For years, Lou Cantolupo would coax magic from his backyard smoker for the party he and his wife held for relatives and friends on the Fourth of July.
Fortunate to be among the chosen gaggle, I’d park in front of his house in Northwest Washington and follow my nose across the lawn, hypnotized by the wafting scent of slow-smoked pork shoulder, brisket, sausage and ribs.
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.
Regardless of the type you get, make sure they’re fresh. After getting them home, opening them up and waving away a foul odor, I have taken ribs back to even high-end grocery stores. Some stores get ribs frozen, others fresh. If you are buying fresh, make certain you know the delivery days. You don’t want to buy a rack on Tuesday morning that came in on Friday. These days, if ordering fresh ones from the meat counter, I always ask to smell them first.
A great thing about ribs is that they are forgiving. Rub them with seasonings. Plunge them into marinade. Mop them with sauce. Grill ’em, smoke ’em, do pretty much whatever you want with ’em. Ribs can take a lot of what you dish out. It is their compliant nature.
That doesn’t mean you can treat them willy-nilly. Abuse them by cooking them too fast or by not keeping your fire steady, and they’ll turn tough and dry on you.
“The key is temperature,” says Lonnie “Bubba” Smith. “Make sure the temperature is uniform.”
Smith ought to know. His family-and-friends team, Bubba Grills, has won numerous awards and, most recently, took first prize this year in the ribs category at the Memphis in May barbecue contest, one of the biggest such competitions in the country. The 49-year-old engineer, who manufactures his own line of grills, learned to barbecue while growing up in Georgia, where he still lives. “I started out watching my great-uncles raise the pigs, shoot ’em on Saturday morning and put ’em on the grill till Sunday,” he says.
His advice? “Be a sponge,” he says. “Soak up everything that everybody does. We keep a journal of everything we do. You have to take notes, and go on what worked and what didn’t.”
But as exacting as he is, he acknowledges that cooking ribs is also about feel. “It’s an art and a science,” he says. “The ambient temperature outside makes a big difference. A 100-degree day is a lot different from a 70-degree day, and a 70-degree day is a whole lot different from a 50-degree day.”
On Monday, Smith will be with his family and friends having — what else? — a barbecue. No matter how hot it is outdoors, Smith will cook the ribs.
Lou Cantolupo, meanwhile, won’t be holding backyard court this Fourth. Last summer he moved to France, where he lives in an apartment and is prohibited from grilling or smoking. And he’s none too happy about it. When he got an e-mail from a store that carries American products, featuring recipes for things such as red, white and blue cake, he had one reaction: “Oh, man. I want to barbecue.”