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Baseball, barbecue and Boog

Talking with Boog Powell can make you hungry. By the time the former Orioles star and current barbecue master has rhapsodized about the pleasures of, say, pit beef with horseradish sauce, homemade buttermilk biscuits and grilled asparagus with rosemary, chances are your mouth will be watering.

"Oh, I love food," says the 6-foot-4 former slugger, laughing heartily. "I enjoy eating a good meal, whether it's steamed crabs, or collard greens and cornbread. … But my favorite is barbecue."

His passion for barbecue — not to mention family, friends and, of course, baseball — are shared in a new book titled, "Baltimore Baseball & Barbecue with Boog Powell: Stories from the Orioles' Smokey Slugger."

Co-written with former Baltimore Sun columnist Rob Kasper, the memoir-meets-cookbook is a walk down memory lane that highlights Powell's baseball glory days, complemented by recipes and vintage photos. Extras include interviews with other Orioles' legends.

The book's timing seems serendipitous: The O's, newly minted 2014 American League East Division champions, are scheduled to play Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Thursday.

"When I think back about my 70-plus years on this earth, I see a lot of the idiosyncrasies that made me who I am," Powell, 73, writes in the introduction. "As my former Oriole teammate Brooks Robinson put it, I 'live large.' I also see a theme, an abiding interest in food."

John Wesley Powell, Sr. — nicknamed Boog at an early age, although the specific details about why could be lost to history — grew up with his parents and two brothers in Lakeland, Fla.

Theirs wasn't a fancy lifestyle, but his mother, Julia Mae, is described in the book as a good cook who showered her boys with love. When Powell was 10 years old, she died. It was a heartbreaking time, but his grandmother Ruth, known as Rucy, assumed control of the family's kitchen.

"One of her specialties was biscuits," Powell recalls. "She made them with buttermilk, which was called sour milk in those days. I still do a version of them, but they can't touch hers."

According to the book, his father, called Red, turned him on to grilling. They cooked ribs, steak and seafood over an open fire on the shores of the old phosphate pits — similar to lakes — behind their home.  "We never had a fancy grill, just an old refrigerator grate," says Powell. "Dad used hickory wood, and the smoke would flavor the meat. That paved the way for how I do barbecue today."

Red would remarry, and a stepbrother joined the fold. The boys fished, rode bikes and played lots of baseball. Powell was 12 when his local team earned a spot in the Little League World Series; by 1961, the 20-year-old was in the major leagues.

He played 14 seasons for the Orioles. The stellar first baseman became a four-time All Star and helped the team win the World Series in 1966 and 1970.

Along the way, Powell was introduced to Baltimore's pit beef — seasoned top round cooked over charcoal, sliced thin and piled on a roll. The book notes that a caterer at Memorial Stadium pushed the meat through the fence before a game as Powell shagged fly balls; he kept it in his glove.

Powell honed his recipes and smoking techniques at social gatherings that he and wife, Jan, hosted at their rowhouse in Baltimore. His teammates say that even back then, his food hit a home run.

"Boog used to have us over for parties, and we'd eat and drink in the backyard," says former teammate and onetime O's catcher Andy Etchebarren, who spoke by phone from his home in South Carolina. "He is a great cook, a great barbecuer. And he's a very good friend."

Despite their bond, the book notes that Etchebarren wasn't amused when Powell pressed him to sample oysters for the first time.

"I'm from Southern California and I wasn't about to eat them raw," he remembers. "Boog told me if I didn't, he'd toss me over the balcony of the apartment where we were staying during spring training. I wasn't too crazy about them, but now I eat oysters. Boog even makes his own sauce for them."

Since retiring from baseball in 1977, Powell has reinvented himself. He previously owned a marina in Key West where his family maintains a home (the other is in Grasonville); he's been a popular pitchman for Miller Lite beer; and he has become a barbecue entrepreneur. Powell's first book, "Mesquite Cookery," was published in 1986.

His reputation really soared when Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened its gates in 1992. Boog's Bar-B-Q, situated on the Eutaw Street promenade, was a "concept" concession, melding his personal appearances with the food offerings.

There are typically long lines of customers eager to sample the overstuffed pit beef, barbecued turkey and pork sandwiches, and homey sides such as baked beans and coleslaw. House-made kettle chips, a newer snack, round out the menu.

"He takes great pride in his barbecue, and it's delicious," says O's Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson, who calls his former teammate one of his "favorite" guys. "When you see him down at Camden Yards at his stand, he wants it just right."

Powell is on hand at the start of home games, greeting fans and signing autographs. That gives him an opportunity to sample and oversee the fare, which is prepared onsite by the culinary staff of Delaware North Sportservice, the Orioles' concessionaire.

"We want to bring fans great food that is inspired by the region," says Executive Chef Josh Distenfeld, who zipped round the park during a recent game with a walkie-talkie, checking on vendors and quality control. "It has to be fresh, fun, something you can easily hold in your hand. Boog's sandwich fits the bill.  Thousands are sold at every game."

This season brought an array of new menu additions at the ballpark, the chef said. Among the items is a Chesapeake Crab Roll (chilled crab salad on a bed of Bibb lettuce with a fresh Brioche roll) and the Early Bird Dog (an Esskay hot dog topped with a fried egg, shredded cheese and crispy bacon) sold at Stuggy's.

Still, "the barbecue stand is one of the busiest in baseball," adds Michael Geczi, general manager of Delaware North. "Fans are coming from all over to try it."

Meanwhile, there's another Boog's barbecue location on the boardwalk in Ocean City. It's run by J.W. Powell, Jr., his only son. Powell also has two daughters, Jennifer Powell Smith and Jill Powell.

The book is dedicated to his family, and Powell notes: "They're all terrific cooks, too."


Boog's grouper

Makes 4-6 servings

2 cups cooking oil

6 eggs, beaten

1 cup milk

1 tablespoon garlic salt

2 teaspoons fresh black pepper

2 tablespoons Tabasco sauce

6 grouper fillets, 6 ounces each

12 Zesta saltines, finely crushed

In large skillet, heat oil until it reaches 360 degrees, or until a piece of bread dropped in heated oil turns brown and floats. In a large bowl, mix eggs, milk, garlic salt, pepper and Tabasco sauce. Dip fillets in liquid and then roll in crushed saltines. Carefully place in hot oil and fry until golden brown, about 3 minutes per side.

Recipe courtesy of "Baltimore Baseball & Barbecue with Boog Powell: Stories from the Orioles' Smokey Slugger."

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