Last week, I took advantage of the snow days to prep an 8 lb. pork butt, shovel a path to the grill and ponder the important things in life: the merits of gas vs. charcoal grills, the use of marinades and dry rubs, and whether to serve ribs with sauce, or leave them dry.
As I settled in a lawn chair next to my grill, I scanned the neighborhood. Instead of seeing the plume of smoker, all I saw were snowblowers and shovelers. All I heard was the rumble of plow trucks. Where were the grills? The smokers?
It was my 'ah-ha' moment.
As Grand Rapids recovered from the snowpocalypse, recent dust-up with Newsweek and wallowed in the mid-winter doldrums, a story needed to be written and shared. Epic in scope, loose with facts and just the right length so my editor wouldn't carve it up like a prime rib.
The reinvention of Grand Rapids as the Barbecue and Grilling Mecca of the World, or Changing the World, One Tender Brisket at a Time.
"Most men, they'll tell you a story straight true. It won't be complicated, but it won't be interesting either."
-- Ed Bloom, "Big Fish"
Central Europe, February 29,000 B.C.
A young hunter-gatherer makes his first kill. The wooly mammoth is sliced into large primal cuts and placed in a fire pit, luau style. With the meat in the pit, the hungry Neanderthals dig in immediately. The meat is satisfying, but tough and chewy. Soon all that is left is a rib section. It is on the outer edges of the fire pit where the fire was cooler and indirect. Now, the meat is very tender, smoky and tastes much better.
Early Rome February, 259 A.D.
Lawrence of Rome is arrested and sentenced to death during the persecution of early Christians. He has been sentenced to be grilled over an open fire. Legend has his famous last words as: "This side's done, turn me over and have a bite." Lawrence would soon become St. Lawrence, the patron saint of barbecue.
Chicago, IL, February 1952
At the Weber Metal Works, a welder, George Stephens, begins his day. It so happens this man loves to grill. On this particular day, while getting ready to weld together two halves of a buoy and begin the assembly process, he decided that the half of buoy might make a nice grill base, and the other half a lid.
Grand Rapids, MI, February 15, 2016
Love and smoke fill the air.
As honorary chairperson of the Wealthy Street Valentine's Day Pig Roast, an event organized by Local First! and local anarchists, Mayor Bliss readies to announce that Grand Rapids will be identified in the upcoming Newsweek issue as the country's "mecca of grill and barbecue greatness." (Eat your hearts out Memphis, St. Louis, and Austin.)
The article cites several progressive area farms and producers for their quality products. Highlighted are Creswick Farms, Heffron Farms, Otto's Chickens and Muleflock Farms.
It also applauds Grand Rapids for the continued support of the many neighborhood, independent butcher shops and artisan sausage makers including 20th Century Market, Sobie Meats, Frank's Market, Lewandowski's, Van Ball's and Kingma's, all key suppliers to several new, locally-owned, critically-acclaimed barbecue joints that have opened up in downtown Grand Rapids and now are surpassing Detroit's barbecue renaissance of three years ago.
The Newsweek article even mentions the recent "slapdown" given to Bobby Flay when the team from Sandmann's, a local barbecue establishment, won a rib tip "throwdown" on national TV.
Further evidence of the impact of the emerging grilling and barbecue culture was the record attendance at the Taste of Grand Rapids/State of Michigan Barbecue Championship at John Ball Park and the explosive growth of a new celebration, Ribs on the Rapids, that quickly became the state's largest rib competition and helped raised thousand of dollars to support Grand Rapids Whitewater.
The article concludes with a salute to the many "food entrepreneurs" that have launched lines of seasonings and sauces from the business incubator at the downtown Farmers' Market and the dozens of community gardens that provide the ingredients for the all-important side dishes that accompany great barbecue.
As crowds gather for the pig roast on Wealthy St., the Mayor concludes by proposing a toast, hoisting a pint of Founders Breakfast Stout:
"Here's to our prehistoric brothers and sisters, St. Valentine, St. Lawrence, George Stephens, Wealthy St., anarchists, local specialty store owners, farmers, neighborhood butchers, home brewers, sauce makers, Newsweek and the soon- to-be-recognized, mecca of barbecuing and grill loving greatness, Grand Rapids, Michigan!"
Bonus Material: Winter Grilling
There is plenty of room on the barbecue bandwagon. We are few years away before this scene really emerges, so for now, break out the grill for this Valentine's Day.
Several grilling friends sent some suggestions for grilling in cold weather:
If you are using a "bullet-style" (vertical) smoker, electric, gas or charcoal, wrap the unit in a welder's blanket to preserve heat. It helps maintain the 225-250 degrees, which is ideal for the "low and slow" style barbecue (pork butt, beef brisket, pork ribs).
If you are using a gas grill, try a trick recommended by grilling impresario Ted Vecchio of Grand Rapids.
"When I'm roasting on the gas grill (yes, sometimes I cross over to the dark side), I place bricks along the insides and in the top shelf above the cooking surface," he says. "This helps insulate the grill against the winter temp and also helps the interior recover when I have to open the grill."
Finally, sage advice from a Canadian, barbecue-loving, Twitter-friend.
@OshawaOgre writes: "The most important rule is to have a BBQ mitt on one hand, holding a drink, and a bare hand for spatula."
The Abominable Grand Rapids Griller throws it down
Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved