Chappy author finds success with BBQ ribs

Nelson Sigelman: Photo by Ralph Stewart
Times news editor and chef-for-a-day Nelson Sigelman checks the text for last-minute grilling tips. Photo by Ralph Stewart

By Nelson Sigelman - June 29, 2006

The cookbook occupies a unique literary niche. It is a form of literature that may never be read but still sells and does not rely on the literary tastes of the public for its success.

As long as there is a Father's Day and Mother's Day, while the courts allow people to give Christmas presents and individuals live long enough to make finding a birthday gift a chore, cookbooks will continue to sell.

In many homes across America the cookbook is a ubiquitous, dust collecting shelf ornament. Even if someone's highest culinary achievement was a microwave cheese and noodle dinner, he or she is sure to own several cookbooks.

Steve Raichlen, a resident of Miami, Fla., and Chappaquiddick, has hit on a winning formula for cookbook success. He writes cookbooks that people buy for themselves, give as gifts and actually find time to use about barbecue and grilling.

His latest book is "Ribs, Ribs, Outrageous Ribs" (Workman Publishing, New York, 2006. $12.95. 298 pages). It is the latest book in a series of very successful books on the subjects of cooking, grilling and barbecue.

BBQ Ribs: Photo by Ralph Stewart
With a hungry newspaper staff to feed, a rib rack helped to stretch the limited grill space. Photo by Ralph Stewart

According to the considerable press surrounding Mr. Raichlen's ascendancy to the top of the barbecue food pyramid, his cookbooks, which include the popular "Barbecue! Bible," have sold millions of copies and been translated into dozens of languages.

His literary success has spawned a PBS television series, Barbecue University at the Greenbrier, a swank resort located in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., where this year Mr. Raichlen will provide six four-day seminars for folks who aspire to do more than throw a couple of burgers on the gas grill - at a tuition cost of $3,000 per person.

My barbecuing credentials are fairly limited. I have charred my share of burgers, chicken and hot dogs beyond recognition as food items; I have singed all the hair off my hands and arms on more than one occasion; and, thanks to a handy garden hose, I narrowly avoided a neighborhood conflagration.

What I know, I picked up in backyards and restaurants across America. But always willing to learn, I took on the assignment of preparing lunch for the entire Times staff, guided step by step by a soon-to-be-barbecue-sauce-smeared copy of Ribs.

BBQ Supplies: Photo by Ben Scott
A collection of ingredients used for making "First-Timer's Ribs on the barbecue. Photo by Ben Scott

Mr. Raichlen's newest book contains 99 recipes for cooking baby back pork ribs, beef ribs, and lamb ribs, although most of the focus is on the succulent baby backs. As with most cookbooks, there is a mix of recipes. Some are local staples found in barbecue hotspots like Memphis, and others are certain to satisfy the adventurous culinary explorer.

The first few chapters lead the novice through the basics of the grilling process. There is much handy advice ranging from how to set up a grill to the various tools on the market that will help any backyard pit-master.

Mr. Raichlen favors the indirect method of grilling, in which the meat does not sit directly over the heat. He prefers to use charcoal as opposed to gas grills to bring out the true barbecue flavor in any meat.

I selected the first recipe in the book, "First-Timer's Ribs," on the basis of simplicity. The advance prep time was listed as "none" and I liked that.

How Island pork rib prices rack up

A summer feast of Island-bought ribs is not for the budget-conscious. But summer eating is all about the experience, and while hot dogs may be cheaper and simpler to cook, they are not as pleasurable to eat as a rack of barbecued ribs slathered with sauce.

Not all ribs are created equal, and the cost per pound is often determined by the source, on the pig and at the market. "Ribs, Ribs, Outrageous Ribs," Steve Raichlen's latest book on the subject of cooking ribs, begins with 11 pages on rib anatomy.

"Top loin ribs," more commonly called baby back ribs, come from the section of the pig nearest the backbone where the meat is most tender. Baby back ribs are the most popular rib on the barbecue circuit, according to the book.

"Spareribs," bigger, fatter, and tougher, come from the lower section of the rib cage. Mr. Raichlen says pit masters love them because they are more flavorful than baby backs.

Pork rib prices vary among Island markets. In general, baby back ribs are more costly than spareribs, which appear to my untrained eyes to simply be labeled pork ribs in local market meat cases.

By way of comparison, on Saturday, June 17, braving traffic and crazed off-Island shoppers struck dumb by local prices, I made a circuit of Island super markets to compare prices for pork ribs and baby back ribs. My route took me to the Stop and Shop stores in Vineyard Haven and Edgartown, Cronig's Market in Vineyard Haven, and Reliable Self Serve Market in Oak Bluffs.

I also poked my head into the Shiretown Meats next to the Stop and Shop on Upper Main Street in Edgartown, where a slab labeled "baby back ribs" sold for $6.99 per pound.

Not every market stocked both baby back ribs and spare ribs. I suppose that even when comparing pork ribs to pork ribs there is also the risk of comparing apples to oranges in that meat names do vary. For example, are "Hormel back ribs" the same as "Indiana pork loin back ribs" and would both qualify as "baby back" ribs?

