I ate a slab of Freddy’s Berkshire pasteurized Wilburs months before I ever set foot in his brick and mortar on Greenmount Avenue in Baltimore. It was at the annual Ribfest in Naperville, Illinois. Whereas the majority of all Chicagoans celebrate The Taste along Lake Michigan, I feel the real meat and potatoes bunch of the Midwest knows where the tried and true good food is at, and that’s at Ribfest.
In the summer of 2006, the lines to all 59 of the 60 purveyors where long and hardly moving. They had billboard-sized banners overhead featuring their long menus of carnivorous treats. At the bitter end, between the exit and the Porta Johns was an unmarked booth that had no appetizing presentation. Freddy’s BBQ Joint never has been one to practice good marketing tactics.
I would have walked right past the small time booth if it weren’t for a few muted squeals coming from the back. For whatever reason, no one else heard them. Maybe they thought it was the band on the main stage or the shrieks of kids riding the makeshift roller coaster. One thing was obvious; this wasn’t a squeal from a human being. I went to the back tent. It was heavily darkened by tarp from any onlookers.
I peaked inside and saw a 250-pound hog hanging biblical like. A man with a knife made a fast and precise Sweeney Todd slice at its jugular. The blood oozed slowly out of its throat. I sneezed. The man caught me. He charged, lifted up the black tarp and pulled me in.
“Boy, if you’re not going to wait in line then you’re going to help me make this blood sausage if it’s the last thing you ever do,” the man said. “Now continue to drain the blood. And here…” The man gave me a larger knife. “…After you’re done with that, cut off its head, I want to make some good cheese.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“Get working on the ribs. That’s why I’m here, aren’t I?” the man said.
That man was the chef and owner of Freddy’s BBQ Joint, a nondescript dive in an area of Baltimore that’s not known to be the best and brightest. The place is boarded up with cardboard. It has one sign hanging at the top. There aren’t any hours posted. The place opens when the owner feels like it and closes when his gut tells him to. The neighborhood respects Freddy’s. Doesn’t give it any grief even if there are 8-year-old corner boys slinging miscellaneous items to junkies and “daytime workers” instead of reading Roald Dahl books in school. I digress. There are 10 seats and no front of the house staff. If one wants a drink, they need to help themselves to an ice cold Mexican Coca Cola from an antique Coca Cola vending machine. It’ll cost you 10 cents. Besides water, the only other drink is a house made Kool-Aid. It tastes more like a virgin red sangria filled with fruits that were picked from a nearby co-op city garden project that is trying to reform the neighborhood.
People from Kansas City won’t like Freddy’s. And the owner doesn’t like people from Kansas City. “If I want a candy bar, I’ll buy a Hershey’s. Any one who drenches their ribs in sugar ain’t no friend of mine,” he says.
People from Memphis won’t like Freddy’s. And you know what? The owner doesn’t like them either. “Memphis style? Please. What is that? Their sauces are the same as Kansas City except less sugar. It’s still a candy bar,” the owner continues.
People from Texas and the owner of Freddy’s don’t mesh. “They always do too much with everything. Too much beef. Too much rub. I want to yell at them fools to ease up on the stuff. Let the meat breathe. It’ll be okay.”
Freddy’s serves up the Goldilocks of the barbecue styles, North Carolina. “I don’t care if I shun three states, I have 47 more to worry about and that ain’t too bad,” the owner says.
North Carolina style is all about the swine, though Freddy’s has on occasion served beef ribs but they are only for special orders and important clientele. The owner uses a thin rub and two light sauces. Not the heavy tomato sauces a person will see when eating Memphis and Kansas City style. One is mustard and water based with hints of 7 different kinds of pepper. It’s called, “Salinas.” The other is vinegar based blended with roasted cayenne. It’s called, “The Cutter,” because it cuts through the fat and enhances the flavor at the same time instead of masking it.
A person will get a whipping with the owner’s belt if they want something other than what he serves up. The slaughter that I observed and participated in was no accident. The owner takes pride in handling his pigs on a regular basis. He nurtures his Babes on a rented 3-acre parcel. He wakes up at the break of dawn and selects his eeny-meeny-miny-moe for the day. Then, he hauls the animal back in his 1948 rusted and loud Ford pick-up to the back alley of his place. He has two small rooms joining the actual restaurant. One is used for the slaughter and the other is used for smoking, charcuteries, and cheese making.
He uses locally raised pigs from Ferguson Farms, 45 minutes up north. Sometimes, he’ll purchase a pig from a 4-H member at the state fair to help the youth go to college. “Those are usually the best, because those darn kids really care about their pigs.”
When all is said and done and the full slab is placed in front of you, there is no time for a picture. Actually, the owner will kick you out if you do. “House rules,” is his motto. I’ve found eating ribs at Freddy’s BBQ Joint is a science. You want the best first which means you have to break the slab in half with the two hands God gave you. You start with the half on the left and work your way to the right. Not the other way around. “It’s bad voodoo,” the owner says. You pluck the center Adam’s rib off its chain with your fingers and munch on it as if it were corn on the cob.
There are thousands of flowery and highbrow ways to describe the way a rib from Freddy’s BBQ Joint tastes. I’ve wanted to list all of them and put you asleep when reading.
However, I decided I’m not. I feel that would be a disservice to the owner and to you. All I can say is that when you nosh on a full slab or two or three, though you’ll be sitting in a place not even close to the opulence of Capitol Hill nearby, you’ll feel as if you’re the President of the United States. God bless.
SERVICE: Slow just like the slow-cooked meat. You’ll be waiting a while, but in this one and only case, it’s truly about the destination and not the journey.
SOUND LEVEL: Not pleasant, but not unpleasant either. You have many sirens blaring and locals yelling and cussing from the streets. But this is how life is when you’re in the hood of Baltimore.
RECOMMENDED: The Ribs. There are sides too, but they’re not even worthy of being considered sloppy thirds. Just stick with the ribs.
DRINKS AND WINE: No booze. Water, Mexican Coca Cola and house made Kool-Aid only.
PRICES: A full slab with all of the fixin’s will run you $25.
OPEN: Whenever the owner feels like it.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes