At least three or four times a day I get some version of the question: “How did you get into the BBQ business?” And my stock answer is something like: “Well, I grew up in a Jewish family in Skokie, got a degree in journalism, and started my professional life as an IT consultant…so I guess it was inevitable.”
Then I’ll go on to describe that I had been barbecuing in my backyard as a hobby, and that I thought I’d gotten pretty good at it. Then I’ll explain that while that was going on, I was getting increasingly frustrated with my IT job and that my heart really wasn’t in it.
And I’ll talk about some of my travels to the great BBQ regions—the Texas Hill Country, Kansas City, Memphis, and the Carolinas—and how I thought that these styles of BBQ were glaringly absent in Chicago’s food scene. I’ll explain that all of those things just kind of came together for me at a time when I was able to summons the courage (foolishness) to take the leap.
And all of that is true.
But it really describes how the whole thing transpired rather than how it happened. Perhaps the better answer is this:
I was working stock in a family-owned hardware store. For those too young to remember what that is, imagine a Home Depot, but roughly a tenth of the size and about twice as likely to have what you’re looking for. Anyway, I was stocking Aisle 4 one afternoon. I was a conscientious, if somewhat apathetic, worker. And, while I’m sure my mind wandered as an 18-year-old boy’s should, I was focused on my work. But then there was this smell…
I could no longer concentrate. Slapping price tags on garden widgets and putting them on shelves may not require a ton of brain power, but I couldn’t muster it. I tried, but it was futile. The smell had taken over; I had to find out what it was. So I followed it back through Automotive…through Household Chemical…and through Small Appliance…through the stockroom and into the employee lounge.
And there they were; four of my co-workers—my friends—licking their fingers and finishing off what had been a huge pile of rib tips from a place I had never heard of called Hecky’s Barbecue in Evanston. I had never had rib tips. I’d probably never seen rib tips. And I had certainly never smelled anything like rib tips.
Don’t get me wrong, I had eaten ribs before, but this was different. This didn’t just smell like BBQ sauce. The smokiness and meatiness were undeniable. But then there was a soft background sweetness in the air, offset by a pungency that got into your sinuses, almost too strong to endure, but too alluring to forego. I could identify all of the elements, but it was greater than the sum of its parts. I couldn’t get enough—perhaps, in part, because I didn’t actually get any. By the time I had found my way to the break room, there was none left, even for a small taste. I should have been upset with my friends for not including me in their Hecky’s run, but I was too intoxicated by the aroma to feel hurt.
As soon as I got off work that day, I went to Hecky’s, got a pile of rib tips, and stood and ate them off the hood of my car. It was an eating experience like none I’ve had ever had. First off, it was work. You had to navigate inconveniently positioned chunks of bone and gristle to enjoy the succulent meat. This wasn’t the kind of eating that you do while having a conversation or watching TV. This was eating that required your full attention and engagement. But this full-mind-and-body investment somehow made the tender morsels of juicy, smoky pork covered in rich, tangy sauce all the more satisfying. The flavors—smoky, spicy, sweet, tangy—were big and in perfect harmony, but they were only a part of the whole experience. It was primal; it was visceral; it was tactile; and it was delicious.
I had no idea what an impact that moment would have on my life. I only knew that it forever changed the way I thought about food.
That’s how it happened—I got snubbed for lunch and found inspiration. 18 years, a journalism degree and an IT career later, I opened up Smoque.
Maybe the question isn’t “How did a skinny Jewish kid get into the BBQ business?” Maybe the question is, “What took so long?”
Written by Barry Sorkin, owner of Smoque BBQ.