Sales and local specials can also affect the price. For example, Stop and Shop branded pork spare ribs at the Stop and Shop in Vineyard Haven, usually $4.29 per pound, were on sale for $2.49 with a Stop and Shop card, but there were no sale-priced pork ribs available in the Edgartown store - only back ribs.

And then there is off-Island. A large slab of pork loin back ribs sitting in my freezer purchased this winter at BJ's, the warehouse member store, cost $2.99 per pound.

  • Stop and Shop (VH)
    Hormel back ribs $5.99 lb.
    S&S fresh pork spare ribs $4.29 lb. ($2.49 lb.
    with card)
  • Stop and Shop (Edg.)
    S&S pork loin back ribs $5.99 lb.
  • Cronig's
    Indiana Kitchen pork loin back ribs $6.99 lb.
    Farmland extra tender St. Louis style pork
    spareribs $6.69 lb.
    Farmland pork spareribs $3.99 lb.
  • Reliable
    Pork spare ribs $2.99

I suppose that serious barbecue purists are like Trekkies (what's the Klingon word for pig?). The true barbecue purist has all of the ingredients on hand needed to make a good rub or barbecue sauce from scratch.

I did not, so my prep time included waiting 20 minutes to get out of the check-out line at the Reliable Market with my ribs during the Saturday afternoon rush and the time I spent searching the aisles at the Stop and Shop for stuff like sweet paprika (which I never found) as opposed to plain paprika.

A newspaper office is not a good place to cook ribs over a fire. In fact, I think a cave is preferable.

I set up two borrowed well-used Weber grills, the classic black dome cooking machines found in backyards across America, in a small courtyard behind the newspaper and loaded both grills with Cowboy Brand "100 % natural lump" hardwood charcoal purchased at Vineyard Cash and Carry for $16.58.

I soaked the charcoal with lighter fluid and threw in a match. Then I waited for the Tisbury fire department to show up based on a report of volumes of smoke coming from the space between the newspaper and boat yard.

I began the whole process of preparing and cooking the ribs about 10 am with the intention of serving them for lunch. I began to sense a disaster in the making about noon when I still had not thrown one bone on the grill.

I had six racks of ribs: three spareribs and three baby back ribs and not enough room even with two grills to use the indirect method. A quick trip to LeRoux produced a rib rack, a product designed for cooking ribs upright.

I prepared the ribs according to the directions. I removed the thin papery membrane (a good tip I hadn't known) from the backs as instructed, prepared a rub for the meat, a mop sauce for basting the ribs and my knuckles, and a tasty lemon brown sugar barbecue sauce.

The indirect method of cooking is a slow process. The coals are pushed off to the side and the ribs cook in the middle of the grill over a drip pan set in among the coals. The goal is to cook the ribs slowly without burning them. One mistake many amateur barbecue cooks make is to slather barbecue sauce on the ribs too early and end up with a coating of charred sauce. The sauce is only added at the end and there is even some debate among purists whether good ribs need it at all.

"The idea," writes Mr. Raichlen, "is to use the sauce as a sort of light varnish for the ribs, rather than a thick gloppy coating that camouflages the meat."

Under normal circumstances, ribs can be left cooking with only brief attention until the end of the process. But it is stressful to cook with the lingering fear of burning down your place of employment.

The entire cooking process took about 90 minutes. I served lunch, which included three large bags of potato chips, about 3 pm and engaged in an experiment of sorts to see if the Times eaters could distinguish among ribs and rubs.

On a table in our kitchen, I set out three large platters of ribs. One platter contained baby back ribs and another spare ribs cooked according to the recipe. The third platter was a placebo. It contained both baby back and spare ribs rubbed with "Emeril's Rib Rub."

Times employees were asked to rate the three plates of ribs on a scale of 1-10. They went about the job with relish. They are enthusiastically judgmental.

The overall favorite was the plate of baby back ribs cooked according to the recipe, scoring mostly eights and nines. Ralph Stewart, Times photographer and something of food critic, decided to add a comment: "Flavor stands on its own. The rub and spices are pungent with a strong onion, garlic smoky flavor." But resident Times chef, Anna Marie D'Addarie, gave that plate a score of four.

The pork ribs did not fare badly, coming in with mostly sixes and sevens and an off-the-chart 12 from Tamar Russell in production. Reporter Aubrey Gibavic wrote: "A bit fatty. Nice smoky flavor."

The mixed plate of baby backs and spareribs coated with the store rub scored in the five and six range, although editor Doug Cabral thought they rated a 9. As we all know, there is no accounting for taste.

In a telephone conversation Monday from his home in Miami, Steve Raichlen and his wife were anticipating spending the Fourth of July at their house on Chappaquiddick with their son, a chef in New York, and daughter, a nutritionist in Miami. He said his first introduction to the Vineyard was when he was working as a restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. Once a year the magazine reported on the Cape and islands.

He and his wife fell in love with Chappaquiddick from the moment they first set foot on it and love to visit much of the year. The island provides the couple a sanctuary in what is a very busy public life.

"What Chappy offers us," he said, "is a chance to completely crash, collapse, get away from everybody and everything and recharge our batteries."

What some people find to be inconveniences, he and his wife think are pluses. "Everything that people don't like about Chappy, we love about Chappy. How hard it is to get there; how inconvenient it is; you have to line up for the ferry - we love all that."