On the Zen of barbecue

Inner peace to world peace, one charcoal at a time

Vegans and women, do not turn the page. There is more here than a treatise on the hard-wired Cro-Magnon summer pleasures of seared flesh. Although the primitives may have seen the light about cooking with flame by way of a meaty haunch zapped by lightning or forest fire, the fine art of fire art now encompasses not only a world of explosive flavors, but also measurable social consciousness. Gathering around food over flame, separate cultures have bonded, and neighbors become friends. It’s a wise soul who adheres to ole philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s sentiment “Don’t think—cook!”

To begin this summery summary, remember that grilling is high heat, from 500 to 800 degrees Fahrenheit. It is done over live flames and is a relatively speedy process. The high temperature seals in the flavorful juices by searing. This is the backyard pleasure of most weekend warriors. That is, after you raise the lid of your trusty old Weber Kettle grill to face the fact that you had too much conversation and wine and forgot to clean the grate from a few nights ago. So, grab a fresh glass, preheat the grill and then scrape it with a long-handled wire brush or metal spatula. Brush the clean, hot grate with olive oil. I use a folded-up paper towel dipped in the oil. Got your raggedy, bent-in the-back-pocket ball cap on? It’s hot out there. Make a toast. Proceed.

As far as I’m concerned, you just haven’t scored until you have savored roasted fennel, red peppers, seeded and split jalapeños, or a simple fragrant onion off the grill. Nature’s goodness abounds; the hidden flavors are released. The preparation is simple: Brush with virgin olive oil, season with coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper and cook for four to eight minutes a side. The superb simplicity requires a toast. Really.

For a Caribbean joie de vivre approach, visit Celestin’s Restaurant & Voodou Lounge and order the “salmon tropicale” dish: fresh salmon marinated, grilled and topped with mango relish and black beans, plus corn cakes, red beans and tomato-avocado salad. After I tried it, I found myself racing home to find my Boukman Eksperyans CD from 1991—the Haitian classic Vodou Adjae—and dance in the kitchen around my last bottle of Blind Betty’s “Blind In the Rind.”

Now, for those unfamiliar with the joys of Blind Betty’s, it’s a hot Caribbean fruit-and-habañero concoction. Mine comes graciously delivered to me by my cousin, who was married on the beach in St. John in the Virgin Islands a few decades ago and returns there with her hubby every five years to renew vows and stock up on cases of the stuff for pouring over fish, fowl, kabobs—you name it. On the label, there is a wicked mental lizard babe, wearing sunglasses and fishnet stockings with a Carmen Miranda fruit headdress and mamboing with a giant orange slice.

Just as shoes make the man, secret marinades and sauces make your reputation in the realm of barbecue. It doesn’t matter whether you’re working with fresh vegetables or, to borrow the name of one Southside Chicago grocery, Moo and Oink. It’s still the sauce that counts.

Take, for instance, Stubb, the guy in Lubbock, Texas, who now adorns the labels of Stubb’s Bar-B-Q Sauce on Raley’s grocery shelves. Stubb was not yet a national marketing phenom back in the late 1970s, when I booked Chicago and Texas blues bands with him at his place, Stubb’s Bar-B-Q. But his glass jars of homemade, hand-labeled sauces were already the stuff of music-business legend. And here’s where we revisit our theme of barbecue as cultural diplomacy: Stubb’s place in Lubbock was one of the first, during the volatile 1960s, where blacks and whites played music together. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Joe Ely, Albert Collins, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Muddy Waters—all these guys played there in his 75-seat room. Stubb passed on a few years back, long after he and his place had become legendary.

Sacramento has its own variation on the Stubb’s legacy—that down-home notion of food as an equalizer, a slow-cooked, common experience that can bridge supposedly disparate cultures—in the fondly remembered Western Rib House. Located out on Routier Road and Folsom Boulevard, it was run by a cowboy character named J.D. Moncrief. His son, my Curtis Park friend Jack Moncrief, told me how his family brought the tradition from Texas to California.

“We lived in Paris, Texas. In the late 1940s, every Sunday, it was very traditional for the white men of Paris to go into the black side of town and sit around with the blacks, wait ’til the barbecue was done, then bring it back to their families. It was very social. All the leaders of the town, black and white, would sit around for the afternoon and powwow. You would sit down around barbecue; play music; talk politics, the price of cotton, stolen cattle, who was looking at which women—it was a segregated town,” Jack explained. “See, there was no real police force. You had to sit down with the powers that be that ran the whole place. You would work out all the little problems you were having around town with the leaders—all around barbecue.”

It was there that Jack’s father, J.D., befriended an older black gentleman, then in his 70s, who had two wonderful recipes which J.D. bought for $100.With a handshake, and the two recipes written on a paper bag, J.D. promised not to compete with him in Paris. “There was segregation back then, but there was a moral code of conduct that was very Southern. My dad always told me that your most powerful tool was your handshake,” Jack said.

Later, the opportunity to present barbecue in Sacramento came up when J.D. purchased a piece of property in Rancho Cordova that had an old brick D’Agostini Winery and the last standing original adobe Pony Express station in the Sierra. He turned it into a barbecue house. “Since they would not allow open-pit barbecuing in Sacramento, my dad invented these rotisserie machines, the Roll-O-Pit. It was a patented invention. Willie Brown would have my dad cater once a week at the Capitol. It was a big business—all my cousins and I grew up in the restaurant and catering business,” Jack said.

But the secret sauces? “One was a very vinegary barbecue sauce, and the other was a sweet Coca Cola sauce. You can make either spicy, but the base of those sauces was vinegar and cola. It takes two days to make these sauces. Plus, you have to leave the soda sitting out for a few days to get all the fizz out.”

The Western Rib House remained for 25 years. But, in 1985, the lease ended, the owner sold the property to a developer, and the city of Rancho Cordova bulldozed it. Jack remembered, “Much like the Alhambra Theatre here, neither city saw aesthetic value in anything.” (The name “Western Rib House” and some recipes subsequently were sold and currently are used by a West Sacramento restaurant.)

There are still places in town that have their tomato-based sauces patently down. On a daily basis, my favorite is Sandra Dee’s.

This is classic soul food, the kind I remember from Chicago, Memphis and other notorious blues towns. You know you are in the right place when they ask you how hot you want the barbecue, and you say, “Well, a little to the left of medium hot”—and they get it just right. Plus, the collard greens make me, as Emeril Lagasse says, “happy, happy.”

And, for that once-a-week pig-out (do not pardon the pun), Jamie’s Bar & Grill has an all-you-can-eat Friday barbecue, with ribs, chicken, hot links, jalapeño cornbread and potato salad. The baked beans had me in a blackstrap-molasses tizzy, but the power-that-be named Vicky says there’s not a drop in them. I must go back and taste test again.

By many accounts, Everett & Jones BBQ in Oakland, Modesto and Berkeley is one of the most authentic barbecue joints around. “They have that vinegar recipe, and they have that big, big barbecue pit,” said Jack, laughing. Good news for all of us up in here is that Mary Everett, one of the owners, is opening a Sacramento location this spring in Southgate Plaza.

Illustration By Elwood Smith

True barbecuing, the very slow cooking with low, indirect heat (250-300 degrees Fahrenheit) requires the ultimate in planning and patience. As chef Big Mike Balma put it, “Think of grilling as a butane torch. Think of barbecuing as a tiny match.” Balma, a major keeper of the blues flame in this area by virtue of his nonprofit Sacramento Heritage Festival (which sadly remains in absentia under protest again this year), continues to feed savvy blues-fan masses who attend his very fine, down-home “Blues Across America” shindigs. This summer, his August 11 date at the Blue Lamp will feature the raucous Chicago house-rockin’ of Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials. To set off the music properly, Balma will offer his famed barbecued chicken, tri-tip and ribs; succulent grilled salmon; and, for dessert, his drop-down-on-your-knees-in-praise sweet potato pie.

Ultimately, all agree that barbecue comes down to the gathering—the ancient cultural ritual of fire making, the tending to food as a rite of passage and relying on the fat to keep the meat moist. It’s a slow process, one that gives us all the more time to chew the fat, to talk of things as they are, or—better still—as they might yet be.

’Q to-dos

• The second annual Rhythm & Ribs Festival

Raley Field, September 24-26, 2004. This widely popular event will become a staple in Sacramento. It features nationally touring acts plus popular local artists and top grill jockeys from across the West Coast.

• Barbeque Blues

On the House of Blues label, this album will get you in the mood, with gems like “Saturday Night Fish Fry” by Louis Jordan, “Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer) by Bessie Smith, “Red Beans” by Professor Longhair, “Potato Chips” by Slim Gaillard, “Cole Slaw” by Jesse Stone, “Chicken, Gravy and Biscuits” by Lil’ Ed and the Blues Imperials, and “Too Much Barbeque” by Big Twist & the Mellow Fellows. Apart from missing “Polk Salad Annie” by Tony Joe White, this is a damned good compilation.

• Blind Betty’s

Go to www.blindbetty.com for “100% pure sunshine in a bottle.”

• Blue Lamp

1400 Alhambra Boulevard, (916) 455-3400.

• Celestin’s Restaurant & Voodou Lounge

1815 K Street, (916) 444-2423.

• Everett & Jones BBQ

7271 Franklin Boulevard, (916) 427-7935.

• Jamie’s Bar & Grill

427 Broadway, (916) 442-4044.

• Sandra Dee’s Bar-B-Que & Seafood

601 15th Street, (916) 448-6375.

• Virtual Lubbock

Here’s the perfect article peppered with stories of Stubb’s belief in humanity, old blues music and barbecue: www.virtualubbock.com/stoCSStubbMemories.html.