Barbecue pork spareribs are to Chow Towners what steamed lobsters are to New Englanders — It’s what we eat.
Barbecue contest judges, backyard partyers, picnickers, restaurant customers — they all love ribs. While lamb ribs, mutton ribs and beef ribs have their Chow Town fans, the majority vote goes to pork spareribs.
In Memphis the ribs of choice are grilled or smoked pork loin “babyback” ribs. Charlie Vergos’ famous Rendezvous sells box car loads, wet or dry, yearly.
While there’s still an abundance of Kansas City-style ribs in Chow Town barbecue restaurants, especially in the older established favorites, many Chow Town barbecue joints now serve St. Louis-style ribs.
What’s the difference? Kansas City-style ribs aren’t trimmed to a rectangular shape like the St. Louis cut. It’s a matter of looks, not cooking method. Since many of our newer restaurants have a competition pitmaster pedigree, and since appearance is one of three important judging criteria, contest cooks go for neatly trimmed ribs.
What happens to the trimmings? They don’t go to waste. The breast bone is smoked and cut into “riblets” or rib tips. Smoked rib meat scraps are also good in pit beans.
Johnny White showed me how he preps his Kansas City-style ribs. He buys prepackaged ribs untrimmed. After removing the slabs from their packaging he puts them on a prep table in the kitchen and applies his own secret formula rub on all surfaces.
That’s it. No trimming. I asked why he doesn’t remove the membrane on the bony side of each slab. Contest cooks call it “skinning” the ribs to allow more smoke to penetrate the meat and to not risk losing points from judges.
“It goes back to the days when we would hang slabs of ribs with hooks in our brick pits,” Johnny said. The membrane holds the ribs together. That is especially important when gravity pull is a factor.
Chef Paul Kirk and I packed a wealth of rib basics in our book, America’s Best Ribs, covering prep and recipes for pork, beef, lamb and bison ribs, with color photos, illustrations and some fun stories. Did you hear the one about Doc Gillis and Joe Phelps with Willie Nelson in Honeysuckle Rose II?
Ardie Davis founded a sauce contest on his backyard patio in 1984 that became the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub & Baste contest. He is a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and an inductee into the KCBS Hall of Flame. He has been interviewed on food shows and writes for barbecue-related publications. His most recent release is “America’s Best BBQ Homestyle: What Champions Cook in Their Own Backyards.”