ASPEN, CO – Residents and visitors venturing into the chilly fall morning air of Aspen on August 28th were met with the strong scent of a variety of meats being smoked and grilled. Throughout the day, the scent only strengthened. The source was not difficult to find. A quick scan of the sky above Aspen directed those who were curious to the First Annual Big Aspen BBQ Block Party, a sister event to the Big Apple BBQ Block Party in New York City. The inescapable smell, sight, and sound of the event were, in my opinion at least, what made the event as successful as it was. The whole thing seemed last-minute. There was no advertising until just a couple of weeks before the event. The week before, not too many had heard about it. Many people seemed to come from the Aspen Saturday Market directly to the BBQ, just following the scent.
Even before the scheduled start-time of 12:00, people were coming to the beer tent where I worked, BBQ already in hand. The band quickly moved from sound-check to playing for the growing crowd. Big Daddy Lee and the King Bees, a local band, kicked off the music line-up. Next up was Jimmy Thackery and the Drivers, sending bolts of electricity through the crowd to match the rain that threatened to fall from the sky. The last of the day’s musical talent was the Otis Taylor Band. They started early, but they could not escape the rain. Most of the crowd remained; some embracing the rain and getting soaked while others huddled under umbrellas and edges of tents and buildings. A full double rainbow was positioned prominently against the gray clouds and the dark green mountains east of Aspen, rewarding those who stuck out the storm.
Throughout the concert, I watched people devour their BBQ, asking questions and trying to determine which "Pit" had the best food. My job in the beer tent included free BBQ, but I had to find time for a break, and I knew I couldn’t make it to all of the tents. When my chance came I darted to Ed Mitchell’s tent, from The Pit in Raleigh, NC. I heard he began cooking at 3:00 AM! He specializes in whole hog, and the pulled pork sandwich, cole slaw, and fried pig skin were delicious! Next I went to the pit across the way, with pitmaster Drew Robinson of Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q in Birmingham, AL. The smoke pork shoulder tacos had just the right amount of spice, balanced by a bit of vinegar-y cole slaw and topped off with cool cilantro. That was all I ate that day, but Sunday I tried a few more things. Mike Mills of 17th Street Bar & Grill and Memphis Championship Barbecue wowed me with tender, flavorful baby back ribs. The smoked sausage from Mike Rodriguez’ Salt Lick BBQ was awesome. I heard several times that the beef brisket from that tent was even better. I finished my day with Paonia peach cobbler from the Little Nell’s dessert tent. I missed out on three of the Pits, but reviews of all were positive. Kenny Callaghan from Blue Smoke in NYC grilled up Kansas City Pork Spareribs. Two local restaurants were involved. Sam’s Smokehouse featured a Smoked Beef Brisket Sandwich with Sam’s Signature BBQ Sauce and Spicy Pickles and Coleslaw by pitmaster Jim Butchart. Ryan Hardy from Montagna Restaurant at the Little Nell brought out the Italian BBQ Porchetta Sandwich with Red Pepper Mostarda that I heard so much about, even before the Big Aspen BBQ Block Party.
The next day’s weather was a bit less threatening, and more people came out to enjoy the festivities. Onstage, Tempa and the Tantrums got the crowd dancing with funky lyrics and lively instrumentals. The song about TV evangelists kept all of us in the beer tent laughing. Bettye LaVette took the stage next. She mentioned the elevation and lack of oxygen several times, but her enthusiastic performance didn’t betray her difficulties. A crowd favorite, Bettye played through the rain and brought out another double rainbow. The last act of the weekend, Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials of Chicago took the stage. Lil’ Ed’s outfit alone was enough to convince many to remain and enjoy the fantastic last show of the weekend.
The First Annual Big Aspen BBQ Block Party was a success! The pitmasters and musicians were a great mix of talent, both local and from around the United States. The beer (Bud, Bud Light, and Stella Artois) was far from local, but maybe we can work on that detail next year. Overall, the event was a fun way to create camaraderie in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. Community-minded organizers made sure that proceeds benefited a worthy cause; profits went to Aspen Community Foundation, which supports nonprofits throughout the Roaring Fork Valley. If the rainbows and BBQ-covered smiles are any sign, I believe this event will continue long into the future. A big thank you to the Danny Meyer’s Union Square Events, Blue Smoke, and The Little Nell for creating this event. Be sure to sign up for the mailing list at www.bigaspenbbq.org to see if there will be another event next year!