A Virginian’s Boston Barbecue, by Marian Burros, Oct. 5, 1988

“Chris Schlesinger is the first to admit that he does not have the best barbecue in the Boston area. The atmosphere of his brand new takeout place is not grungy enough to qualify, even if the food is authentic.

‘The real serious ribs are in Roxbury, at no fixed address,’ Mr. Schlesinger said here recently as he stood in Jake and Earl’s Dixie Barbecue, next door to his three-year-old restaurant, the East Coast Grill.

‘The guy comes up from the South and sets up his pit in a parking lot on the weekends, and there’s supposed to be another guy up in the woods,’ he said, referring to Roxbury, a largely black section of Boston. ‘You walk up a hill, through the trees and when you come out at the top there’s a cloud of smoke.’

But Mr. Schlesinger can speak about barbecue with authority. He grew up in Williamsburg, Va., in the Tidewater region. He was close enough to North Carolina to have more than his share of North Carolina barbecue. The high point of summer vacations in Virginia Beach was the family barbecue, which he compared to New England clambakes. ‘Some good ol’ boys would roll in around 2 in the morning, set up the pit for a whole pig, drink all night and at 12 the next day start serving it with coleslaw and hush puppies.’

On Sept. 25 Mr. Schlesinger re-created that childhood experience, this time at the Boston Garden to benefit the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts. More than 30 chefs fed 800 people at a black-tie dinner, but only the Schlesinger crew arrived at 1 A.M. to set up their pit on the fire escape of the Garden and barbecue two whole hogs and two hams.

They took turns basting every hour, drinking beer and snoozing in lawn chairs, and by 3 the next afternoon they were ready to pick the pigs. Pig picking is an ancient Southern art to remove the meat in shreds, which then find their way into sandwiches made with white bread or white rolls.

But it is not enough to describe what is served at Jake and Earl’s as North Carolina barbecue. It is the Eastern rather than the Western version. ‘Vinegar and hot pepper instead of a tomato-based Italian dressing,’ Mr. Schlesinger said with more than a little disdain, although he admitted that rational men could disagree over which is the real barbecue.

Had Mr. Schlesinger, whose grandfather was the historian and Harvard professor Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr., not found cooking as a livelihood, there is no telling what he might be doing today at the age of 32. He dropped out of college after one year and started washing dishes. His father, the late Thomas Schlesinger, who was the public relations director for Colonial Williamsburg, encouraged him to go to the Culinary Institute of America. He went. He graduated. But he didn’t much like it. He says he did not become passionate about cooking until he went to work at the Harvest Restaurant in Cambridge. He interspersed his culinary career with one in surfing, but finally, in 1985, he and a friend, Cary Wheaton, opened the East Coast Grill, which offers food he describes as equatorial cuisine and barbecue.

We all know what barbecue is, but equatorial is a little harder to describe. It is, Mr. Schlesinger said, ‘food with loud flavors, food from hot climates, spicy food, grilled food.’ In other words, what Mr. Schlesinger likes is food that goes with surfing. He admitted he likes to combine ‘research and development trips in Costa Rica and Barbados with surfing.’

Barbecue served at the East Coast Grill is very popular, but after a couple of trips to Memphis, Mr. Schlesinger realized it could be better. To that end at Jake and Earl’s he has installed an $8,000 Wham Turbo Cooker, a closed smoker he said produced the best barbecue in the world. According to a news release, it ‘uses an indirect fire to slowly cook the meat on a revolving carousel while a saucepan system delivers moist heat to keep the meat succulent.’

Succulent it is, and not just the North Carolina pork barbecue, but his ribs, chicken and brisket too. The takeout may be called Jake and Earl’s Dixie Barbecue, but its brisket is strictly Texas, and until last week the ribs were Missouri style. Because of the Wham Turbo Cooker the ribs have undergone a geographical transformation. Now they are from Tennessee, as is the man who invented the cooker, John Willingham, a native of Memphis.

Mr. Willingham is a two-time Grand Champion of the Memphis in May International Barbecue Cooking Contest, a contest Mr. Schlesinger and Ms. Wheaton want desperately to win next year.

They have entered twice and scored high in the blind tasting, but failed miserably in what could be called set design: points are awarded for showmanship, booth decoration and attire. Corporate sponsors build elaborate sets for their contestants, who parade around in costumes that range from giant pigs to English courtiers. The Schlesinger contingent wore torn T-shirts and baseball caps for their first two appearances.

‘We’re going to win next year,’ Mr. Schlesinger said, ‘because we’re going to make our set up like a fancy restaurant with white tablecloths, violinists and waiters in tuxedos, and we’re hoping that our association with Willingham will help us.’

Those who visit Jake and Earl’s might ask where the name comes from. Mr. Schlesinger wanted to call it Jake’s Dixie Barbecue because ‘Jake is what older people in the South call young boys and it’s my dog’s name.’

Ms. Wheaton wanted to name it for her father, Earl, a surgeon in New Jersey. They compromised.”

-Excerpt courtesy of The New York Times, Times Machine, “DE GUSTIBUS; A Virginian’s Boston Barbecue,” by Marian Burros, Oct. 5, 1988

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