This past Memorial Day was almost as good as it gets. The weather was sunny and mild with a slight breeze — perfect for the Giants game that I attended at our beloved ballpark by the bay. Yes, the Giants won, as they’ve been wont to do of late, and as a postgame treat, I determined that the ideal choice would be a bottle of beer and some barbecue.
Although the venerable Flint’s in Oakland, a shrine for lovers of fine ’cue, and the reliable Memphis Minnie’s BBQ Joint in the Haight were on my radar, the closest spot to get what I craved was Baby Blues BBQ — the Mission Street location of a small restaurant chain that also has a couple of outposts in the Los Angeles area. So to Baby Blues I went, in lieu of a Memorial Day backyard bar-b-que. And I scored big with a succulent dry-rubbed chicken breast sandwich and coleslaw. The sauces were complex, spicy, and beautifully balanced. And the music programming was right in the bluesy pocket, including classics from Muddy Waters and the Rolling Stones.
As I enjoyed my simple and delicious repast, I was reminded that summer 2021 is being touted as a return to normality, including reconnection with the people in our lives. To that end, July 4 is, like Memorial Day and Labor Day, a traditional opportunity to fire up the grill and have folks over for grub and fellowship. But nobody I’ve ever known or heard of has done the barbecue thing better than my buddy and brother-in-arms Hugh Brown. He is a legend on so many fronts — and his mastery of smoked meats is one of his most remarkable skills.
MEET THE MEAT MAN
Hugh is a renowned photographer, designer, conceptual artist, and trickster. He got his start in the Bay Area, doing portraits and concert shots of musicians in the punk and new wave rock scene, as well as creating album covers. A Chicago native, he avows his love for San Francisco and the surrounding environs. Still, to further his career, he relocated to Los Angeles, where he was highly prized by record companies for his unique and humorous visuals. Eventually, he was hired as the creative director for the eclectic Rhino label where he racked up a few Grammy nominations and wins for his memorable and sometimes astonishing album packages. Along the way, he gained a reputation for his annual Festival of Meat.
Every Memorial Day from 1989 to 2017, Hugh and his wife hosted the Festival of Meat — a smoke-and-sauce extravaganza dedicated to the preparation and consumption of fine barbecue. The guests, numbering as many as 200 or more over the course of an event, gathered in the Browns’s backyard, front yard, and cozy house. Invitees were encouraged to bring side dishes or desserts, and they showed up in droves. In addition to friends and work colleagues, those in attendance included a share of famous faces, among them actor-heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio, award-winning director Guillermo del Toro (who graced Hugh with the nickname “Meat Man”), magician and provocateur Ricky Jay, and legendary musicians Van Dyke Parks, Loudon Wainwright III, and Swamp Dogg.
The gathering grew larger over time. Hugh — whose primary duty other than being a genial host was preparing, smoking, and serving the main attraction — estimated that one year the festival laid out 300 pounds of meat: beef brisket, pork shoulder, pork and beef ribs, and links (hot and mild). At 300 pounds, that spread was officially sumo-sized. The rare deviations in the 29-year run were the occasional smoked turkey, some chicken sausage, and once, in an exotic touch, alligator.
In his role as chief meat wrangler, Hugh has always had a mandate to not slather on any sauces before the cooking process. Dry rubs are another story. Developing a combination of spices that he keeps to himself, he has four to five rubs that he uses to massage into the meat before cooking — one or two rubs per variety and style. Additionally, he likes to put a beer-citrus marinade on thin-cut beef flanks prior to grilling.
The finishing touch? Hugh’s signature sauces, after simmering for two days. Whenever the meat was served at the festival, diners were generally given five options: a vinegar-based North Carolina sauce; a South Carolina “golden” mustard sauce; a Louisiana pecan sauce; a standard sweet, thick Kansas City sauce; and a tomato-based Memphis sauce.
It should be noted that the Festival of Meat was not carnivore exclusive. The side dishes alone made for a banquet. One year, 18 vegetarians came, and the buffet table was crowded with 40 different pasta salads. Of course, Hugh had his no-frills coleslaw on hand as well. What else would you expect from the King of ’Cue? I just hope he has a revival in mind for next Memorial Day.
Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on Michael Snyder’s Culture Blast, via GABNet.net, Roku, Spotify, and YouTube, and The Mark Thompson Show on KGO radio. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster.