BBQ Brigadoon: Every weekend, the smokers appear

We can't tell you where to find these mysterious smokers, but should you happen upon one, stop.

Every hundred years, for one day only, a mythical city called Brigadoon appears.

Every weekend, at varying intervals and on seemingly random days, smokers appear.

Where? Well, we’d love to tell you, really we would. But much like the Brigadoon invented by Lerner and Loewe for their 1947 Broadway musical, these smokers don’t conform to the regular rules of space and time. They appear on their own schedule and leave when they sell out.

I don’t refer to food trucks or brick-and-mortar spots with smokers outside. The tastiest ribs I’ve had — and trust me, I’ve spent the summer devouring plate after plate — come from anonymous black barrels spewing smoke. I’ve also spent my summer chasing down these smokers, because finding them proved more challenging than I imagined.

To call these roadside havens of smoked pig and chicken “capricious” implies the men working their smokers don’t take their craft seriously, which is not the case. These mobile chefs take the business of smoking meat quite seriously, but when the meat sells out, it’s gone. And, as we witnessed, this happens at different times every day. In one instance, a smoker who’d set up only 15 minutes earlier had disappeared by the time I’d returned from home with cash.

Barbecue Brigadoon.

In Pinellas, you’re likely to find smokers along the “Hog Highway” (read that story here), but a few smokers dot the landscape on both sides of the bay, usually in predominantly black neighborhoods. They’re part of a tradition that dates to the antebellum South, when slaves worked as pitmasters and developed their own style for smoking meat, according to Robert F. Moss, author of Barbecue: The History of an American Institution.

“Barbecues were a common form of recreation for slaves, too,” Moss writes, “as events they staged and created for themselves and as a form of paternalistic entertainment granted by slave owners as a means of reward and control. After Emancipation, barbecue continued to play a key role in the lives of African Americans, serving as the center of a wide range of community celebrations and becoming a core part of African American foodways.”

That celebration continues with the proliferation of smokers in south St. Pete, where a smoker can pull into a parking lot and a cluster of the community will hungrily gather around the pit, cash in hand, waiting for ribs or chicken. Mothers feed children, neighbors laugh while they wait and, more and more, people from nearby towns pull up looking for barbecue. On some nights it seems smokers multiply exponentially, then disappear just as quickly. The problem with ribs — although it’s only a problem if you don’t get some before it happens — is once they sell out, replacing them takes hours. Unlike hamburgers, smoking a rack of ribs takes more effort than throwing meat on the grill for a few minutes. When a smoker sells out, it’s done for the day.

To find a smoker, you must get in your car and drive. You can’t Google them. Trust me, I’ve tried. If a smoker shows up on Google, odds are you’ll find a food truck, not a down-home smoker. And, as you may imagine, smokers setting up shop in lots don’t keep regular hours. You won’t see them on Yelp. They don’t have websites or a way for you to order in advance.

You want ribs? Ride around and keep your fingers crossed that you find them.

I’ve heard every hundred years is a good bet. 

About The Author

Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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