After 25 Preaknesses, Annette Thomas has her routine, and recipes, down pat.
Thirty pounds of ribs, both pork and beef, marinated overnight in vinegar and soy sauce, then grilled in front of her house on Saturday. Fifty pounds of red-skin potatoes — "Never russets, oh no, no, no!" — boiled in her crab pots for dill whipped potato salad. "Half-and-half," or homemade sweet tea — not the bought tea, she explains — and lemonade to wash it down.
For the hungry hordes heading into or out of Pimlico Race Course, sidewalk chefs like Thomas serve up a home-cooked alternative to the concessions inside. The intoxicating scent of sizzling meat draws Preakness-goers to the front yards of homes across the street from the track, where, for usually less than $10 a plate, they can get a true taste of the neighborhood.
"They remember," Thomas, 63, said of the regulars who return year after year. "They come back. Give people their money's worth, make it good, and they'll come back.
"They say, 'Go to the lady with the umbrella,' " she said, "'She's got the good potato salad.'"
Over the years, the offerings on the street have shifted, reflecting the evolution of the Pimlico neighborhood itself. With the influx of Jamaican immigrants in recent years, jerk and curry chicken have entered the mix alongside ribs, fried chicken and the occasional crab cake.
"Everybody becomes a little entrepreneur," said Ronald Billy Sr., standing this week in front of his son's tailoring shop on Spaulding Avenue across from the track.
Some of those business opportunities have waned over the years: The ban on outside alcohol instituted in 2009 has rendered cooler-shuttling by neighborhood kids as obsolete as lamp-lighting. And with some of the old-timers moving away or dying, residents say, fewer people are setting up the one-day food stands.
"I just got tired. I'm 79 years old — my legs!" said Alice Bellamy, who has lived in the Pimlico neighborhood for 40 years. "I used to make minced barbecue, greens, chicken dinners."
Still, no one will go hungry, at least on Hayward and Winner avenues, right across the street from the Pimlico clubhouse entrance. They are the track's closest neighbors, so near that residents can hear the bugler's call to the starting gate on race days and, from their porches or front steps, see the horses being led to and from their stables.
"You know what's the best part?" Thomas said of the festive day. "When the beautiful ladies come by with the beautiful hats. I love that."
Still, for all the spectacle, Preakness is, for Thomas, an opportunity to share her love of cooking.
"It's a passion of mine," said Thomas, who as the only girl among four children learned to cook from her mother and grandmother. "I would sit there in the kitchen and watch them prepare these meals, always from scratch, from stuff they grew in the yard."
By now, the retired home health care aide knows what the track patrons want, and when. She sets up shop around noon or 1 p.m., and expects a swell of famished customers after the race ends.
"They'll sit right on the curb," she said, chowing down on her $6 plates of meat and two sides — maybe green beans or corn on the cob. No sweets, though, because for some reason "people don't want desserts on Preakness Day," Thomas said.
Then the cleanup begins, with city garbage trucks coming through to pick up the trash usually by 9 or 10 p.m., she said
While Thomas is an old hand at this by now, her next-door neighbor, Michael Audley, 45, is jumping in for the first time this weekend. A Jamaican immigrant who works as a dishwasher, he plans to grill jerk chicken and serve it with sliced bread and barbecue sauce for $7 a plate.
"I do this a long time, just for myself," he said of the chicken he marinates in spices for a day before grilling on Saturday. "And you know, I just like doing it."
Thomas won't reveal how much she's made during previous Preaknesses, but other residents say they can net several hundred dollars.
State regulations generally require a food service license for even temporary sales such as on Preakness Day. A city health department spokeswoman said that while an inspector will be in the area on Saturday, the agency has not received any complaints about the amateur cooks' food in past years.
The other one-day industry in the neighborhood is parking, always at a premium when more than 100,000 people are streaming into the track.
But Ronald Billy Jr., owner of Triple R Alteration Center and president of the Park Heights Business Association, is convinced that the increased use of shuttle bus services has lightened foot traffic through the neighborhood. "People [are] still thinking they're going to make money, but they don't," he said of those residents who offer spaces in their yards.
Those who do park and walk through the Pimlico neighborhood, especially those streets closest to the track, find some welcoming residents. They're accustomed, after all, to outsiders trekking up and down their sidewalks.
Residents seemed to be in a company's-coming mode, trimming hedges and planting flowers this week, or just enjoying a seat on their porches, watching all the activity at Pimlico.
Sharon Campbell, 66, a retired paralegal, won't be selling anything from her house on Winner Avenue this year — she and her twin, Carolyn Andrews, will be joining the crowds inside the track. Besides, she said, with her grandsons now in their teens, they're no longer as willing to sit on the steps and help her out.
"The limos would come up and give them $5 just for being cute," she said with a laugh.
Given the amount of money that changes hands inside the track — last year's betting pool exceeded $80 million — visitors tend to be generous outside of it as well, if only to keep their lucky stars aligned.
"I remember one year, a gentlemen come past me, and I was selling something out in front of the church, and he said, 'Here!' and he gave me about five or 10 dollars," said Ethel Lee, who has lived in the neighborhood since the 1970s. "He did it, he said, 'because I want to win today.' "
She no longer sells her fried chicken on Preakness Day, but Billy Jr. said that anyone looking for good food on Saturday can get it up on Park Heights Avenue, where the business strip, like the residential neighborhood around it, has taken on a Caribbean flavor, with a half-dozen restaurants specializing in jerk chicken, oxtails and coco bread.
And at least one Caribbean-owned business that doesn't usually sell food will do so on Saturday. Earlier this week, just off the corner of Park Heights and Hayward avenues, Gary Osbourne was working on an engine inside the garage at G and G Auto and Touring. But his focus will shift from cars to food on race day.
"I'll be bringing my jerk chicken out to the corner on Saturday," Osbourne said. "This will be my fifth year."
The three merchants who share a small shopping strip a half block off Hayward were planning to use their small parking lot for a daylong party. Renee's Carryout was going to set out ribs, corn on the cob, greens and macaroni and cheese. Weezyz Groceries was planning to pull out a grill. And Marvin's Seafood was going to serve up steamed crabs
But most Park Heights merchants, stretching from Belvedere to Rogers avenues, said they weren't going to do anything special. Danielle Roane, a manager at Dash Seafood, said she was going to give sidewalk sales a try. But West Indian Flavor II was among the businesses that have abandoned sidewalk sales during the Preakness. "It wasn't making us any money," said Ria Ramroop, a manager at the West Indian restaurant.
The Preakness, of course, is all about traditions, new and old. For home cooks like Thomas, the week has been filled with shuttling back and forth from the grocery store for supplies, finalizing her menu and pulling out her big crab pots, which can boil 15 pounds of potatoes at a time.
"Always in their jackets — it tastes better that way," she said, and made in advance to "let the flavor sink in."
She intended to spend much of the days before the Preakness chopping celery and onions and whisking up her rib marinade — unless she decides to go with a premade one.
"It's a lot of work, but I just take my time. I love cooking," Thomas said. "I wouldn't give anyone food I wouldn't eat myself."
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