When I looked back over 2018’s new restaurants for our “Food Year in Review,” the list of BBQ and Southern-inspired spots that recently opened around the city gave me the kind of craving that only a tender slab of slow-cooked meat would satisfy. So when I had to pick a place to meet comedian Matt Parsons for lunch, brisket was on the brain. Bloomfield’s Sugar and Smoke sounded like it could deliver the goods.
The restaurant itself is modern looking, with a simple elegance that reflects their approach to classic Southern dishes. We decide to order an appetizer of Cajun Hush Puppies. Parsons chooses the Shrimp Po Boy for himself, replacing the side of chips with mac and cheese. He clearly isn’t here to mess around.
The brisket’s description on the menu at Sugar and Smoke says ‘19 hour slow smoked.’ Have you ever read a more beautiful series of words? I order it with collard greens and mac and cheese, because I’m not here to mess around either.
It wasn’t that long ago that Parsons started doing stand up, but he dove in head first right away. In the past year—after getting his start at Trixy’s in the South Side and doing a few months of self-described ‘bombing’—he started getting booked for shows around town.
“From there I wanted to expand the mic time that comics had access to so I started a mic over at Dee’s in the South Side and then after that I started one in Dormont at the R Bar,” Parsons says.
His latest project is a monthly showcase he’s producing and hosting at Redbeard’s in Mt. Washington along with fellow comedian Ron Renwick. The first show on Jan. 25 features Mike Travers.
I ask what he looks for in a stand up and Parsons doesn’t hesitate before he answers, “perspective.” As a part of the Army Reserve for twelve years, Parsons himself has an interesting perspective to offer in comedy. He has completed tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, spending ten years in Psychological Operations.
To explain how he ended up there, Parsons puts on a gruff, stern voice to imitate the recruiter he met with as a sophomore at IUP.
“He was like ‘what do you do in school?’ and I said ‘well, I’m a marketing major.’ He goes ‘we kinda got a job like that.’” The recruiter put on a video of a humvee driving down a road with a speaker on top. “I’m like ‘great video…what do they do?’ and he’s like ‘I don’t know, but it’s cool and you should do it.’”
Apparently that argument was good enough for Parsons. What he actually ended up doing were things like running a radio station in Afghanistan. They would have representatives from Doctors Without Borders come on and provide lifesaving information to the local village. Mothers who had been taught that they should just wrap their sick children up in blankets were told that actually hydration is the most important factor.
“[We were] really trying to understand the people and their perspective, because it’s nice for us to come and say ‘oh well you just have to do better.’ No, we have to understand what’s going on in their neighborhood, what’s going on with them and help them how we can,” he says.
Our food arrives. The hush puppies were good, but we’re both far more taken by our main courses. The brisket is perfectly tender with a delicious char on the fat cap. We both love the creamy mac and cheese, and Parsons’ Po Boy is stuffed with huge, golden-brown fried shrimp.
He asks for a hot sauce to add to his sandwich. He likes heat, and in the army he would trade parts of his MREs (Meals Ready-to-Eat) away to get other people’s tiny bottles of tabasco. Sometimes, though, they would get to eat local food. The best he can remember was a curried goat on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
“The entire goat was curried yellow and they barbecued it right there and they had the fresh flat bread that they’d cook daily and some rice.”
Parsons says that a large part of his act is figuring out marriage (he runs all of the jokes by his wife first, “she’ll kick my ass”). It took him some time to figure out how to talk about being in the military. He didn’t want to tell the hacky jokes every vet has heard, and he also didn’t want to badmouth his service.
“I talk about dealing with the elections process in Iraq at that time and democracy was very new, so you go to a town and you meet a guy whose name roughly translates to ‘pimp of bitches’ and you’re like, ‘…you’re in charge?’ He’s looking at you dead serious like you’re in his town. And when you correlate that to the current state of American politics, you’re like, ‘wow, they really were ahead of where things were going.’”