worth getting fired up about. The gloppy, red-sauced meat served up in this q-challenged country would get someone south of the Mason-Dixon Line shot as a fraud and a public nuisance. I only subjected myself to boiled-baked ribs a couple of times after immigrating from the southwest before I finally gave up entirely. Like Mexican food, there are some things you just can’t get this far north.
But when Paul and Tony Wayland, Whistler-Blackcomb’s executive chef, began talking in earnest about launching the new Dusty’s as a smokehouse, my hopes began to rise. They were serious. A glimmer of hope sparked to life in my culinary soul.
I will never fully understand how Tony and Paul managed to talk the powers-that-be into letting them bring Dusty’s back to life as a ski-bar, barbeque restaurant. By virtue of the swath of humanity visiting the mountains every year, the very nature of W-B’s food and beverage strategy is broad inclusion. Something for everyone; nothing too out there.
Barbeque isn’t like that. Barbeque doesn’t throw its arms wide open and say All Welcome. Barbeque does not come trippingly off the tongue of most vegetarians when they discuss dinner plans. It’s not as fashionable as pasta, as barbarously upscale as steakhouse fare or as haute as anything French.
Barbeque is not just another cuisine. Barbeque is religion. Barbeque is life. Barbeque is the archetypal example of doing more with less. Barbeque is the finest end a bad cut of meat can ever hope to achieve. Barbeque is food with passion. Barbeque is fun food. Barbeque is dangerous food. Barbeque is uniquely American, cultural property like jazz, blues or violent action movies. It would take an outrageous act of cultural appropriation to bring it north of the border and teach Canadians about its virtues.
"But first we had to learn how to make it," Tony exclaimed. Finding a barbeque cook in Canada is akin to finding a taxi in Manhattan on a rainy day during rush hour. It was clear if barbeque was going to come to Dusty’s, Dusty’s would first have to go to barbeque.
"I was searching for information and ran across a site that said anyone serious about barbeque needed to attend one of Paul Kirk’s pitmaster classes," Paul said. Armed with aprons, squeeze bottles, sharp knives and a couple of six-packs, Paul and Tony headed for Vancouver, Washington to learn at the fork of the master.
Paul Kirk is the Kansas City Baron of Barbeque. Seven times he’s climbed the pinnacle of barbequedom and taken home all the goodies at the KC Royal competition, the World Series of Barbeque. He doesn’t run a restaurant, doesn’t even compete much anymore, but in the world of serious barbeque, Paul Kirk is a legend. What he mostly does is teach other people the finicky secrets of real barbeque. Part teacher, part evangelist, he teaches the gospel of Low ’n’ Slow, the trinity of Spice, Sauce, and Holy Smoke.
Barbeque, contrary to the Canadian experience, has nothing to do with tossing a burger or steak onto the cooking surface of a gas appliance. That is grilling. There’s nothing wrong with grilling meat but don’t even think of confusing it with barbeque.
As a noun or verb, barbeque involves wood and smoke, low steady heat — 200-230ºF — and long, long cooking times, 10 maybe 18 hours. It uses, as its roots, cuts of meat not generally served in polite society: huge briskets of beef; pork shoulders called, inexplicably, butts; ribs of pig and cow. If all meat were like these cuts and barbeque didn’t exist, almost everyone would be vegetarian. Tough, fatty, membranous, these were the parts of animals that never found their way on to the table at the massa’s house. It takes patience to make them edible and the magic of barbeque to make them delicious.
The Baron was in the business of teaching magic and Tony and Paul were one of 20 teams there to learn some tricks. They learned about meat; they learned about rubs — blends of salt, sugar and spice rubbed onto meat before cooking to add flavour — they learned about mops and moisture, controlling fire and the different quality of smoke given off by different aromatic woods.
"And then we discovered the class was a competition," Paul explained.
"Hey, we were just basically dumb people who wanted to open a barbeque restaurant and were there to learn stuff," Tony added.
They were also the only Canadians. Quickly dubbed the Boys of the North, they were interlopers, cultural appropriators, fer’ners.
