Imagine, if you will, a blank map of our fair nation’s of political will. Color the states in with your favorite red and blue markers. (Erasable, please. You may need to change them.)
Now, in your brain, superimpose a different graphic. This one highlights the geography of the nation’s great ribbing traditions – sweet, sticky barbecue from St. Louis; saucy and smoky, from Memphis; vinegar-based, from the east Carolinas, and so forth.
I grew up in Idaho, which is all elephants also, last I checked. (Side note: 28,000 people showed up there for this year’s Democratic primary, an event traditionally accompanied by a joke about a phone booth.)
Unlike other Republican strongholds, though, Idaho uses “barbecue” as a verb, not a noun. In the North End, the Boise neighborhood that housed said phone booth and my childhood home, my family grilled chicken and steak for summer’s official kick-off. Later on, when my husband and I lived back east, Independence Day weekend meant steaming lobsters on a beach in Maine. If you’d asked me then to name the last thing I’d expect to eat in early July, ribs would be at the top of the list, right above gefilte fish and Tom Yum soup. Ribs are for red states.
But this year on the Fourth, Jim and I headed east, to Naperville, Illinois, to attend RibFest with our friend Peter, who judges the giant rib contest held there each summer. Jim’s been going for a few years, and for some reason, this year, I felt the pull. Maybe because there was a chance I’d sit on the jury with Peter. Maybe because Peter’s girlfriend Lauren would be joining us, and I knew I’d have someone to sing with when Joan Jett climbed up on stage.
Or maybe because I realized Illinois is a blue state turning bluer, and wondered whether the deep-rooted barbecue tradition that’s been wicking north for generations has any chance of moving into the Pacific Northwest as definitively as it has to the upper Midwest.
Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s one little detail I should probably mention: I don’t really love ribs. I do like tender, silky-threaded pork rib meat, and I’m all for gnawing on a bone now and then, but thick, finger-cementing Kansas City-style barbecue sauce appeals to me about as much as drinking ketchup straight. I don’t like the way spicy sauces burn my lips, and I’m not a huge fan of anything smoked. So, yeah, the idea of judging a ribs event was a little scary. By definition, a barbecue competition soaks its judges in sauces as varied as the pedigrees of the people that make them, and frankly, some of them turn my stomach. I know it’s unadventurous, but I have trouble ordering ribs if I can’t guarantee I’ll like the sauce.
My friend Chris made ribs with a delicious apple cider vinegar sauce recently, though, and I’ll admit, with Chris’s ribs in mind, I also flew to Chicago with the hope of falling in love. I thought maybe I’d had a string of bad experiences that could be undone. I fantasized about finding a rack worth a Saturday, worth the patience it takes to caress good barbecue with the perfect sauce until, but not past, the point at which the meat gets ready to melt right off the bone, like ice cream on the hood of a hot car. My tastebuds were already hard at work imagining a Seattle version, sauced with a thin local-tomato-and-Wenatchee-apple-vinegar concoction, sweetened with Olympic Mountains honey and spiked with the homemade Asian-style chili paste I’d find. Call it blind idealism, painted on the rack of squealer in my brain.
So it was a little relieving, I guess, but equally disappointing, when we arrived at RibFest at 11 a.m. on Saturday, to find the judging seats filled. Lauren had treated us to a full-on Fourth of July barbecue (er . . . I mean grill-out) the night before, with bratwurst, and German potato salad, and light, spunky coleslaw, and deep-dish caramelized apple pie. The last thing I wanted was a slab of swine.
Peter, though, he’s always ready for ribs. As we watched him begin tasting his way first through 17 contestants’ entries, then through their 17 corresponding sauces, I breathed a sigh of relief. I didn’t feel like eating ribs, and nothing one wouldn’t eat at 11 a.m. is worth judging, much less eating in mass quantity.
RibFest is a confluence of ribbing traditions, drawing a roster of teams from across the country with names like Sgt. Oink’s, Texas Outlaws, and Howlin’ Coyote Southwest BBQ. From the moment we snuck into the judging tent, my excitement for actual rib-eating went from 5 to about 2 on a 10-point scale. Just watching the woman in charge pass ribs out made me feel like I had something stuck between my teeth. I took a few noncommittal nibbles from the extra samples, and went straight for the toothpicks.
I walked out into the private sponsor area, still completely vacant before the Fest’s noontime opening bell. Peter and Jim had explained how people camp out here all day, eating and eating and eating until sunset, then come back the next day for more. As I scanned the vendors’ billboards, I thought of the previous night’s reported crowd of 65,000, and wondered how many pigs die for RibFest.
A few minutes after noon, when people started milling around, the smell of ribs had lost its allure. I felt a little intimidated, knowing we’d planned to stay until 10 p.m. When would ribs start sounding good?
I wasn’t the only one. Lauren doesn’t even eat ribs, and as the judging ended, I was surprised to learn how many in our blossoming little crowd were heading straight for the chicken. I was told that in the upper Midwest, and indeed, at RibFest, ribs are served with corn on the cob, baked beans, and true potato chips. We roamed the grounds, sticking our fingers in papaya-based sauces and “thermo-nuclear” hot sauces, but the more I walked and the more I tasted, the more I wanted a nice green salad.
I did eat, eventually, mostly from the list of sides. We shared a huge pile of fresh potato chips, still moist from the fryer. I filled my plate with everything but ribs—foil-wrapped corn, with the husks still attached, and tangy pulled pork, and pasta salad—and then stole some of Jim’s ribs (from Desperado’s, I believe), when I discovered I liked the sauce.
