Eric Devlin: the Pigtrip Interview
There are very few BBQ blogs that I look forward to reading every day, but Eric Devlin's Home of BBQ site is one of them. The main focus is on barbecue sauces, with sauce giveaways and sauce reviews. But you'll also find rants about barbecue competition topics, book reviews and interviews with some of the movers and shakers in the barbecue world. I particularly like his most recent interview.
Pigtrip: How did you first get into barbecue?
Devlin: I’ve always enjoyed the cuisine but that enjoyment was limited to that of the ‘end user’. I liked eating BBQ. It was as simple as that. Until relatively recently, I didn’t prepare any true ‘Q myself. Unfortunately, for most of my life Long Island was a BBQ wasteland.
My interest grew and my tastes matured when I moved to southern California for business. It seemed as though there was a quality BBQ joint on every street corner. I now realize that I was a bit naïve. The quality was certainly superior to what I was used to, but in retrospect it wasn’t spectacular. Additionally, much of the food that I considered BBQ would be more accurately described as soul food.
When I returned to New York the area was in the middle of a BBQ renaissance. Numerous quality restaurants had opened in my absence. I hit them all and was pleasantly surprised. BBQ was no longer an exotic menu item that required serious travel to indulge in.
Pigtrip: What drew you to sauces as the focal point of your site?
Devlin: I felt that I needed to have a fairly narrow focus on topics that I could speak knowledgeably about. No one is an expert on everything and I’m not certainly not a BBQ renaissance man. I know a little bit about sauces and it was enough of a niche that I could continue to educate myself as I went along. So, although the site covers an array of topics, sauces are what I feel that I can do justice to when rendering personal opinions.
Pigtrip: What are some of your favorite barbecue restaurants in the New York area? Do you have any favorites outside New York?
Devlin: I greatly enjoyed Seconds in Amityville when they opened, but they have slipped a bit lately. I used to enjoy Poppa Ricks when they were open and I’m hoping they find another location soon. Farmers Bar on the north fork of the island was excellent the two times that I was there. Daisy May’s and Hill Country in the city are standouts.
I'm a friend of Willie's so I'm biased, but I have to give a nod to Willie B’s in Bayshore. They say that familiarity breeds contempt and I believe that to an extent. In this case I think it is more like I take Willie B’s for granted. It takes trying other BBQ joints on Long Island to remember how good Willie B’s actually is.
Pigtrip: Is there a barbecue restaurant that you feel excels specifically in its quality
and variety of barbecue sauces?
Devlin: My favorite sauce was at Big Daddy’s in Massepequa. It’s a thin, fruity vinaigrette and for the life of me I can’t duplicate it at home.
Pigtrip: What makes a good barbecue sauce good? Do you have a favorite sauce?
Devlin: Last first. I prefer vinegar based sauces, especially on pork. What makes a sauce good? Yikes, that’s difficult. It’s like the Supreme Court and pornography; I know it when I taste it. One commonality among all quality sauces is that they take a stand. They don’t try to be all things to all people. Bland is out.
Pigtrip: Do certain fruits lend themselves better than others to barbecue sauces? I'm a big cherry sauce fan myself.
Devlin: Absolutely. Cherry, apple and pineapple all add wonderful flavor profiles to
sauces. Some fruits, such as citruses, not only enhance the flavor, but the acidity provides a great synergy with the vinegar.
Pigtrip: Your site's reviews include mostly sauces that are outside the scope of what you
see on mainstream supermarket shelves. Are there any familiar brands that are
Devlin: Sure. Sweet Baby Ray’s is a favorite. But don’t overlook your local grocer. I was in Waldbaum's this evening and saw at least six brands that would have been mail-order only three years ago.
Pigtrip: What are some of your favorite tricks to doctor a store bought sauce?
Devlin: Well, it depends on the sauce in question. Adding cider vinegar or ancho (or other spices) will often go a long way towards making a sauce more palatable. Plain old yellow mustard is also an easy fix. I was in Trader Joes last week and picked up three or four different vinegars and I hope to see what they bring to the table (no pun intended). I’ve added everything from plain old black pepper to pomegranate juice. It really depends on what you are adding it to.
Pigtrip: When are you going to review Blues Hog, probably the most frequently used and
most talked about sauce on the competition circuit?
Devlin: Sorry, I don’t have a schedule for specific sauces. I’ll get to it when I can. I currently have (roughly) two dozen bottles of sauce sitting in my dining room waiting to be reviewed. After I knock some of those off I may get some Blues Hog.
Pigtrip: When you reach into your cabinet at home to find a sauce to "pair" with barbecued meats, what goes into the decision? Do you base it on the meat (poultry versus pork versus beef), the rub, the wood used to smoke the meat, or just what you feel like that day?
Devlin: The biggest concern is what I feel like that day. Do I feel adventurous? Should I go with a familiar standby? Am I in the mood for something spicy? That being said, if I’m having pulled pork it’s almost always something vinegar based.
Pigtrip: Do certain sauces pair especially well with certain rubs?
Devlin: Rubs and sauces certainly complement each other and can be paired together. I try not to duplicate the efforts of the rub with the sauce. If a rub is very sweet, or has a heavy fruit influence I will go in the opposite direction with a more savory flavor. Usually. As above, it’s often a ‘hey, let’s give this a shot’ sort of thing.
Pigtrip: Your site is primarily barbecue related, but are there sauces that are better
for grilled meats than smoked meats?
Devlin: I try to stay away from the overly sweet sauces when grilling, due to the high
heat. I don’t want to burn sugars in the sauce. When grilling I prefer a marinade or, sometimes, a mustard based slather.
