The San Antonio sky is powder blue, and it doesn’t change hue despite the couple hundred fires charring spits over at Pearl, a former brewery overrun by a festival for carnivores. Meatopia, heralded as “one of the country’s most ambitious cultural and culinary projects,” smells the way any great Sunday afternoon should smell—like burning charcoal and the sizzling meats of a thousand dead beasts. This is not your dad’s meat-and-potatoes barbeque. The New York Times dubs the culinary festival a “bacchanal of pork, beef, lamb, chicken, duck, turkey and quail." This here’s a shindig for serious meat gluttons. For folks ready and eager to relish every part of any given animal, from snout to tail, cooked up for them by dozens of world-class chefs.Josh Ozersky, Meatopia mastermind, dreamed big, wet meat dreams for almost a year to share his NYC event with the Lone Star State. “Planning an event of this magnitude is like planning the Normandy Invasion,” he explains over the phone. Ozersky, a food writer for Esquire and The Boston Globe and the author of Meat Me in Manhattan, says, “I think I bonded with the people of San Antonio over our shared love of meat—of meals that had parents—and I think I found a great partner in Pearl, who put forth resources, commitments and exertion far beyond what could be expected. This place is amazing,” he continues, “[Not] just by Texas or San Antonio standards; [they’re] good by national standards. They just fucken stepped up!”
Meatopia, an event conceived “for food people by food people,” has been around for about 10 years. It started out in 2003 in New York City as a private birthday party for Ozersky, and it’s since grown to become a yearly public bash in NYC, with offshoots in both London, England and now here in Texas, where it has clearly found an audience.
At Pearl, burly men rocking proud beards and women in floaty sundresses and well worn cowboy boots lope their way around the stands with introspective grins dandling over their faces. They’re looking thoughtful because they’re preoccupied with savoring their portions of gourmet carne. I watch them gnawing their grass-fed beef jerky, happily chewing up some sides of lamb cooked in oyster sauce as I do the same. The sun beats down on the Pearl parking lot and all the fires cooking meats up keep things hot. There’s a band playing bluesy Mexican-influenced beats—a trumpet, a big stand-up bass—all dudes, more burliness.
But it’s not all slabs of flesh for grabs. Soft-shell taco stands
abound, where chefs ladle out piquante
salsas and dollops of chunky guacamole. There’s even a single lonely spot for
your token vegan PETA-photographer friend to rustle up some grub. And the vegan
fare—a kale and beets concoction—is very good, too. As an amuse-bouche, or a palate cleanser, say.
WHEN DOVES CRY
Jesse Griffiths was invited to the festival by Ozersky, and when I meet
him he’s busy threading a dozen raw doves onto skewers. He had to tell me what was going on since I don’t know a dead dove from
a live parakeet. I ask Griffiths, who mans Dai Due, a supper club and butcher
shop in Austin, how he got into hunting such pretty pigeons (pretty if you
imagine them with their feathers and faces on, cooing). “I just love to hunt doves,"he tells me, seemingly equal parts gruff and shy, "and
I love to eat doves,” he says. I ask him if
dove tastes like chicken or duck and he says, “I’d probably say more beef than
chicken. It’s very dark, very rich meat; very delicious. It’s a wild bird so
it’s very lean. And it’s a little bit gamey.” A little bit gamey is just what I
was hoping for.
THE BARBECUE KING
Adam Perry Lang, Meatopia’s headlining chef, has partnered with George Dickel Whisky to bring Meatopia cruisers booze and meats “handmade the hard way.” I ask him if he’s planning on concocting any particularly Texan barbeque for the crowds. Lang, whose restaurants, Daisy May’s BBQ USA and Barbecoa, are in NYC and London, respectively, answers, “I don’t want to come here and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to do something Texan!’ Because I think there are a lot of Texas chefs here and [I don’t have to] throw my hat into that circle. Someone described my style as the Carolina style, but I don’t look at it like that. It’s just my food.” So what exactly is he planning on sharing with his fellow carnivores? “I’m going to [cook] a 100-pound leg. You can’t customize this beef. It’s amazing. I think the difference in what I’m going to do comes down to how I’m layering black pepper, garlic salt, cayenne, and it’s the drippings and the smoke that’s going to create the flavor.”
Meatopia founder Josh Ozersky with chef Adam Perry Lang
I line up to get my fill. I sip my whiskey—just because my George Dickel comes in a shot glass doesn’t mean I can’t be ladylike. I eat my share of Lang’s beef leg. I listen to the dudes play their Mexican blues. I watch the crowds snake patiently around their favorite chefs, waiting to be doled out their never-ending portions of meat and Instagramming every delicious bite. Whole cow, goat and pig carcasses smoke on the far end of Pearl, by the highways.
It’s really only natural Meatopia would find a foothold in San Antonio, in Davy Crockett’s town, in the city of the Alamo. Texas is, after all, the very cradle of American meat-lovers. “The truth is it’s an ideal place to do Meatopia because there’s a big, enthusiastic carnivore community here and there’s an established restaurant culture, so you have chefs who can really bring something to bear,” says Ozersky.
All I know is this mouthful of Lang's 100 lb beef leg is probably the best meat I’ve ever tasted. And it’s not yet noon. I have plenty of time for seconds.