Charlie had married one of my grandmother’s sisters, and they owned a lake home next door to my grandparents. In their back yard was a large brick barbeque pit my grandfather (a brick mason specializing in barbeque pits) had built for them. I knew it was there, but I had never seen it used, and I always thought it was going to waste. Little did I know, when Charlie cooked, it was all about the barbeque.
We didn’t have pork very often in our family. It was usually too expensive for us, so we raised our chickens, and a steer from time to time. In my travels with the company I worked for, I began to appreciate barbeque in forms other than beef and chicken, with pork being one of my great surprises. When I joined in for what would be my last big family gathering, I was astounded to see Charlie cooking pork ribs on that barbeque.
The air was filled with the fragrance of pork scented post oak smoke, and my stomach decided it was time to eat right now, but Charlie knew what he was doing and there would be no rushing the ribs to completion. The process took nearly 5 hours, and Charlie wouldn’t even consider shaving off just a single minute of time. He would serve them perfectly cooked, or he would throw them away. Simple as that. So I waited.
My grandmother and her sisters knew just what to do for everyone while we waited. At about 30 minute intervals, something was set out for everyone to nibble on and give us some momentary distraction. A few fried oysters, a plate of cheese and crackers, some Fritos with Dog Food Dip, roasted nuts, and even some fried pies. But nothing stopped the hunger. As long as we could smell the ribs cooking, we were hungry.
About three hours or so into the process, Charlie raised the big lid on the barbeque and pulled out all 30 racks of ribs and laid them onto a big table beside the pit. I thought it was time to eat, but NoOo. He grabbed a big paint brush to coat the ribs with his special sauce before placing them back in the pit for another 2 hours. I actually thought he was doing this just to tease me. He knew those ribs were done enough to eat at that point, and he knew that I knew it also, but back into the pit they went.
When those ribs were finally finished, Charlie removed them to a cutting board where I was given the job of cutting them in half to serve. That meant I had the privilege of sampling each rack to make certain there was nothing wrong with it. I took my job seriously.
I have never forgotten those ribs, and they are still the standard by which I judge all pork ribs. I’ve had good pork ribs from many places over the many years since that day, and some were every bit the equal of Charlie’s ribs, but none have ever been better. His were simple ribs with a slightly complex basting sauce, but they were pull apart tender, and never ever touched by a flame.
This takes a big grill for indirect cooking, but the best way to go is with a large offset smoker.
Serves 6 to 8
2 quarts or more oak chips, chunks, or logs if possible
1/2 cup Kosher salt
1 tablespoon fresh coarse-ground black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cayenne pepper
12 pounds meaty pork loin back ribs (4 to 6 racks)
Charlie’s Sauce (recipe follows)
Soak oak chips or chunks (not logs) in water to cover for 30 minutes up to 1 hour. Drain well.
Prepare a charcoal grill by lighting fire at one end only or in the offset box of a smoker. When coals turn white, spread about 1/3 of the oak over the coals. Bring the temperature to 250F.
In a small bowl, mix together salt, black pepper, and red pepper for dry rub.
Remove the membrane from the backside of the ribs and pat the dry rub into the ribs. Place on the grill away from the fire. Cover and smoke 3 hours, maintaining the temperature at about 225F to 250F and turning ribs every hour; add more soaked chips every hour.
After 3 hours baste both sides of the ribs with Charlie’s Sauce. Cover and cook until very tender, basting and turning occasionally, about 1 ½ to 2 hours. Cut ribs in half to serve.
Makes about 5 cups.
1 tablespoon mild smoked paprika
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
2 teaspoons chili powder (use Pendry’s if you can find it, otherwise use Gebhardt’s)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon bacon drippings (or melted butter)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
4 to 6 cloves garlic, minced
1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 cup beer (Shiner Bock, Tecate, or Original Coors)*
1/4 cup ketchup
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
¼ cup steak sauce (I like Heinz, but A1 is also good)
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
Hot sauce to taste
2 cups beef stock
Mix the paprika, black pepper, chili powder, and cumin in a small bowl.
In a one or two quart saucepan, melt the bacon drippings or butter and slowly cook the onion over medium heat until translucent.
Add the garlic, bell pepper, and the spice mix. Stir, and cook for about four to five minutes, and then add the stock and the rest of the ingredients. Stir until well blended. Simmer for about 15 minutes. Allow to cool for 15 to 30 minutes, then place in a blender. Process until somewhat smooth. Use as a basting sauce for pork ribs. Can also be warmed and served on the side for dipping. (Since it has not been used on raw ribs, the same sauce used for basting can be used for dipping.)
*Charlie originally used Griesedieck Beer until the mid- or late-fifties. At that time he switched to Falstaff Beer, and sometime in the mid-sixties he started using Jax Beer. When Jax Brewery closed the doors, he switched to Pearl. Good luck finding that. Original Coors brings the recipe close to Charlie’s original taste, but I like to use Shiner Bock when I can find it. Otherwise I use Tecate. I’ve tried many beers over the years, but most don’t taste right in this recipe. Stick with Shiner Bock, Tecate, or Original Coors, and you won’t be disappointed.
Dog Food Dip
Makes about 6 to 7 cups.
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 pounds ground beef
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
1 cup roasted corn kernels
1 (10 3/4-ounce) can condensed cream of mushroom soup
1 pound cubed Velveeta cheese
1/2 cup chopped pickled jalapeno chilies, well drained
In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Cook the beef with the onions until the beef is browned and the onions are soft and translucent. Drain the excess fat and oil, but leave the beef and onions in the skillet. Add the roasted corn and stir for 1 minute.
Stir in the mushroom soup, and then mix in the Velveeta and jalapenos. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring until everything is well blended, 10 to 12 minutes.
Can be served immediately, but the flavor improves if covered and placed in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight and slowly reheated before serving. A small slow cooker works perfect for this. If the dip has thickened too much, add some water two or three teaspoons at a time and mix well. It’s easy to over thin this, so add the water slowly, mix well, and wait before adding more.