The working men and women of America recently acquired a glamorous ally, the television host and pitch man Mike Rowe, known best for hosting the TV show, “Dirty Jobs,” narrating the series “Deadliest Catch,” and appearing in TV commercials for Ford.
While Rowe might not be considered glamorous by Hollywood standards — the balding 49-year-old usually appears on TV wearing frumpy clothes and relies more on his earnest wit than his looks — within the circles he represents, he is a polished and courtly presence, the telegenic, celebrity patron saint of the laboring class, those to whom a tool is something to be grasped or swung, not downloaded.
A few weeks ago, Rowe testified before a U.S. Senate committee on behalf of skilled labor in America, the unrecognized value of the jobs they perform, the need for more of them, and more interestingly, what he perceives as our culture’s devaluation of those who labor for a living. He refers to it as the “war on work,” not an active, hostile assault, but a passive ignorance that renders those who work with their hands and bodies effectively invisible.
Our country’s intellectual economy has grown at the expense of our sweat economy, Rowe might say. Parents understandably preach to kids the value of college (perhaps now six to eight years of it instead of just four), not trade school or an apprenticeship, even though all can lead to lucrative and important, if not honored, vocations.
(A sweeping report released this week by the science journal PLoS One showed that our nation's shift from factories and fields to desks and offices has also contributed significantly to our weight gain over the past five decades. The study estimated the average American worker burned 120-140 more calories per day 50 years ago.)
In the food world, few endeavors require as much pure labor as barbecue, not the simple grilling many call or think of as barbecue, but real barbecue that amounts to smoking meat over many hours.
A few months ago, a welder from New Mexico, a landscaper from New Jersey, and a tiler from San Diego joined forces to serve barbecue. They parked a portable smoker on a paved lot next to the Othello light rail station, and with the addition of a tarp, folding table, and small refrigerator opened a barbecue stand of exceptional heart and quality called Sweet Bones BBQ, in an area generally underserved by restaurants.
For the amount of meat Sweet Bones serves, its prices are low, from $7 for a sandwich to $18 for a heaping platter of five different kinds of meat. The aroma coming from the smoker is the first thing you smell as you approach the lot. Because of the time the meat requires, the smell that lures customers is actually of the meat Sweet Bones will serve the next day.
Barbecue is a primal, messy, labor intensive endeavor involving large pieces of meat, lots of wood (alder in the case of Sweet Bones), a considerable amount of hardware, and lots of smoke. Cooking temperatures are relatively low (around 200 degrees), and cooking times long. Pitmasters don’t cook the meat as much as they transform it, curing it with spices, time, smoke, and good judgment.
Barbecue is a craft, and to some an art, but ultimately it is a lot of old-fashioned work. It is probably not a coincidence that Mike Sisneros, the owner of Sweet Bones, and his partners, Burt Hallowell and Joe Davis, are skilled laborers rather than disillusioned bankers or outsourced engineers. In a city known for its philanthropists, consultants, and project managers, pitmasters tend to stick out.
Davis laid tile in large commercial projects in California, Arizona, Texas, and Florida, learning a thing or two along the way about good barbecue. Hallowell acquired his barbecue skills in South Carolina, where he ran a landscaping business and sometimes catered local soccer and baseball games. Sisneros was always a natural with food, but made his living welding sections of giant, natural-gas pipe in remote locations.
Real men might eat quiche, but they don’t make it.
Sweet Bones BBQ is part of a new civic and commercial experiment called the Othello Public Market, set up inside a warehouse-like building once used for "raves" before the partying was shut down by the city. The market is across the street from a newly constructed, six-story apartment complex called The Station at Othello Park, marketed as “luxury” apartments by its owners, which means the words “stainless steel” and “granite” appear liberally on its website. The ground floor, intended for retail tenants, is still empty.
Inside the Othello Public Market, you can buy East African food, cheap purses, kids' shoes, Chinese herbs, or you can get your hair cut for $10. Outside, in the lot, there is a covered produce stand, a cart that sells roasted corn, a converted bus serving Mexican food, and at the corner closest to the street, Sweet Bones.
Some of the neighbors — some had grown up in the south — were skeptical, noting they had “never heard of New Mexico barbecue before,” referring to Sisneros’ home state. His true forte is cooking Mexican food like pozole. He taught himself to make barbecue by reading books and watching television shows. His background does influence his barbecue in one way: Mexican chili powder is one of the ingredients in his dry rub.
Sisneros gave away free samples and quickly made loyal converts, making the case for barbecue as a learned and acquired skill rather than one you are born into.
“People have been telling me for years I should open a restaurant,” said Sisneros, who lives in Puyallup and still works as a welder. “I’d rather fail than never try at all.”
He first tried making and selling barbecue at the Puyallup fair along with his pozole and sopaipillas, a type of fry bread. At the fair, he met Hallowell, the sometimes landscaper, sometimes barbecue pit master. Because neither they nor employee No. 3, Joe Davis, are from barbecue country, none had an allegiance to a particular style.
“We implemented a little bit of each style and integrated it,” Sisneros said.
Sweet Bones serves beef brisket, hot links, chicken thighs, pulled pork, and ribs (a dinner plate with your choice of meat costs $10-$12), representing the whole of the country. All of it is prepared dry (except the ribs), but served with three different kinds of sauces on the side.
Smoky, tender, deeply flavored, juicy, and soaked in personality, Sweet Bones is all barbecue is supposed to be and maybe a surprise in a city that is a little thin and young when it comes to its barbecue tradition.
Barbecue is a folk tradition unique to America. It varies by region, but can be translated, interpreted, and improvised. In that respect, it is not dissimilar to jazz music, another American folk art.
Barbecue from North Carolina is pork, smoked and pulled from the shoulder or the whole pig. Memphis barbecue usually means ribs without sauce. In Texas, barbecue is beef brisket, a tough cut that becomes tender when cooked slowly (as in corned beef or pastrami), and smoked sausage, part of that state’s German heritage. In Kansas City, people eat both beef and pork slathered in sweet sauce that most of us consider synonymous with barbecue. Kansas City barbecue is the default style for the rest of the country.
In South Carolina, barbecue is served with a tangy mustard sauce, one of the three sauces Sweet Bones serves and makes from scratch. The other two are a sweet and a spicy version of a traditional, red barbecue sauce.
Sweet Bones' barbecue is a form that comes from no one place in particular and might not be authentic by certain regional standards, but seems to fit in well in a city known for collecting ideas from other places and reinventing them. If there is such thing as Northwest barbecue, Sweet Bones is more or less making it: smoked with Northwest alder, rubbed in New Mexico chilies, and tended by men who have traveled and tasted the nation’s spectrum of meat.
“Barbecue,” Davis noticed when he took a broad view, “gets sweeter as you go west.”
If you go: Sweet Bones BBQ, 4200 S. Othello St., Seattle (at the Othello Public Market), 253-905-8189. Open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Friday-Sunday.