Some of you might remember when telephones were joyless, boxy black appliances with a dial, a handset and a couple of cords. They were almost impossible to lose and it took a concerted effort to drop one into a toilet. When one of them rang you actually had to answer it to find out who was calling. If it happened to ring in the middle of the night, you just knew the news was going to be bad and a list of those relatives most likely to have died in the last three hours raced through your mind.
By the fourth or fifth ring you would have already looked to the heavens and asked (maybe aloud even) to nobody in particular, “Why call in the middle of the night? Whoever died will still be dead in the morning.”
“Hello,” I answered. I could hear what sounded like a party in the background. Did I miss the wake? Couldn’t be; we just cover the mirrors.
“Jimmy! It’s Dave, Dave Pell. You’ll never guess where I am!”
He was right. And it was a challenge I wasn’t up for, nor was it a game I wanted to play at the midnight hour.
“I’m in Chicago with the Octet and we’re at Carson’s, having some real Chicago barbecue. I just knew that would make you jealous, Jimmy. I had to call.”
That he didn’t need to have called in the middle of the night topped the short list of things I wanted to tell him. I didn’t have the heart to say that I wasn’t jealous because I had never heard of Carson’s or, for that matter, “real Chicago barbecue.” I wondered if it might be some kind of slick marketing ploy like “Chicago-style pizza.”
“Fill me in when you’re back in town,” I said.
“Who died?” Geri asked as I crawled back into bed.
“Pigs,” I answered, “lots of pigs.”
Suggesting that barbecue is not my most preferred cuisine might be viewed by some with the same scorn as if I had taken a knee on an NFL sideline last weekend or implied that there was nothing particularly American about apple pie. I’ll take my chances.
It seems to me that there is an excessive number of ways to make barbecue, most of which have to do with sauce, all 637 varieties of them. The meats are pretty straight-forward: pork everywhere, beef in Texas, lamb in Kentucky, chicken in both Kansas Cities and pretty much everywhere else. (Perhaps it should be noted that NASCAR is really popular in all of these places as well.) The red meats can come in the form of sausages, ribs and roasts, the latter of which are typically pulled, shredded or sliced.
Geri and I used to enjoy devouring the goat ribs served at a six-stool diner-like joint that wrapped around the front of the old Parisian Room jazz club in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles. When Geri found out they were goat ribs I began dining there alone. She won’t eat any protein that was cute, wild or has spent its life in water.
In Virginia and North Carolina the sauce is vinegar-based, as it is in South Carolina where they add mustard to get that sweet-and-sour flavor that I don’t find particularly enticing. In the Midwest, the sauces tend to be tomato-based and sticky sweet from the addition of molasses.
I asked my wife, who has yet to meet a processed food she didn’t love, if she liked the vinegar-based or the tomato-based sauce. “I don’t know. I’d have to read the label on the bottle.”
Most barbecue is cooked off-flame over low heat or it is smoked. Memphis barbecue offers “wet” (basted) and “dry” (a dry rub is applied before cooking and served without sauce). In St. Louis, the meat is typically grilled with a sweet sauce lacking any hint of smoke. Also at St. Louis barbecue joints is the iconic pork steak, a cheap shoulder cut that, once thoroughly cooked in a braise, is grilled. I guess one just can’t be too careful when it comes to pork in the Show Me state. (Chef’s tip: Trichinosis, which basically no longer exists, dies at 117 degrees; flavor at about 130.)
In Santa Maria, California, the barbecue is grilled beef tri-tip that has been heavily seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic. It is served with a tomato-based salsa and Pinquito beans. There was a time (the town has more than doubled in size since 1980) when no other style of food was readily available in that coastal town. Now you can find shawarma and pho at certain places, as well as faux Italian at the Olive Garden.
For whatever reason, barbecue restaurants tend to lead the pack in fun names. Although there are places that might be trending to a more upscale crowd with names like Heirloom Market, Four Rivers and Jac-Que, Bubba’s still leads the list for barbecue joints. It’s joined by several others: Big Daddy’s, Kiss My Ribs, Piggy’s, Bone Daddy and (my favorite) Squat & Gobble. Some might even take pride in promising to be “bib wearin’, sauce slatherin’, old-school Southern joints that wouldn’t pass a health inspection in most cities.” That’s a marketing campaign I’d be hesitant to endorse.
Barbecue has been immortalized in such songs as “BBQ Song,” “Barbecue Blues,” “Barbecue Bess” and Meathead’s iconic “You Can’t Hurry Ribs.” It is my fervent hope that I never have the occasion to hear any of them.
“Struttin’ with Some Barbecue,” is a classic Louis Armstrong-Lil Hardin composition from 1927 that has nothing to do with food and everything to do with, well, never mind. It’s a little saucy, but a helluva good song.
We spent a week in a villa above Florence, Italy, many years ago. On a Sunday morning I awoke to incredible aromas drifting from the courtyard where tables for a hundred or so had been set. A cook had a 30-foot long wood-burning grill loaded with dozens of chickens and rack after rack of baby-back pork ribs in preparation for a first communion celebration.
When I asked in my broken Italian about the ribs, he answered in his broken English that you “season them and burn them.” Maybe that’s what he said. I’m not sure.
Anyway, this is how I like to cook baby-back pork ribs. I serve them with soft polenta.
3 Tbs. fresh sage, minced
2 Tbs. fresh rosemary, minced
2-3 cloves fresh garlic, minced
1-1/2 Tbs. coarse salt
1 Tbs. black pepper
1 Tbs. red pepper
3 racks of baby-back ribs
Extra-virgin olive oil
3-4 cloves fresh garlic, sliced
2 tsp. red pepper
3, 15 oz. cans of diced tomatoes
1-1/2 Tbs. Worcestershire
1-1/2 Tbs. Tabasco
1 cup white wine
1 cup water
Combine seasonings and rub the mixture on the ribs. Refrigerate for 24 hours.
Preheat oven to 475º. Place seasoned racks in a shallow roasting pan and roast, uncovered, for 30 minutes (until slightly browned). Turn ribs and cook another 30 minutes.
In the meantime, heat oil in a large sauce pan over medium heat, add garlic and red pepper. Add tomatoes, Worcestershire and Tabasco. Simmer for 30 minutes.
Add wine and water to the sauce and pour over the ribs. Cover and cook for 30 minutes. Remove cover and cook for another 15-20 minutes.
Illustration by Courtney A. Liska