Pigtrip: I haven't seen mustard-based and vinegar-based sauces reviewed on your site. Is
that a personal preference, or is the general public not yet ready for Carolina style sauces?
Devlin: There is a review of at least one. I believe it’s Winninghams. I’m not complaining here, but it does get a bit tiresome reviewing the same style sauce over and again. I’ve been inundated with variations of the ubiquitous KC style sauce. I prefer vinegar based sauces as a rule of thumb. I just wish that they were more readily available.
Pigtrip: Is there a place for oil-based "sauces" on smoked meats? I'm thinking smoked pepper oils and herb-infused vinaigrettes, like Bobby Flay has popularized.
Devlin: Yes, there is certainly room for oil based sauces. I’m not a purist. If you are barbecuing in your backyard, you should use whatever you think will produce what you are trying to make. You’re the one eating it. Take a risk. Give it a shot. I’ll call the BBQ police and get you dispensation.
Pigtrip: How about Asian flavors? Can you use ingredients like ginger, soy and hoisin in
competition and still win?
Devlin: Ahhhh, now the magic ‘competition’ word comes into play. Sadly, I would say no. I would absolutely love to see vinegar sauces in KC dominated areas. I would love to see a Thai influenced sauce in competitions in the Northeast. I would love to see an Alabama white sauce in Carolina. Unfortunately, I don’t think that it’s going to happen.
Pigtrip: Have you ever brought a bottle of barbecue sauce into a restaurant because you
preferred it to what the restaurant offered?
Devlin: No, I would just eat the BBQ dry. I’m overly cautious about not offending people. By all rights I shouldn’t care. I’m paying for the food, I should be able to add what I want. Alas, I’m a bit of a wimp in that regard.
Pigtrip: You are an organizer of the Sayville NY KCBS barbecue contest that is highly
acclaimed by both judges and competitors. How did you get involved in that?
Devlin: I have a background in event and volunteer management and many of the skills that I have developed over the years in a different milieu were transferable to BBQ competitions. The lack of a Grill Kings (a Long Island based competition) in 2007 signaled a sad state of affairs that some friends and I were already aware of. There was a dearth of events on Long Island.
We have a population of roughly six million people, a number of BBQ joints that was growing exponentially and a steadily increasing number of serious hobbyists and no event to serve that population. So we decided to do something about that.
We contacted the organizers of numerous existing events, such as Fall Festivals and chose to work with the Chamber of Commerce for the Township of Sayville. We held the cook-off as part of their Fall Festival and helped to quadruple their attendance.
Pigtrip: What goes into organizing a barbecue contest? What is the most difficult aspect?
Devlin: The two most difficult areas were remembering that everything that is obvious to you is not obvious to others, so communication is king and having comprehensive lists of everything that needs to be accounted for. It was also very important for us to have people with contrasting skill sets. I have a tendency to micromanage things and get bogged down in minutia. We had some great people involved that were ‘big picture’ folks.
Pigtrip: What do you think are the main differences between the average contest and a
Devlin: Organization, teamwork and attention to detail.
Pigtrip: What are some of the challenges in satisfying the concerns and demands of the
Devlin: This is going to sound pollyanish, but the teams at the Battle of the BBQ Brethren (the Sayville event) were all fantastic. They were all very helpful and very kind. We did go out of our way to ask again and again what we could do to ensure that they were taken care of. Their input helped us to decide where we were going to put our resources. We also had numerous competitors on the event staff and that helped to ensure that the voice of the competitor was heard.
Pigtrip: What are some of the challenges in the judging aspect?
Devlin: Ensuring that your judges are qualified, know what is expected of them and actually show up. We had more than thirty percent of the judges who signed up not show.
Pigtrip: Last year's contest happened before you started your blog. When is the next
Sayville contest, and will you be blogging about some of the activities and experiences as the contest evolves?
Devlin: I try very hard to not be regional. I want the same value to be found by readers in Texas as in New York as in Alaska. If I can find a way to write about the event without making it seem like I’m advertising it, I will do so. That being said, March is competition month on the site, so I will probably be discussing Sayville in a general way, hoping that other event organizers can find some useful information for their cook-offs.
Pigtrip: Judges must taste the entries blindly. As an organizer, do you get to taste the
entries knowing the identities? If so, what qualities separate award winning
entries from the also-rans?
Devlin: Nope. I have no idea. I make sure that I go out and speak with the teams on a regular basis and I’m sure that I could ask about what they turned in and taste what they are doing, but I’m usually obsessing about too much minutia to do that (when is the next turn in? are the garbage cans full? do the tables have enough water?).
Pigtrip: You've written some Long island BBQ joint reviews o the BBQ Brethren forums. What's the biggest difference between competition barbecue and restaurant
Devlin: Quality and variety. The quality is better at competitions and the variety is better at restaurants.
Pigtrip: How do you review sauces? Do you ever try multiples in the same sitting? Is one
meat enough to judge a sauce?
Devlin: There will usually be a blurb at the start of the review describing what the sauce was used on and how it was cooked. The sauce is almost always tried on multiple meats. I will sometimes try a couple of different sauces in the same ‘sitting’, but completely separate from each other.
Pigtrip: KCBS rules prohibit judges from drinking beer before or during judging. When you review sauces with Will Breakstone, do you adhere to that same rule?
Devlin: Let’s just say that yes, *I* do.
Pigtrip: What can we look forward to with the Home of BBQ website?
Devlin: There is always something new right around the corner. Every month we have a new contest where readers can win free BBQ related items. We also have a different theme for each month. February was BBQ and Beer. We have numerous articles on BBQ and beer pairings by beer experts. March will be ‘Competition Month’ where we will be providing interviews with competitors and event organizers as well as advice and tools.