KEENE, N.H. -- Farmers aren't the only early risers in Keene. On Wednesday mornings between 4 and 5 a.m. "Charcoal Charlie" Pini fires up his barbecue gear outside the E.F. Lane Hotel. He's the hotel's maintenance director , not one of the chefs at the Salmon Chase American Bistro . But for one day a week, he is The Man.
Or, more accurately, the pitmaster. On a typical Wednesday from May through September, Pini barbecues 80 pounds of pork shoulder for pulled pork, 60 pounds of chicken, 40 pounds of kielbasa, and another 40 pounds of pork ribs for the 5:30-9 p.m. barbecue feast in the bistro.
Mixing his leisure passion with his day job comes naturally to Pini. He has been entranced with outdoor cookery since his Boy Scout days and has been competing on the BBQ circuit for the last dozen years as part of the I Smell Smoke team. Last year alone the group won state championships in Rhode Island, Vermont, New York, and Massachusetts (the last for the fifth year in a row) and was picked Team of the Year by the New England Barbecue Society.
Pini is a master of the four meats required under Kansas City Barbecue Society rules (pork butt or shoulder, pork ribs, chicken, and beef brisket), but the ribs are his favorite. "One of the judges called them 'candy on the bone,' " he says. He doesn't cook brisket at the E.F. Lane for two reasons. "It takes about 20 hours to do a brisket right, and if you give brisket to most New Englanders, they want to know where the cabbage and potatoes are."
Most diners tend to order a combo plate served with potato salad, corn on the cob, and cornbread. But when making your choice, keep in mind that in October 2005, I Smell Smoke won the Best Ribs prize in the prestigious Jack Daniel's World Championship Invitational Barbecue -- no small feat for a bunch of Yankees.
Like many a pitmaster, Pini is reticent to reveal much about his rubs and marinades, but says he (as well as the competition team) relies more heavily on dry rubs than wet marinades, and that his rub mix has a high sugar content. "It gives you a nice crust on the edges," he says. "Then I finish it with a little sauce at the end, almost like a condiment."
The rub also contains a lot of hot chile pepper to give it heat and pungency, but, says Pini, "The sweetness kind of covers up the spice. I've had people tell me they don't like hot food, but they sure do like my barbecue."
Aficionados of spicy food head to Pepper Pete's Hot Shop , in reality a long wall of chile peppers and hot sauces in CC&H Framing at 41 Central Square. "Pepper Pete" is actually proprietor Clark Anderson , who says that "Pepper Clark" just didn't have the same ring. A confessed fan of habanero sauces and other fiery condiments, Anderson often found friends wanting to buy a bottle of whatever exotic sauce he'd brought home from his travels. "My father always said, 'If there's a buck in it, sell it.' So I do." Thus his gustatory passion has evolved into a sideline business. "Now I have the second largest selection in the world," Anderson claims as he surveys the shelves of colorful labels with equally colorful names: Vampire Hot Sauce , Rasta Fire , Black-Eyed Sally's Cajun Beer BBQ Sauce . . .
Anderson keeps his hottest sauce, which he says measures 12 million Scoville units and sells for $200 per bottle, safely behind the counter. (By comparison, he explains, a jalapeno pepper only measures 5,000 Scoville units.) His own Habanero Hot Sauce sits on the counter by the cash register. "It's medium heat, not excruciating," Anderson says.
His custom sauce is the shop's bestseller, but that hasn't diminished his enthusiasm for some of the others. Anderson is partial to the Toad Sweat habanero-infused sauces -- especially the chocolate-orange and the key lime sauces -- on ice cream. "You get a little rush," he says, "and then the ice cream cools it right down." And while he's not a big fan of chipotle sauces, he heartily recommends the Virginia Gentleman chipotle sauce made with bourbon.
Anderson does hot sauce tastings at the shop every so often, with the biggest one during Keene's annual civic blowout, the Pumpkin Festival (on Oct. 20 this year). The event drew an estimated 80,000 people to town last year, and usually features upwards of 20,000 lighted jack-o-lanterns. What else could hold a candle to that besides an eye-popping habanero?
If you go . . .
Salmon Chase American Bistro
E.F. Lane Hotel
30 Main St.
Wednesday barbecue $16.95-$21.95
41 Central Square
Cambridge-based freelance writers Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at harris.lyon @verizon.net.