Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Yes, Cinderella, you shall go to the Ailey Barbecue! (BBQ days: Part I)

Last year after a performance by Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, we wandered around the back of the theater, over by the loading dock of Zellerbach Hall and inhaled. Deeply.


It's become such an annual tradition with Cal Performances and the Ailey company that now the company blows into town with their own barbecues and grills to add to the cooking equipment that Cal Performance's crew brings to the party. Things are set up when the company arrives for their week-long run, and then for days they smoke, they slow roast, they prep a huge homey event, which takes place between the Saturday matinee and evening shows at the end of the run.

The guys tending the fires backstage were chatty and warm and said, "Hey, yeah, you should come by -- it's great!"

But I was uncharacteristically shy. They were just being nice, I thought.

This year, I had the chance to talk with Judith Jamison when Ailey arrived for their Berkeley season. We talked for a moment about the gorgeous weather, which I jokingly said they brought along with them just for the barbecue and she said, "Why don't you come? Oh you should--you must!"

Well, when Judith Jamison says "you must come to the barbecue," who am I to refuse?

The Ailey barbecue started out as a friendly conversation between Danny Nilles (Cal Performance's Head Carpenter), E. J. Corrigan (Ailey's Technical Director) and Calvin Hunt (Ailey's Senior Director of Performance and Production) about what they were going to have for lunch on Saturday. I imagine it not so unlike my conversation with Jamison, "Lovely weather. We should enjoy it-- with food!!"

Nilles brought in his Weber, the guys cooked up some burgers, people smelled the food, and the Ailey barbecue was born. Now the company travels with their own grills while on tour, bringing a taste of home-away-from-home into whatever country they land. But the Berkeley barbecue is still special. It's a meeting of gourmet minds. Out come the smokers, deep fryers, and the china boxes. More on that last in a moment.

At the Saturday matinee, the dancers were high energy, but Jamison had already warned me, "The smell of the barbecue comes drifting backstage and onto stage-- it's everywhere..."

The performance of "Revelations" concluded and for the first time in my entire Ailey-going experience, there was no encore of "Rocka My Soul." I guess everyone couldn't stand waiting a second longer.

We hotfooted it out and around the back and found the proceedings underway already. Dancers who weren't in "Revelations" were walking around carrying plates laden with ribs and sides.

The ribs were scrumptious of course--deeply smoky and succulent. But the star of the show was clearly the whole roasted pig. I had never seen one before.

Dancers and stagehands scatter as the guys jog across the patio with the finished pig, slow-cooked to perfection for about five hours in a china box. It's gorgeous, aromatic, deeply browned and just a little bit freaky.

After several minutes of resting and plenty of photo ops, they start cutting off slices--chunks, really--of the incredibly moist meat. Injected with a salt brine, they tell us, but that was all the preparation it needed. My Omnivore goes straight for the the crusty browned skin. "Cracklins," he says tearing a bit off with an ecstatic look on his face, "Brings out the Southern boy in me..."

"That's Carolina, baby!" shouts one of the guys who's carving up the pig.

Over at an eight-foot table piled high with sides--spicy sweet baked beans, candied sweet potatoes, creamed corn, collard greens, apple sauce, homemade cornbread-- we chat with a kindly-looking older woman who's tending the casseroles. She tells us that she made all the sides, except for the cornbread and the beans. As she's talking, I start digging in. I'm not big on greens, but these-- cut into tiny 1 cm squares and intensely, well...green in flavor-- are the best danged collard greens I have ever had in my life.

I take a bite of the yams and come rounding back to the table.

"How did you make these? These are SOOOO good!"

"Awww, it's just some yams, a little bit of cinnamon, a little nutmeg and some brown sugar," she says nonchalantly. "Oh and a little bit of Karo syrup."

In honor of the barbecue, I present my favorite recipe for sweet potatoes. (I replace Karo Syrup with maple syrup in my recipe because I just can't get behind the corn syrup thing...)

Candied Sweet Potatoes

3 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
(The dark orange ones are often mislabelled as yams, but are perfect for this recipe)
1/2 cup maple syrup (Grade "B" has the best flavor)
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 stick butter, melted

Preheat oven to 325F.

Butter a 9x12 inch baking dish and spread yams evenly in the dish. Pour maple syrup over the yams and sprinkle with nutmeg, cinnamon and brown sugar. Pour over the butter and cover with aluminum foil.

Bake 25 minutes.

And for the heck of it, a link back to the yummy applesauce we made for Thanksgiving once.


Come back in a few days for BBQ Days: Part 2-- a look back at our BBQ-Off over at Food Migration's house, in which we pit Memphis Minnie's Bar-B-Que Joint and Smoke House against Johnson's "You can Eat my Meat With No Teeth" Barbeque.

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