Words - Matthew Curtis, Photos - Dianne Tanner
The following is a short story pieced together from experiences over the last four years. Some of it is true, some of it may not be completely true but it's exactly how I choose to remember it.
I remember the very first time I ate pulled pork like it was yesterday. I was a few days in to my first trip to the States, my first trip to Fort Collins, Colorado where my Dad had taken up a new job. It was a dry and hot day in July and we had retreated to the back of Lucky Joe's Sidewalk Saloon so we could cool ourselves down with air conditioning and cold beers. As you enter the dark, wooden interior of Lucky Joe's the custom is to scoop a handful of peanuts from the barrels by the front door. Empty shells crunch underfoot as you work your way through the Irish-influenced interior. Joe's is well worn but in good nick, a stage for bands is right at the back but it was the middle of the day so there was no live music to entertain us. It was almost empty so we sat ourselves down in a quiet corner and ordered food and drinks.
One thing that struck me about food in America, or Colorado at least was the size of the portions. The fridge back at our hotel was piled high with 'to-go' boxes because almost every meal I had ordered, even sandwiches at lunchtimes were gargantuan tributes to the gods of food themselves. I pondered if the mortals that lived here ever managed to finish their dinner. For the first time on this trip though I managed to eat every last bite of my pulled pork sandwich. Forget everything else, this sandwich was about two things, the harmonious union between meat and sauce. The pork was lightly smoked, succulent and juicy, I'd never knowingly eaten pork cooked solely in a smoker before but it was that zingy, sweet yet sour and slightly spicy barbecue sauce that lifted everything to another level. I relished every mouthful which was in turn washed down with a cold pint or two of New BelgiumFat Tire.
Fat Tire is to me an interesting beer. I mean it doesn't really taste very interesting but the concept of it fascinates me. It's everywhere in America, New Belgium are the country’s third largest craft* brewery after all. I guess in a way it's like their own version of Doom Bar, not brilliant but better than most other things on the bar, if you like beer anyway. It's interesting because on my first trip to the States I loved it, I couldn't get enough of its biscuity, bready amber-ness with just enough citrus hop bitterness to make it more interesting than most of the things I'd tried back home. What's also interesting is that it's the most brewed beer (by volume at least) by a brewery that specialises in brewing new world takes on traditional Belgian style beers. If you've tried their Abbey or Tripel then you know how good they are at this and don't get me started on their simply exceptional La Folie sour brown ale. It's like Rodenbach Grand Cru on steroids. These days when I drink Fat Tire, my usual response is 'meh'. I, like many of you am an unfortunate victim of Lupulin Threshold Shift** but after each bite of that rich, delicious pulled pork sandwich each sip of that light amber ale was pure refreshment heaven.
That wasn't the best pulled pork I've ever had though, I wouldn't experience that taste sensation for another two years. In that time, I changed as a person. I became madly obsessed with beer, it's all I talked about so I started writing about it in order to try and get some of the lust out of my system. That didn't work, still I rambled on at anyone who I at least thought was listening. Perhaps the same level of obsession wasn't there so I didn't notice it as much but I was starting to become as critical of my food as I was with my beer. When I had that first bite of pulled pork back in 2010 I thought to myself 'hey, this could really catch on back home!' It didn't surprise me when American style BBQ 'joints' (for that is apparently what we call restaurants these days) started springing up all over the place.
I was excited by the emergence of these new places to eat and the new found British love for American food. I would get to eat all of the things that I enjoyed to eat when in the USA all of the time. Reubens***! Pulled Pork! Burgers that actually taste of something! Dollar oysters! OK, so we still need to sort out the dollar oysters (and deep fried Catfish for that matter) but other than that a new generation were becoming obsessed with what you could do to a good piece of meat. So I started to go to in these places and eat their meat. Damn, I had some good burgers and hell, there is no better cut of meat than a rib of beef and no one smokes a rib quite like Duke's Brew and Cue but why was I not getting the same joy from all the pulled pork I was trying over here?
Over the next two years I'd started visiting my Dad in Colorado whenever I could. The USA is a wonderful place to visit but I'm far too entwined in the glorious intricacies of London to ever emigrate myself. I can't remember if it was my third or fourth trip but I was starting to feel like an experienced air traveller as well as a seasoned beer enthusiast. Gone were my days of Fat Tire and now the first beer was always Odell IPA. Unlike Fat Tire, my flame that burns for Odell IPA still shines brightly. So much clean grapefruit and mango flavour over a pronounced bready sweetness that's cleaned up by a sharp, dry, hop bitterness. Make no mistake this beer is underrated by too many, this is one of the best examples of the style in the world.
