Bo knows chicken
So spring is here! And if you're a native New Yorker like me, those first warm days make you look forward to what summer weekends out of town are all about. Enjoying the sun, the smell of freshly cut grass, the cool pool water and more than a few beers.... at all my friends’ houses!
But before you start thinking I'm a fair-weather, weekend couch surfing moocher; just know that I bring something with me to the table. Bar-B-Cue. That's right. You wouldnt know it to look at me, the consumate Yankee city boy, but I'm a closet BBQ fanatic!
I've been fortunate enough to have crisscrosed this country by tour bus, more than a few times as tour manager to several national bands. My first driver was a small, balding, crazy little guy named Gene, and he knew where all the best BBQ joints were to be found; both in the cities on highways and hidden on the dirt roads of the deep south. Hell, for me, half the reason to go out on tour at all is in pursuit of "The Q". (In fact, my stories of touring for Barbecue inspired a resturanteur friend of mine to take his partners on their own, "ask the locals" tour of the "smoke-pit states" one summer. They then opened Virgil's, the first real 18 hour smoke house in New York City. The proof is the map of the United States with all their favorite Bar-B-Cue resturaunts on the placemat!) Yes indeed. That slow-cooked, melt in your mouth, set your soul and your taste buds on fire mounds of beef, pork, lamb and chicken! Mmmmm Mmmmm....Makes my mouth water just thinking about it. Ribs, sausage, legs....I'll eat it all! I was even recently introduced by a friend of mine, Thomas, (who affectionately [I think] nick-named me Goat Boy) to a pile of Korean short ribs I couldn't stop eating. I'll eat it ALL.....ALL day long.
But my love affair with this most satisfying of feasts didn't start poolside in a backyard, or on the road with Moby (a famous vegan) and Gene the rock-and-roll bus driver (you think I'VE got some stories?You should talk to that guy for a few hours!!!). No. It all started oddly, in Queens, New York City.
It's the heat of July....I want to say 1988. Flushing Meadows State Park is now the site for the annual Queens Fest Summer Concert. I'm feeling almost on top of the world...literally. It's early in my career but my rigging father (he still calls me "Son" to this day) has just schooled me in my first steel build. At the top of the outdoor scaffold, I'm at 60 feet off the ground; about eye-level with the Unisphere sculpture that was built, along with this site, at the World's Fair grounds 24 or so years earlier. (You saw it in the movie Men In Black when they shoot down the escaping bug-alien.)
But I am about to be quickly brought down to earth; and to size. "JOSH!!! Stop your mucking about up there! Get down here, take that ridiculous climbing harness off and put on your Production Assistant hat!". I begin my descent but the tough, booming English brawler voice of Mike, the Production Manager, doesn't stop its berating of the new kid. "Bo Didley is arriving and you need to show him to his dressing room tent, prawn-toh!"
"Yes SIR, Mr. Sinclair!" I happily chortle as I bounce by him, out of my rig, and down the back steps of the stage toward the advancing white limousine. "Now, who did he say was arriving?" I ask myself. Did he say diddley? Not a familiar name..... But now the car door is opening and first there is a cowboy boot. Then a big black hat with a peacock feather on the front nearly knocks me over as I'm saying, "Welcome Mr. Didd-ley" (told you...I was young). Let me show you to your dress..." but nothing of what I had to say was of any interest to him.... "WHERE DA BARBACUE AT?"
I'm now shocked, speechless (my friends would tell you how rare THAT is) ...and a little scared. But being a fast thinker, I look around quickly at the catering tent. And low-and-behold, there IS a black 55 gallon drum on it's side with smoke pouring out of it! (How'd he know there would be one...?)
As I start to try and answer, he sees it too, and without hesitation, he grabs me by the wrist and proceeds to DRAG me the fifty yards over to the open cooker; saying things like, "C'mon boy! We gonna get you cookin! You comin with BO! BO gonna show YOU how to Bar-B-Cue some chicken BOY! You cookin for BO now!"....and so on..
We reach the catering area and he almost yells, "Where's a ketchup bottle?" While he's whirling around looking for one, throwing anything else out of the way, I'm looking for HELP. But there is none to be found. Mike, Marcus, and the rest of the entire staff and crew have retreated to the safe vantage point of the stage, where they are LAUGHING at me. Holding their sides in, covering their mouths, bending over in pain laughing at me, as I try in vain to keep up with this man possesed.
Now, finally, comes the recipe section (aka the POINT) of this whole story: and it's simple.
He rips off the top of the ketchup bottle and POURS it out all over the ground. Then he fills it one third with barbecue sauce and two thirds water. He puts the cap back on the top of the bottle without screwing it on at all, holding it at an angle with his thumb, leans over the pit and starts shaking the mixture over the barely cooked chicken and bright red charcoals.
"You see how I'm doin here? I'm shakin it on! Now pay attention, boy! That's right! That's all there is to it boy! (He seems to somewhat enjoy being able to call me this repeatedly) But you gotta keep shakin it on, ya see!" Now he yanks my wrist forward with his free hand, slams the ketchup bottle into it, pins my thumb painfully down on the loose cap and shakes my arm (and therefore my entire body with it), QUITE vigorously.
If I wasn't scared before, I SURE as HELL am petrified now. That's a FIRE under me! Complete with bright red hot coals and smoke and.....I've never cooked anything but eggs in my whole life...!
Now he's let go and continues to egg me on. "That's it boy! That's it! Keep at it just like that!" He actually seems pleased by my clueless but fearfully determined actions... "Keep shakin' it boy!" he says as he retreats slowly. "I'll be back soon to check on ya!". KEEP SHAKIN IT ON!"
He's gone. But you better believe I haven't slowed the frantic pace of my "cooking", if that's what this is....
"Whatcha doin' there Josh?"
"What HAVE you god-den yo-self into now....BOY?"- It's Mike and Marcus. They're on the other side of me suddenly. Rocking back and forth on the balls of their feet, they can barely contain themselves...
So now it suddenly, through the heat, the smoke and the flying droplets of sauce, it finally dawns on me.....
I've been set up! The grill pit was on Bo's contract rider along with his arrival time, so the caterer was ready...
Mike and Marcus HAD to have worked with Bo Didley before, so they knew he was gonna need a personal Barbecue conscript....and who better than over-eager, knows nothing, slightly cocky little white kid? Who indeed...
"You fuckers....".....and they explode.
Later that evening, after some more tutelage from the Missippi Master, we're all eating before the show. The greens, cole slaw and the mac-&-cheese are all tasty to everyone after a hard day of work. But the chicken....is incredible. As I'm wrecking my fourth juicy, smokey, tangy thigh and leg piece, the method of the madness hits me: by shaking droplets of watered-down tangy Barbecue sauce on the chicken I was obviously keeping the meat from drying out. But by dropping just as much, or more, of the stuff on the hot coals, the water would evaporate into smoke instantly, both coolkng the coals slightly for a slower cooking and infuse the spicy, complex flavors into the otherwise bland fowl flesh by way of the smoke. It was simple and brilliant....and painful and delicious.
But I looked up just then and Bo Didley looked over at me smiling from ear to ear. He held up a thigh bone towards me in a gesture that was half salute and half, "I told ya so!". There was joy and also some amount of pride on his face as well. I was surprised...and actually a bit moved.
That evening as the sum set over 100,000 blues fans, Bo Didley nodded towards me in the wings, and then proceeded to do some other things that both surprised me....and moved me.
But my love affair with The Blues is food for other stories....