They developed their own distinctive rub and competed in four "products": ribs, chicken, butt and brisket. When their chicken took second place, they broke into a spontaneous and offkey rendition of Oh Canada, a song rarely heard at barbeque competitions. It was only rigid self-restraint and legendary Canadian humility that kept them from doing an encore when their ribs took the top prize. And it was probably a sense of self-preservation that kept them quiet and humble when they walked away with the overall award of Grand Champion.
"We smoked ’em," they said once safely back across the border with all the marbles.
Swelled with confidence, the Boys of the North strengthened their team with the addition of Kathy Monk, a bright local talent who was later selected as Dusty’s new chef, and headed south to inflict more ego blows in the home of the free. While never equalling their premiere performance, they never came home empty handed, tucking ribbons into their scrapbook in each of their competitions, including the Washington State Championships and the Canadian Nationals last August.
"We were feeling pretty good about what we were cooking," Tony said.
"But we needed some confidence that we really knew what good barbeque was," Paul added.
And that’s why the Boys of the North and the itinerant writer hit the road last July. I’m not certain just exactly how I managed to hitch a ride as PR hack but the Search for the Holy Grill was about to begin and I could almost taste nirvana.
Goin’ to Kansas City; Kansas City Here I Come
Barbeque people are chauvinistic about their passion. The best barbeque in the world is somewhere in their home town or at a little shack just down the road a piece. But the centre of the barbeque universe is unmistakably Kansas City, Missouri. Unless, of course, you come from Charleston or Montgomery or Memphis or....
There are about 100 barbeque restaurants in Kansas City, ranging from Board of Health nightmare shacks to upscale eateries one would never suspect could smoke a decent butt. Each and every one of them touts themselves as having the "best" barbeque in KC and, therefore, the world. All are run by passionate evangelists who will spend hours arguing with complete strangers the virtues of hickory over apple or pecan over oak smoke and where the best barbeque sauce should fall on the vinegar-tomato continuum.
Plunged from the cool, rainy confines of Whistler, B.C., into a torpid July evening with air the texture of fleece, we shared a fearful suspicion we’d arrived too late to begin our all-out assault, our selfless quest to sample as much barbeque as was humanly possible within the next week. With military precision, we had conducted reconnaissance on the Internet, matched intelligence and plotted a route designed to bring us to the doorstep of as many smokehouses as time would allow. However, we failed to reckon with the abysmal performance of post-merger Air Canada and now found ourselves in a virtually closed up KC with only dollar drafts at a 24 hour a day casino to drown our jet-lagged sorrows. "Tomorrow is another day," Tony said in his best Scarlett O’Hara imitation.
It was. Bright, hot and muggy, aided in its oppression by tepid, instant, Super 8 coffee that held the demons of caffeine addiction at bay but did nothing for the inner man. Yet nothing could dampen our enthusiasm. Today was a day of legends, a day we would visit and sample the most famous names in the world of KC-Q.
Local lore has it that Henry Perry was the granddaddy of KC barbeque. Henry began serving addictive ribs out of an old trolley barn in 1908 to hungry working men. Two of his helpers eventually put Kansas City on the barbeque map: George Gates and Charlie Bryant.
George Gates opened a restaurant in the steamy-hot jazz district of the city in the 1940s, but it was his son, Ollie, who built the business into an empire. Ollie had two guiding principles: serve the best barbeque and never put your trust in landlords. With barbeque as good as barbeque gets and a knack for buying top locations, Gates & Sons Bar-B-Q grew into a seven outlet empire and a "fixin’s" business that put five flavours of Gates sauce on grocery store shelves throughout the area.
It was 92ºF at 11 a.m. when we rolled into the Gates at 12th and Brooklyn. The place looked suspiciously like corporate fast food from the outside. All plastic and Formica, it almost screamed "Denny’s" at us. Inside, the optical illusion was only fortified with stainless steel and moulded plastic banquettes but it didn’t matter, vision had been overwhelmed by smell as the sense of the moment. Sweet-pungent hickory smoke clung to every surface and guided us to the order counter where our strategy of small tastes fell victim to a sampling platter large enough to gag a horse.
