Highlight of the last bit of 2007 (and have you realized that we are 3/4s though the first decade of the 21st century?) is going to be a trip to Baltimore. I got invited last Christmas to write a chapter of a book called Beer and Philosophy and now we are invited to the book launch.
Being a 20 watt bulb in the brightly lit world that is beer writing has a few perks and none is so perkier [Ed.: wow, did that came out wrong!] than the genial clan of more senior writers who will answer important questions like the one I posed to Lew Bryson about where to find the best BBQ in Baltimore:
The thing you want in Bawlmer is pit beef, a sinfully delish pile of rare, juicy beef piled high on a roll. There are several of these joints out on Pulaski Highway (like in this catty review: I liked Chaps, so there, nyah. I understand Big Al’s is closed now…sigh. More at this Chowhound link which also makes reference to the Double T local chain of diners (WELL worth your time for breakfast, my friend) and while some of them are not in the most savory of locations, the beef is nothing but. Pit beef is kinda like spiedies in that for some odd reason it’s never really traveled, but is definitely worshipful in situ.
Fabulous. Having already, in 2007, checked the wonderful western NY sandwich called a “weck” off my list of local US foods, the prospect of pit beef adds another layer of glowing orange to my vision of the next Yule. I found a great article from 2000 in the New York Times that further elaborates the concept:
Pit beef is Baltimore’s version of barbecue: beef grilled crusty on the outside, rare and juicy inside and heaped high on a sandwich. Several things make it distinctive in the realm of American barbecue. For starters, pit beef is grilled, not smoked, so it lacks the heavy hickory or mesquite flavor characteristic of Texas- or Kansas City-style barbecue. It is also ideally served rare, which would be unthinkable for a Texas-style brisket. Baltimore pit bosses use top round, not brisket, and to make this flavorful but tough cut of beef tender, they shave it paper-thin on a meat slicer.
Then there’s the bread: the proper way to serve pit beef is on a kaiser roll or, more distinctively, on rye bread. The caraway seeds in the rye reflect the Eastern European ancestry of many Baltimoreans in this part of town and add an aromatic, earthy flavor to the beef. Finally, there is the sauce. No ketchup, brown sugar and liquid smoke, as you would find in Kansas City. No Texas-style chili hellfire or piquant vinegar sauces in the style of North Carolina. The proper condiment for Baltimore pit beef is horseradish sauce — as much as you can bear without crying. And speaking of crying, you need slices of crisp, pungent white onion to make the sandwich complete.
This is all so excellent. One of my gripes as a Canadian is that there are few actual local foods. We can speak of Quebec cuisine (whether lowly comforting poutine or the selection of game that you do not get in English speaking Canada) and we can think of the seafood of Atlantic Canada but these are entire ranges of food based on local resources. A phenomenon at far too high a level. No, what I love about traveling in the US is that local thing on a bun that is made only in that neighbourhood or those couple of counties: Rochester’s garbage plate or the various regional BBQs of the Carolina, the pinnacle of one of which Lew encountered this week. Where is our Fat Boy fish sandwich with a wild blueberry frappe? Our humble hot or our bap and square? Where is our Chocolate Boston – which I have learned is made even more over the top at Purity Dairy by placing an entire sundae on top of a milk shake?