I must have been two nights into this trip because I had a stonking hangover. I know this because the first night I always go in hard with so much good beer there for the drinking but the flight takes it out of me and I'm usually in bed before I've even given myself the chance to get tipsy. The second night I always manage to go in hard, there's usually more beer on offer than I know what to do with and I feebly attempt to drink as much of it as possible. Then I start on the whisky. Some people say that the mile high altitude of Colorado gets you drunk faster but I don't think this is the case. I for one seem to get drunk at the same speed I always get drunk. The altitude does affect you though, precious oxygen is in short supply and those that have been on Mountain Standard Time will surely have experienced what I like to call 'the dryness'. Waking up at 3am, clutching wildly at the air in the hope of finding a glass of water as your mouth feels like it's starting to disintegrate inside your head.
Then there's the hangovers. Those gut wrenching, cranium shattering, soul destroying high altitude hangovers that completely stop you in your tracks. You'll be cursing the primeval forces that smashed those two continental plates together forcing the Rocky Mountains and High Plains to soar skywards which in turn had the knock on effect of you being barely able to stand in the shower and wash away the shame of the night before. Yes I was definitely two nights into this trip.
My girlfriend Dianne is obsessed with tat. She'll be scowling as she reads this but inside she knows that she cannot wait to find some more tat to gather dust on our shelves. I must confess that I actually like that she likes tat. I'm far too lazy to bother decorating our tiny North London flat so if we have a bit of shelf or a corner of bookcase that looks a bit too empty she will at some point locate an ideal piece of tat to occupy it. My Dad was driving us down Antique Alley, the southernmost stretch of College Avenue, the main road that runs north to south through Fort Collins. Here there lies at least a mile of thrift, junk and second hand stores each with their own mountain of tat for Dianne to sift through. There I was, hangover raging, being incredibly dutiful while the love of my life pored through each and every corner of these flea markets. She didn't even really want to buy anything, she wanted to take photographs which made sense, she's very good at taking photographs**** and there was a lot of cool shit lying around just asking to be snapped.
It wasn't that bad, in fact I found that these stores were all quite interesting in their own quirky way. A lot of them had old, useless, beat up guitars that looked cool but were almost unplayable. One had a really knackered looking Fender Bassman guitar amplifier that was far more than I could afford but would have loved to own. One thing that all of these stores had in common was that they had free coffee, some of them even had free biscuits (cookies, they called them) so I was happily plodding along topping up my sugar and caffeine levels as we roamed around. Dad had promised that when we got to the end of Antique Alley we would all meet up and have lunch at Crazy Jack's the diner at the very end of the street. There, I thought, lied my salvation. I was one pint away from being completely fixed or totally fucked but right then and there I didn't really care.
As we neared the end of our shopping experience (Dianne had purchased a surprising amount of dead animal parts) I went outside to wait for her to finish. This was a bad idea as in the baking Sun the dryness began to return. If I didn't get a pint down me soon it would be curtains I was sure of that. Thankfully my Dad rolled up in his shiny Lincoln SUV and drove us the rest of the distance to Crazy Jack's. Outside there was a big sign that simply said '$1PBR' and for a moment it looked like my salvation might be cold and almost tasteless but thankfully it wasn't to be. Jack's was as typical as any American roadside diner could be, there were faux red leather-bound booths down one side, circular aluminium tables with bar stools in the centre, a Wurlitzer jukebox and a few pool tables. The only other party occupying the diner seemed to be a table full of older looking students, older than 21 at any rate as they were supping cold pints of PBR and munching on hot wings.
Eventually the server came to take our order and I inevitably asked what beers were on tap. "We've got dollar PBR plus Coors Light, Bud Light, Fat Tire and Easy Street." I contemplated the Odell Easy Street, a light American wheat beer that doesn't get exported to the UK. "We've also got a New Belgium Seasonal tap which just changed and it's a beer called Dig, I think it's quite hoppy." Minutes later a pint of Dig was flung my way. I must confess I'd tried a bottle of this the day before so already knew that it featured, amongst others, glorious Nelson Sauvin, Cascade and Sorachi Ace hop varieties and boy it showed. There was grapefruit, of course there was grapefruit but alongside this was wonderful passion fruit, gooseberry and just a hint of lemongrass. It's another not very Belgian beer from New Belgium but when they taste this good who cares.
