Hunting down the history of how pit beef became a symbol of Baltimore

Richard Gorelick tracks down the history of how pit beef became a quintessentially Baltimore meat.

We got word last week that Chaps Pit Beef (5801 Pulaski Highway, [410] 483-2379, chapspitbeef.com) would be franchising. No locations have been chosen yet, but Bob Creager, the owner of the 28-year-old Pulaski Highway eatery, has said that the sky is basically the limit for Chaps, which will be working with the New Jersey-based MBB Management to send pit beef outside the Beltway, the state, and possibly even the country. If Chaps' expansion follows anything like the path traveled by Tony Luke's, a Philadelphia cheesesteak restaurant that MBB has helped expand to more than 20 locations, meat-loving folks as far away as Juffair, Bahrain might someday soon be stuffing piled-high mounds of grilled beef in their mouths.

Mmmmmm, Baltimore.

Some things we think of as Baltimore things, like "Hon" and "neighborhoods," are not really Baltimore things. Pit beef is for real a Baltimore thing, at most a Maryland thing. Its origins are murky, but most food historians seem to agree that pit beef sprung up in Baltimore's east-side working-class neighborhoods. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that pit beef stands began to line the road along Pulaski Highway as early as the 1970s. The leap Chaps and others made from roadside trailer to fixed location isn't hard to fathom. That happens, with ice cream shops, snowball stands, and hot-dog carts. But I've yet to read a persuasive account that explains why the pit cooking, which originally involved—and still sometimes does—the grilling of beef on spits over a bed of hot, hot charcoal, became the method of choice in Baltimore, as opposed to, say, any other meat-heating system in the world. One guess: Those other methods were already taken.

I've been trying to home in on exactly when it was that Baltimore began to think of pit beef as a Baltimore thing, as in the kind of thing food and travel writers write about and Baltimoreans take municipal pride in. When, in other words, did we become self-conscious about pit beef?

Pit beef as this kind of phenomenon appears to have arrived later than you might think, or later than I thought, anyway. The first mention of "pit beef" I found in the Baltimore Sun archives was in a 1968 ad for Al Kelz's Elite Tavern on York Road, which listed it, along with steamed and soft crabs, crab fluffs, and crab cakes, as offerings in its crab garden. Then, not another mention until 1976, after which followed many mentions of pit beef in notices of bull roasts and other fundraisers—but still no celebratory stories about Baltimore's pit-beef culture.

In a 1982 Baltimore Sun article about searching for food along Route 40, Rob Kasper makes a passing, no pun intended, reference to "the pit beef places I had heard so much about," but reports that, in February, the joints hadn't opened for the season. Another passing reference, again from Kasper, in a 1987 article, in which he refers to pit beef as "Baltimore's favorite."

But The Sun's first lavish, "pit beef is us" treatment, including a cultural appreciation and a roundup of 10 pit-beef stands, came in 1992, as part of a package that included a tribute to Boog's Corner (now Boog's BBQ), the signature food attraction at the newly opened Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The retro stadium was insanely popular those first years, and Boog Powell, the jovial former first baseman who personally tended his ballpark grill, was its adorable human face. It was Boog who made pit beef something worth embracing, worth thinking about and writing about.

Pit beef had been around but now it was on a national stage and had to be written about. And the 1992 article grappled with all of the problems of pit beef that all stories still do. There were problems of origin, and problems of method. Already, sources were bemoaning the modern techniques—grilling over gas instead of coals, using machine slicers instead of slicing by hand, serving on white bread instead of rolls, dressing with horseradish sauce instead of raw horseradish.

It's almost impossible to write about the making of pit beef, often called pit barbecue, without mentioning that it's not what many would consider barbecue at all. Barbecue is slow-cooked, pit beef is not. People snarl about this on barbecue blogs. On a recent pit-beef tour, none of this mattered to me. I loved how the parchment-thin machine slices at Pioneer Pit Beef (1600 N. Rolling Road) dissolved on my tongue, but I loved too the thick slices of hand-carved, burnt-edge beef I got at Beef Barons, the longtime pit-beef stand at the Baltimore Farmers Market.

I think the best charcoal flavor derives from watching food grilled over charcoal. I like my pit beef served on white bread, or at least the kind Beef Barons uses, instead of a roll, and I prefer horseradish to any kind of sauce. The people at Jake's Grill (11950 Falls Road, [410] 308-0022) are so nice and the atmosphere so charming that the pit beef could be Alpo and I'd still sing its praises. As it happens, Jake's pit beef is jake.

I'm a fan too of the pit beef at Chaps, which, for all its bigness and notwithstanding its multiple appearances on national TV food shows, still feels humble and roadside.

I've read heated partisan opinions concerning the merits and demerits of Baltimore's pit-beef vendors. They're fun to read but beside the point. Pit beef is not something you should plan for. You should just stop when you see it, try it, and compare it to the other pit-beef sandwiches you've tried along the way.

Copyright © 2018, Baltimore City Paper, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Privacy Policy
70°