We fell on the food like jackals on carrion. Tried to be professional in our evaluation of presentation, smoke ring, tenderness, sauce notes, side dishes, as professional as possible in full-blown Hoover mode. Melting back into the hard plastic seats moments later, sated and sheepish, our lack of control reminded us all of our first sexual encounter, missing only the intense focus on baseball statistics.
We might have exercised more self-control had we realized Arthur Bryant’s funky, ramshackle shrine to barbeque was only a five minute drive away. We arrived at what Calvin Trillin dubbed the Best Restaurant in the World at quarter to twelve. A dozen people were expectantly lined up outside the door, maybe 40 more stretched along the long wall inside leading to the order counter.
Several years dead and long since a legend, "King Arthur" took over the business from his brother Charlie in 1946. Rumours to the contrary, it looked like nothing had changed — or been particularly cleaned — in all those decades. This was sacred turf. Testaments to his legend lined the long wall of delayed gratification. Articles about presidents and celebrities dining with Arthur, a pilgrim travelling from California to drop $3,200 on ribs to go for a couple dozen of his closest friends, a newspaper cartoon of Arthur arriving at the pearly gates to be met by a salivating angel who implored, "Did you bring sauce?"
In quintessential barbeque style we waited, ordered and stared in amazement at a mountain of meat plopped artlessly on a sheet of butcher paper, supported by a cafeteria tray and garnished with onions, pickles, half a loaf of Wonder bread and unordered fries, dark and dangerous, cooked in raging hot lard.
This time, we nibbled and pecked. Held the meat up to the light, ripped the muscle apart, inspected and evaluated its consistency, its smokiness, its succulent tenderness, the different personalities it took on depending on which of the several sauces we dipped it in. People stared at the food we left behind but we were in survival mode and had many more places to go.
The rest of the day was a blur. We stocked up on the essentials of a road trip: cooler, ice, beer, breath mints, salty snacks to balance our animal protein diet. We found the Kansas City Barbecue Society’s office in a Farmers’ Insurance building and were barraged with names and places we had to see along our route by its braintrust, Carolyn Wells. We noshed at Oklahoma Joe’s, toured Smokin’ Joe’s, listened to a 16-year-old wonderkind blow blues harp at Amazin’ Grace’s Grand Emporium where Grace, an enigmatic black woman somewhere between 40 and 200 years old, served us the "best" barbecue in KC, and slept a fitful sleep.
An obliging Scott O’Mera opened his doors early the next morning so we could tour his Boardroom Bar-B-Q on the way out of town. The food wasn’t ready — truth is, neither were we — but the aroma of a hundred pounds of meat smokin’ to perfection over hickory hard-wired the rumble in our stomachs and we grabbed a travelling lunch at Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbeque, a dark wood and white linen upscale restaurant where they yuppified the menu with items like barbecued lamb ribs and crown ribs of beef, delicious but precious in a trying-too-hard-to-impress way.
There is a moment of truth on any road trip. It may be mechanical problems, it may be a fatal wreck you urge yourself not to stare at as you slowly pass by. Ours came an hour and a half west of KC. The Camry’s cruise was set on the dangerous side of "Oh-oh", blues filled the car and the miles sped by. Coming up fast on a one-ton Ford pulling a 50-foot flatbed we simultaneously commented on the cargo: a load of fine looking barbeque pits.
"Look like Close pits," Paul speculated. Turns out he was right. Houston was our southernmost destination and one we didn’t particularly want to make except to visit David Close’s fabrication plant and discuss the functional cooker Paul wanted for Dusty’s patio.
We decided the gnarled driver of the pickup looked like David Close himself and with a hastily scribbled sign held up to the window, confirmed he was.
"Pull over," I yelled out the window. Like a true Texan, he careened onto the shoulder and we joined him. For the next 45 minutes, cars whizzed by, cool beverages were enjoyed, tall tales were told and far-ranging discussion of pits and barbeque took place. Serendipity, Dorothy, in the middle of Kansas.
Oklahoma was a pass-through and I only have this to say about the barbeque we tasted there. If ever you win first prize in a contest and it’s a trip to Oklahoma City, ask what second prize is; there’s a good chance it will be better.
