Bull Riders and BBQ

In this sport you’re always one second away from catastrophe, and the first eight seconds don’t even count. There are no cars, no skis, no carabiners. If you want to excel, you start young. Brendon Clark, the “Australian Sensation” now twenty-nine, started at the age of six. Back then he rode calves, now he rides their daddies.

Bull riding has been called the “toughest sport on dirt.” It is the perfect characterization of competition in which a man willingly mounts an ill-tempered two thousand pound animal and has to stay on it for longer than eight seconds before a judge will even begin to look at him. It may just be coincidence that food of choice for these cowboys is beef.

“I like to eat a steak after riding a bull,” says Clark. “Before, I eat a big meal at about 4:30 in the afternoon. In New York I like the pulled pork at [Justin Timberlake-owned restaurant] Southern Hospitality. And before the event, a Clif bar.” Some of the Professional Bull Riders Association’s (PBR) best athletes (two- and four-legged) recently competed in New York City for their fourth consecutive year. New Yorkers love bull riders and bull riders love the city’s culinary bounty.

“What’s good about New York is that when the event ends at 10:30, you can always find a place to get a good steak.” Or barbecue. “I’m from Australia, there aren’t a lot of spices there. That’s why I love American food, especially barbecue,” says Clark, now a North Carolinian. “No one does barbecue like Americans.” And few do barbecue like Daisy May’s BBQ USA, a no-frills cafeteria-style joint in Manhattan.

“Barbecue” is generally credited to the Taino Indians, pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Bahamas and the Greater and Lesser Antilles. “Barbacoa” or “barabicu” translates as either “sacred fire pit,” describing a grill raised on a platform or “meat-smoking apparatus,” usually for a whole animal.

Spanish explorers brought the technique north to the mainland, and by the 1730s, East Coast settlers were grilling away. Cowboys on cattle drives brought it west in the 1800s. Chances are they often didn’t have the choicest cuts of meat, but the long, slow cooking made even the toughest cuts succulent and tender.

Daisy May’s Chef, Adam Perry Lang, loves that tradition and has been barbecuing for the PBR for years. It began when he met a fellow fishing enthusiast fly-fishing in Oregon who turned out to be PBR CEO Randy Bernard. Three weeks later Perry Lang flew to Oklahoma and did his first PBR barbecue.

The native New Yorker and Culinary Institute of America grad, is an unlikely pit master. After plying his trade at a trio of New York’s best French restaurants: Le Cirque, Restaurant Daniel, Chanterelle, he headed to France to work with world-renowned chef Guy Savoy, and then to New Mexico where he found his passion. As a private chef on a sprawling New Mexico ranch, he learned the art of barbecue from ranch hands and cowboys who cooked in a 1,000-pound pit. “It was everything the complicated stuff I’d been cooking in restaurants was not,” he says. In something so simple—it’s just meat and fire— he found a different kind of cooking. “After the kind of cooking I did, there was something so democratic and approachable about barbecue.”

Barbecue embodies the culture of the American cowboy, Perry Lang says, and it’s a way of life that’s disappearing as meat production becomes ever more industrialized. “In barbecue I saw a chance to learn about an entirely different culinary culture.”

Perry Lang feels that his background in the most haute of haute cuisine infuses his barbecue with a variety of unusual flavors and techniques. He’s respectful of culinary traditions but isn’t restricted by them. For example he uses rubs, glazes, basting butters and sauces—all on one piece of meat. He applies them at strategic times during the cooking process to build flavor “brick by brick.” He slathers cutting boards with glazes or butter so that the meat picks up extra taste as he slices. He makes apple juice spray (apple juice and water) to give sheen and add a lightly caramelized sweetness to the meat.

Like a lot of chefs, Perry Lang loves to find new uses for simple ingredients to heighten and enhance flavors. Like adding green apple to barbecue sauce or brining a rack of pork with Crab Boil because “the boil ingredients - bay leaves, peppercorns, cayenne, red pepper flakes - were the same ones I like to use on pork.” His recipes are in “Serious Barbecue: Smoke, Char, Baste & Brush Your Way to Great Outdoor Cooking.”

Like everyone who enjoys bull riding, Perry Lang sees the bulls as much as athletes as the men who ride them. The total score possible for a bull ride is 100 points, and half those points are based on the bull’s performance and how difficult he is to ride. The thirty to forty bulls at a typical two-day competition will buck only once during the event.

Chad Berger of “Chad Berger Bucking Bulls” of Mandan, North Dakota is a stock contractor for the PBR. He brought twenty-six of his bulls “in one semi” to New York.“ There’s a semi you don’t want jack-knifed. Berger says it’s not size or strength or athleticism that makes a bull great. “It’s heart. That’s what I look for,” he says. Interestingly, bulls come right-handed and left-handed, just like cowboys.

“These bulls live better than a lot of people,” he says. And after they’re past their prime competition years “they eat, sleep and hang out with a bunch of girls.” Not a bad way to end your days. And after that, Berger’s bulls become burgers.

Don’t feel too bad. If they had thumbs, they’d probably eat us. Which is where Perry Lang comes in. It all comes full circle.

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