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Eats and Drinks

Cow Palaces

Cruising Baltimore's Pit-Beef Row

Jefferson Jackson Steele
Big Al's
Jefferson Jackson Steele
A peek at Big Fat Daddy's order window
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Bobby Creager of Chap's brandishes the beef
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Charcoal Style
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Big Fat Daddy's mascot pops the question
Jefferson Jackson Steele
Big Al's employee Shawn (who was too busy to give us his last name) offers service with a smile

By Tom Scocca | Posted 9/19/2001

Across far too much of this nation, barbecue has become a form of cultural warfare, a matter of Us against Them. Every subregion that has its own habit of cooking meat believes that it alone is the source of the One True Barbecue. There are beef partisans and pork partisans, factions devoted to tomato sauce vs. vinegar sauce vs. mustard sauce. There are charcoalers, wood burners, wood-and-charcoal syncretists. There are people who argue about the proper species of wood to burn.

But Baltimore drifts above the fray, like smoke on the breeze. We do have our food principles here--don't show us a ball of breadcrumbs with a few shreds of crab poking out of it and call that thing a crab cake--but we don't wrangle over the barbecue question. Your Carolina-style and your Texas-style and your East Tennessee-style are all fine. Our native stuff is pit beef. You can have some if you want.

What kind of bread is it supposed to go on? Who knows? A kaiser roll works, or two slices of rye. We don't have great sandwich bread around here; you just need something to keep the beef off your fingers. Toppings? A dab of horseradish seems right, but some onions would be reasonable. A dribble of Tabasco, some barbecue sauce . . . pick your condiment. A pit-beef stand isn't like those hot dog stands that only put out mustard and relish because ketchup doesn't go on hot dogs. In Baltimore, pit beef isn't all that different from a roast beef sandwich--few taboos, few restrictions.

You take the pit beef as it comes. You can eat it at the Flower Mart in Mount Vernon and at amateur-fight night in Rosedale. Naturally enough, the Great Pit Beef Road in town is that completely unplanned stretch of real estate, Route 40 East. The Gentleman's Gold Club. The Christians Tire Co. Robert's Oxygen. The stands are known by the company they keep. Further out on 40, in the county, where the road is leafy in places, you see one by the go-cart track. Up in Havre de Grace, and there's one coming in by the Weiss Market. Westward ho!

There's no real upscale pit beef on 40, but plenty of it is downscale. Some stands are more rickety than others. Most display some idealized image of the cow that died for you. Some have long menus, with sandwiches called Gut Wrangler or Belly Abuser, pit beef plus ham plus sausage plus . . . whatever: scrapple, cheddar, Crisco. Why? Why ask? Get the pit-beef sandwich; get change from a five-spot.

To praise the democracy of the pit-beef stand--customers in rubber work boots and customers in striped suits; cornrows and backflap--is to insult it. Who doesn't want a pit-beef sandwich? The traffic outside on 40 runs east to west, west to east. The setting sun shines on the mattress stores, the self-storage lots, the adult bookstores. This is not anybody's idea of civic beauty and refinement. But you know exactly where you are.

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