"Home with the armadillos"
There may be some back road way into Texas where you can avoid being greeted by a Lone Star State shaped monument, but I’ve never found it. Texans let you know when you’ve arrived and never let you forget where you are. Immediately recognizable, the state’s shape is unavoidable. It’s festooned on belt buckles, license plates, bottles of bad beer, police cruisers, everywhere you look.
Texans are certain they have the best of everything and barbeque is no exception. We were on our way to Austin and the surrounding hill country but slipped into the edge of Dallas to pay homage to Sonny Bryan’s original restaurant. More dilapidated diner than anything else, it is home to the smoke of ages, having been operated by the family since 1910. The sign lists business hours as "Until the meat runs out" which it usually does by mid-afternoon.
Half the diner’s given over to production, including a grandfathered wood-fired pit in violation of all fire regulations. Pitmaster Michael LeMaster can only tame the beast to a hot 330ºF and so has adapted his technique. The ribs and brisket he turns out are tender and moist against all odds and the funky schoolroom desks that pass for seating in the cramped, historic diner enhance the feeling you’re a part of history while you graze lunch.
Refueled, we arrived in Austin questioning the wisdom of an all-barbeque diet. Machismo as much as professionalism ensured none of us gave in first and we headed off to Stubb’s for dinner. Christopher B. Stubblefield came home to Lubbock, Texas, after the Korean War and created a legend. His original Stubb’s was part restaurant, part blues bar and he fed the careers and stomachs of the best acts that ever came out of Texas, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Willie Nelson among them, before he picked up stakes and moved to Austin.
Tucked away off the main drag of Austin’s music row, we were sad to learn we’d missed, by hours, Stubb’s Sunday gospel brunch. Half a day of music to put the fear of God into you if it can find any room left in there after the barbeque and breakfast buffet. We admired the many rooms in the rambling restaurant, the outdoor stage, the ancient pits and ended the night arguing about the merits of Stubb’s piquant sauce. Welcome to Texas, y’all.
The next day we took a trip to hell and returned to talk about it. In the small farming towns south of Austin, Czech and German settlers morphed a bizarre mix of sausage, Calvinism, an ascetic lifestyle and indigenous barbeque into a cuisine that can only be described as, well, awful. Harsh, unadorned by spice, sauce or anything even remotely flavourful, this stomach-fouling food has somehow found a following amid people I can only imagine consider pan-fried steak a rare delicacy. We gagged our way through six "famous" restaurants in Lockhart, Luling, Elgin and Taylor before deciding we’d rather cut our own throats than continue.
Thinking we may never eat again — and having already given up hope of our GI systems returning to normal — we limped back to Austin, swilled Pepto Bismol cocktails and forced ourselves back into the thick of it.
Our faith in barbeque was revived at Artz Ribs, where Art Bloudin, a transplanted Vermont native, served delicate, life-affirming ribs and was downright confirmed at a final, midnight snack stop at Ruby’s. We’d eaten at nine places, seven of which were abysmal, but lived to plot our assault on Dallas-Ft. Worth.
It would be dishonest of me to say I could happily eat barbeque every day. As good as it is, barbeque is dangerous food and a constant diet of it will kill you. You’ll die happy, but you’ll die. The half dozen places we ate in the Metroplex, the Railhead filled with drunks at 1:30 p.m., Angelo’s where everything tasted like ham, Cousins, the Smoke Pit, all may have been good but all were forgettable, lost in the haze of smoke, sauce and protein overload.
A final, relaxed evening at the Sonny Bryan’s in downtown Dallas brought the amazing quest, the seven days of eating nothing but barbeque, into focus. Our waitress, a diminutive black girl too young to serve us beer, stared at us in amazement when we told her we were on a mission to bring barbeque to Canada.
"You mean you don’t got no barbeque in Canada?" she asked in amazement.
Well, maybe not just yet. But when Dusty’s Smokin’ Joint opens sometime next month, when the memories of what was is blown away by the reality of what is, there will be barbeque, at least in Whistler, Canada. That all-pervasive, sweet smoky smell that greets skiers boarding the Creekside Gondola won’t be the same old familiar smoky smell — this year it’ll be magic.