I live above a barbecue restaurant in Williamsburg called Fette Sau. It offers meats that have been sugared, smoked, and roasted until they are soft and sweet, like candy. It’s a popular place.
When my fiancée and I moved in, we were worried about the noise, since our apartment is directly above their outdoor seating area. Our bedroom window, in fact, is only 50 feet away from the active mouths of the patrons, and while smoking is not allowed, drunken storytelling certainly is. We go to bed early – I’m a school teacher, and she’s a medical resident – and for the first few nights we lay awake until midnight, grinding our teeth with rage, wishing death on these people and their stupid stories, these people who could stay up late drinking bourbon and eating ribs on a Wednesday.
Rather than move a bookcase in front of the window, we bought a noise machine – a small device that makes a sound like a strong fan. Combined with blinds and blackout curtains, it actually solved the noise problem. But then there was the other problem: the smell.
Molecules of caramelized beef and pork fat, motes of richest bacon, drift into my apartment when the windows are open. The scent is coy, inconsistent, like a radio channel that’s just out of range. It’s not the intensely concentrated frying bacon smell you get from the bodega. Nothing is fried; it’s smoked. The scent is subtle, like that of a barbeque happening a few streets away, or the memory of a barbeque. It makes you salivate, it smells so good.
The first time we ate there, it was spring, and we had just moved to Williamsburg. My fiancée, Holly, was graduating from medical school, and her family was visiting from Minnesota. We trooped downstairs, and everyone stood in line while I brought them beers from the bar. It was perfect weather for sitting outside, so we set down our metal trays – heavy with brisket, spare ribs, baked beans, kraut and sausages – on one of the communal picnic tables out front. We drank beer, squirted a variety of sauces on our ribs, and chatted with the folks sitting near us. One wiry young man was from Minnesota, like us!
Having finished the ribs, and feeling flush with a sense of community that I often feel lacking in my life as a New Yorker, I bit into the gently charred morsel of a brisket slice. The edge of the meat was sweet and crunchy, while the rest was tender, as mild as milk. My vision blurred. I lifted a jar of beer to my mouth and thought, that was the most delicious mouthful of food I’ve ever had.
Every day thereafter, while I washed dishes or sat at the desk grading papers, a mote of brisket would light up that memory, and I would crave a sequel. But Holly didn’t feel the same way. She didn’t really crave brisket or ribs, having been a vegetarian for most of her life, and she didn’t particularly love beer or bourbon. She loved roasted vegetables and red wine.
So we didn’t go. Now and then, friends from elsewhere would breeze through town, and I would get my fix by inviting them to the Sau. “You must eat here all the time,” they would say, and I would tell them that I did not, that I was abstaining to avoid getting tired of the food. But that was a lie. The pleasure I took in eating that brisket never diminished.
Not only that, but by the fall I noticed that my daily desire for brisket was taking on a layer of melancholy. As the season shifted, the smell not only made me hungry, it made me nostalgic – for the summer, for the sense of community I felt the first time we ate there, maybe even for the barbecues of my childhood. It was a sweet ache.
Soon, I began to wonder what would be so wrong with just eating there alone. I had always resisted this idea, because the entire experience – the communal tables, family-style trays, gallon-sized jugs of beer – was designed for groups, and because part of my desire to eat there was connected to a desire for community. I felt it would be like going alone to drink at a bar. No, it would be like going to a strip club. (The sexual parallels should be obvious by now). I wasn’t afraid of looking awkward; I was afraid of feeling like a man in a trench coat.
I held off for a long time. One cold night this October, I buckled. It had been a long, difficult day at school. I had made children cry, and I had wiped away the tears. When I finally crossed Metropolitan, it was 9 p.m., and I had no energy left to resist the pull of the smoker. I went inside. A video of a roaring fire played on a large plasma screen on the wall. A rifle was mounted above it. Even this late in the evening, there was a line, but it moved briskly. Feeling numb, I ordered a plate of brisket, beans, and a nutty beer, sat down at an empty table, opened a New Yorker, and resolved to enjoy what little was left of my evening.
A man sat next to me. Then another man sat across from me. Discretely, I scanned the room. There was plenty of room at other tables. Most were empty. But these men had decided to sit so close to me that we almost touched feet.
The man on my right was in his forties, and he wore a black sweatsuit. He opened up a copy of the New York Post and began working his lips around a beef rib, sighing quietly as he chewed. The man across from me, also in his forties, had brought his bike into the restaurant. He sipped from an energy drink and, having nothing to read, stared at the edge of his tray.
The two men didn’t speak or look at each other. It seemed they had simply made a tacit decision that this was the table for solitary men. I wondered for a moment whether I should break the ice, make a comment on how great it was that three guys could enjoy some ribs if they wanted to. But that’s not what I did. Instead, I looked back down at my New Yorker, cut off a slice of brisket, and went to heaven alone.