Where there's smoke, there's pit beef cooked by the Shores family - and a line of hungry customers

Cornering the market

Maryland Journal

May 08, 2006|By JILL ROSEN | JILL ROSEN,SUN REPORTER

The omelet guy is not optimistic.

It's way past 5 in the morning and the spot under the Jones Falls Expressway where the pit beef man would be -should be - at a farmers' market Sunday, is conspicuously empty.

"No, I don't think he's coming," the doubting omelet maker says with a shrug. "He's always here by now."

Oh, ye of little faith. Of course he's coming.

He was there at the market's birth 29 years ago. He was there as it hopscotched across town from location to location before settling into its current address, where highway grime meets the freshest of produce. He wouldn't miss the market's opening day.

The pit beef man is the downtown Baltimore Farmers' Market's charcoal-fired soul. He'll be there.

Though his presence is constant, his precise identity is not and has adapted through the years to fit the life rhythms of the Shores family.

First came Steven Shores, the original and best-loved pit beef man. When Steven was stabbed to death four years ago during a fight in his East Baltimore home, his older brother, Richard, assumed the role with the help of sister Bonnie Coleman. With Richard retiring now, the torch passes to Michael, his nephew.

And Michael Shores, on his first day as pit beef man, is late.

But with just minutes to spare before 6, in rolls his big white truck. Seems the pit beef man had some alarm clock trouble. Within seconds, busy hands are heaving weathered steel pits out the back of the truck, along with 20-pound bags of hardwood lump charcoal and long serving tables.

At 5:59 a.m. and the stroke of a match, fire bursts aggressively, first from one pit, then the other. Tiny embers float into the brisk morning air, signaling to anyone out there who might have been waiting all winter for this - and there are many - to come and get it.

Nine minutes later, there's Darrell Anderson, hungry and impatient. He glances disapprovingly at the top round just beginning to singe on the spit.

"We're running behind today," Bryan Kemp, the longtime grill worker, offers apologetically.

"Yes, you sure is," Anderson answers. "I'm going to have to wait. But I waited all this time already, I can wait some more."

Many Baltimoreans wait for this, crave this, wake up ungodly early on a Sunday just for this.

Though the market officially opens at 8, the pit beef stand, when running on time, starts serving at 6. Market neophytes will gasp incredulously to see people lusting after grilled meat at such hours.

Tom Towles, a Fells Point market researcher and toy store owner, used to be one of those people. But that changed in a hurry.

"When I saw a barbecue pit, lots of smoke and a long line, I knew I had to be at the end of that line," he says.

Now he preaches the joys of sliced beef folded unpretentiously onto soft wheat bread, what he calls the epitome of "simple yet well-made food."

"You know what you're getting every single time," he says. "It's just pit beef - and I say `just' - but it's great."

The Shores men know their way around a spit. As kids, they earned extra money helping a local caterer staff bull roasts. When they got older, Steven and Richard Shores honed their business acumen running their own beef stands outside bars in Rosedale and White Marsh.

Richard Shores eventually left the unpredictable life behind for a bankable grocery store career with benefits. But not Steven. Affable and free-spirited, he wanted to work in the sunshine, shake new hands every day, make his own rules.

At the market, the grill's smoky perfume might have drawn folks in, but it was often Steven Shore's warmth that kept them coming back.

Yet his good-time tendencies had a way of becoming reckless, his family says. They blame his death on drugs.

He was killed in December 2001, with only one wintry Sunday left before the market shuttered for the season. Richard and his wife, Karen, drove to the market that morning to prop up a sign that told his customers the bad news. When they returned to fetch it, they found it surrounded by flowers.

At the farmers' market, relationships are funny. Most folks don't know the real names of the vendors they visit Sunday after Sunday, year after year. It's the omelet guy, the mushroom lady - the pit beef man.

It's the same for sellers, who are more likely to know someone as Mr. Well-Done on White than who he actually is, said customer Wallace Washington, a 32-year-old barber from White Marsh.

Karen Shores does a double take when she sees a man walking up with a lanky blond teen who's dragging a red wagon filled with spring plants. She remembers that wagon, definitely, but it used to be the father lugging the wagon and a much-smaller blond boy riding inside.

That's John Byerly, a State Department employee who lives in Bolton Hill, and his 13-year-old son, Nathaniel. Nathaniel's been coming to the market, Byerly says, since before he was born.

The Byerly family doesn't know the Shores. They don't know Steven from Richard from Michael. Yet they're more than ready to say, "They're our friends."

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