Of the glistening meats he’d pile onto platters, none so enraptured me as the racks of sweat-dimpled, mahogany-hued spareribs. Before biting into one, I would regard it for a second or two, lost in reverie: This royal bone, this meat of majesty, this Pork Rib.
And then I would tear into its juicy, smoky, tender flesh like a crazed dog.
Chances are you know a Lou, want to be a Lou, or are a Lou. More people cook out on Independence Day than on any other day of the year, according to a 2010 survey by the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, a trade group. And more of them are cooking adventurously.
“It’s not just for flipping hamburgers anymore,” says Leslie Wheeler, the group’s spokeswoman.
I’m glad. Because to me, nothing says the Fourth quite like ribs. You can grill your burgers and your hot dogs, you can carry your grandma’s peach cobbler to a gingham-covered picnic table in an American flag dress, you can even blow the “Star Spangled Banner” into half-drunk cans of Budweiser. But if you want culinary fireworks, ribs are the thing.
It just so happens that they are also the uniter-not-a-divider. In a nation torn asunder by partisan bickering over Memphis versus North Carolina versus Texas versus Kansas City barbecue styles, ribs bring us together as the one item on every region’s menu.
With all the different types and cooking treatments — dry, wet, grilled or smoked — you can always get what you want. But you first have to know what you need.
What you need might be a changed perspective. Forget all that fall-off-the-bone malarkey. If it slides clean off the bone, why have a bone? That’s baby food, not real food. Gnawing meat off a bone? That’s real. Primal, yes. But real.
The best ribs are tender but not submissive. They make you work just a bit for their reward. What you are aiming for is a juicy rib with a little tug. Some chew helps you savor a rib’s deep, rich pork flavor.
Basically, there are three varieties: baby backs, spare ribs and St. Louis-style ribs.
“Baby back” is the common term for top loin ribs, which start just below the backbone and extend down about four or five inches. They are succulent and mild in flavor. (Actual baby backs, which come from young hogs, are far less common.)
Spareribs are more flavorful than baby backs. They’re also tougher, but when cooked properly they yield the perfect combination of flavor and texture. About three or four inches longer than baby backs, they include the gnarly tips, a flap of meat known as the skirt or brisket and a triangular end piece called the point.
St. Louis-style ribs are spareribs trimmed of the tips, skirt and point. They’re deep in flavor, but if you like to gnaw, you’ll miss those tips. The rack is fairly rectangular in shape, thus easy to flip, move and cook uniformly.