Hangover? What hangover.
I'd been concentrating solely on beer, of course I had and so I'd ordered a pulled pork sandwich plus some fries without really thinking about it while I was enthusing about my pint of Dig. It turned up looking pretty ordinary, liquid pig fat was oozing out of a sesame seed bun and into a paper lined red plastic basket. I ate a couple of fries, took a sip of my beer and then casually bit into the bun. This was something else, a eureka moment, the very essence of salt, pepper and mesquite had been magically infused into this meat that was the perfect texture, the perfect consistency but that wasn't all. The home-made barbecue sauce lifted it to another plain entirely. It cut through the fat and added zing and zest and spice. I practically inhaled it and within minutes it was gone. When our server came to collect our empty baskets I told her that was the best pulled pork I'd ever had so she went and got the owner, Crazy Jack***** himself and I told him that was the best pulled pork I'd ever had.
'Jack' was thrilled and perhaps a little perplexed that a party of Brits had descended on his diner and told him that he cooks the best pulled pork they'd ever had. He was obviously taken back by these compliments so decided to take us out back and show us his smoker (not a euphemism.) He told us how he chooses the finest pork shoulder he can get his hands on, he told us how he embalms the meat with spices and seasoning before slow smoking it with mesquite for sixteen hours. SIXTEEN HOURS. He then went on for quite some time about his interest in British history, especially the wars. A few too many "Dub-ya, Dub-ya's" later and the soothing effect of the beer was starting to wear off. I was desperate to go for a bit of a lie down. Eventually we bid our goodbyes to Crazy Jack. I've been back once since, I had the pulled pork, it was brilliant but not quite like that first time. I don't think it'll ever be quite that good again. It was as much about the moment as it was about the meat.
I've still never had great pulled pork on this side of the Atlantic. I've had some decent shoulder, ribs, belly and knuckle, in fact some of it has been really, really good but not slow smoked for 16 hours over mesquite by a magician good. My main disappointment is always the barbecue sauce, in Britain it's either not good enough or not there at all. Why would you serve pulled pork without barbecue sauce? It's like having a hot dog with no ketchup or mustard or roast beef without gravy and horseradish, it lifts the dish. I don't understand why there is no barbecue sauce. Those that served it with sauce at least made the effort but many attempts fell short with the sauce being sickly sweet or too acidic. It's too late for me now though, I've changed, I've moved on. Vietnamese cuisine is what I'm all about now. I can't stop thinking about deep, spicy bowls of Pho with lashings of lime and coriander. Imagine that paired with a crisp and dry Saison Dupont, just imagine, there you go.
Over the past two decades beer has been changed forever. We're riding a big wave now and yes one day it will crash when the fad drinkers move on but when that happens there will be a lot more people still swimming than you'd expect. I'm not sure that American barbecue will hold up as well in the UK as craft beer though, mostly because it's not American enough. Obviously it will hold up in America because over there it's just barbecue, it's not a concept, not a gimmick, it's just how they've been cooking food for years on end. Americans are the masters of meat, they'll be chomping down on braised brisket and pulled pork until Ragnarok comes. Meanwhile we fickle Londoners will all soon be balls deep in noodle soup and using summer rolls as a makeshift flotation device.
*The Brewers Association of America denotes that a 'Craft' brewery is one that brews less than 6 million barrels of beer per year. It used to be 2 million but they move the goalposts every time a certain Boston based brewing organisation expands its capacity.
**Lupulin Threshold Shift or as no one ever calls it 'LTS' is a condition wherein your tolerance to very bitter beer increases the more you expose yourself to it. I have exposed myself to so much hop bitterness that I now only drink beer that has been dry hopped with Uranium rods.
****All of the wonderful photographs on this post were shot on real, actual 35mm film by Dianne and if you really like them you can buy them as prints! Just visit her website www.diannetanner.co.uk for details.
*****He did tell us his real name and it wasn't Jack or Crazy Jack but despite being able to remember how good a sandwich I ate two years ago tasted I am unable to recall something so simple as a person’s name. I do remember thinking he wasn't particularly crazy, by my standards at least.