Now, don’t get me wrong here – I enjoyed them, for the moments I was eating. But it didn’t happen for me, the way I expected it to. With 17 of the country’s best ribbers gathered in one place, I wasn’t inspired to try them all, the way I assumed I would be, and I certainly didn’t fall in love. I enjoyed, and socialized, and found an excellent root beer, but didn’t nearly obsess.
Honestly? I felt a little guilty. I’m used to being the foodmonger. And in a crowd of rib lovers, I felt a little left out. (And healthy. Oh, bless you, Naperville. You made me feel so fit.)
I wondered if there was something wrong with me, physically – if I’d eaten too much the night before, or somehow missed a key element of preparation. I thought maybe Joan Jett’s throaty yowls had stripped me of my appetite. But the moment we got home, I dug into Lauren’s coleslaw like I hadn’t eaten in a week. What’s wrong with me? I thought. Why don’t I love ribs?
I’d say it’s a political thing, or that I’m just not American enough. Or maybe it’s a combination of the two. Earlier in the day, I’d watched one woman give another a box of perfume, as a birthday gift. They’d combed through the scent descriptions together, searching for the flower that loaned its signature to the scent (“Ahhh! Magnolia!”), and discovered that each of the company’s perfumes is named for a particular person. Love in White is named for Laura Bush.
“I love Laura!” said the recipient, halfway between a squeal and sigh, her accent all Chicago.
I’d looked the other way, pinching a smile between my lips, realizing I’d never hear the same conversation in Seattle. Is there a correlation between liking Laura Bush and loving ribs?
Of course the answer is no. That’s just the excuse I created for myself, in the moment, when I felt like the only kid whose mom wouldn’t send cupcakes to school for her birthday. I know plenty of liberals who would go to great lengths for a good plate of ribs. I’m sure there are native Seattleites, even, whose idea of a heaven is a full rack, no matter which incarnation of sauce is slathered on top.
For now, though, I’ll have to learn to be okay with not being one of them. I’ll eat ribs when the mood strikes, when the sauce is right for me. When Chris makes them, or when I finally get around to that Seattle version.
And maybe I’ll go back to RibFest next year, with a little more determination, a bigger dash of patriotism, and a lot more dental floss. Maybe the election will change the map enough that I’ll stop pigeonholing a food I didn’t grow up eating. We’ll start our relationship from scratch.
I’m still not convinced I can’t fall in love with ribs. But if I don’t, well, I’ll just make sure Lauren’s cooking dinner.
My friend Lauren Fischer’s German heritage comes out swinging each summer with picnic classics that skip the mayonnaise-laden dressings so typical of hot weather fare. These recipes are bound together by the flavor of celery seed; I love how it lends crunch and flavor and a hint of spiciness. I made both salads in about an hour (putting the potatoes on first to boil, then making the slaw, then finishing the potato salad), so it seems fitting to give you both.
Fischer Family Coleslaw (PDF)
When I was making Grandma Fischer’s tangy, celery-spiked slaw for the first time, NPR was reporting on childhood obesity, and I decided to cut the sugar by half – we didn’t miss it. The slaw is delicious straight out of the bowl, but would also be great on a warm barbecued pork sandwich.
TIME: 20 minutes
MAKES: 8 servings
1/2 cup canola oil
2 tablespoons sugar
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
3/4 teaspoon celery seed
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/4 large red cabbage (about 1 pound)
1/4 medium green cabbage (about 1/2 pound)
2 large carrots, peeled
In the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the chopping blade, whirl the oil, sugar, vinegar, onion, salt, mustard, celery seed, and pepper until pureed. Transfer to a large mixing bowl.
Using the shredding disc, shred the cabbages and carrots, and add to the dressing. Stir to combine, and season to taste with additional salt and pepper, if necessary. Let sit 3 hours before serving.
Lauren’s German Potato Salad (PDF)
The dressing for the Fischers’ bacon-studded potato salad is unique: It starts as a roux, flour mixed with the drippings leftover from frying bacon, and builds into a thick, celery-spiked sauce that coats the hot potatoes with flavor without making them gummy. I imagine the leftovers would be fantastic formed into patties, seared in a hot pan, and topped with a poached egg, for breakfast, but so far, leftovers haven’t been an option.
It’s important that you add the hot dressing to hot potatoes – I sliced the potatoes next to the stove while the onions cooked.
TIME: 20 minutes active time
MAKES: 8 servings
3 pounds small potatoes (I used firm white Yukon Golds)
6 slices bacon
2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 teaspoon celery seed
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
3/4 cup finely chopped onion
3/4 cup water
1/3 cup white vinegar
Place the potatoes in a large saucepan and fill with cold water to cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until tender (15-30 minutes, depending on the size of your potatoes).
In a large skillet, fry the bacon over medium heat until crisp. While the bacon cooks, mix the flour, sugar, salt, celery seed, and pepper together in a small bowl.
Transfer the bacon to paper towels to drain. Add the onion to the bacon fat and cook, stirring, until the onions are tender and golden brown, about 7 minutes. Add the flour mixture to the onions, and cook, stirring, for a minute or two. Slowly add the water and vinegar, stirring constantly. Bring the sauce back to a bubble and cook, stirring, for another minute or so, until thick and creamy.
Meanwhile, slice the potatoes, transfer to a mixing bowl, and crumble the bacon into the bowl. Add the warm dressing, and stir to coat all ingredients well. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature.