A taste of California history: Santa Maria Style barbecue

Hey, Southerners. I love you, but the barbecue trail doesn’t really end at the Texas border. California has its own tradition, and it can be found in the heart of the Central Coast wine region. As a native Californian, I throw down the gauntlet in the temple of meat. Our beef barbecue doesn’t hide beneath sauce; it stands proudly on its own, adorned only by its residual juices. That takes balls. And speaking of balls, I should add that our barbecue historically comes with a side dish that, well…just keep reading.

Since the 1850′s, Santa Maria Style Barbecue has been a rancho celebration or post-cattle branding staple. After the Mexican-American War, when Mexico ceded California to the United States, Spanish and Mexican colonists and soldiers (“Californios”), established ranchos along California’s rich, central coastal grasslands.

Their heritage merged to form a true California cuisine, one that incorporated the corn, tomatoes, beans, and peppers of the New World with the beef, lamb, and olive oil of the Old World. The parilla, or grill, became the province of the vaqueros (cowboys) and rancheros (landowners). The mild, Mediterranean climate fostered a tradition of outdoor cooking still beloved by Californians today. Barbecues became a way to get down and party with one’s family and neighbors, to mark special occasions, and to partake of the culinary offerings that reminded these early settlers of their homelands.

[Photo credit: Flickr user yaelbeeri]

Only top sirloin or tri-tip steak can be used for Santa Maria Style Barbecue (depending upon where you do your research, it’s variously called Santa Maria bbq, Santa Maria Barbecue, etc.: I defer to the Santa Maria Chamber of Commerce version). Tri-tip is named for the small, triangular muscle off the bottom sirloin, from which it’s cut. It’s a fairly juicy piece of meat, with a bit of chew to it; it can be difficult to find outside of California.

The meat is seasoned only with salt, pepper, and garlic salt, and hung on steel rods, before being grilled over native red oak (originally, the meat was cooked in a pit). The accompaniments include tiny, pink, native pinquito beans, salsa cruda, and tossed green salad. The meat is served thinly sliced, with plenty of toasted, buttered, sweet French bread to sop up the juices.

I grew up eating Santa Maria barbecue because I come from a horse ranching family. We frequently attended rodeos and spring cattle gatherings, the successful completion of which are celebrated with a big barbecue. I recall watching the California equivalent of pit masters firing up massive grills fashioned out of halved oil drums, then rigging the hunks of meat on their skewers.

Years later, when my brother was attending college in San Luis Obispo, he would bring slabs of tri-tip home whenever he visited us. My favorite part were the salty, juicy, crusty bits of fat shaved from the grilled meat. My dad, himself a former wrangler, would present them to us on the tip of a knife, in between sneaking pieces for himself (I’m pretty sure this behavior had absolutely nothing to do with his colon cancer diagnosis 18 years ago). For days afterward, my mom would add tri-tip sandwiches to my lunch bag- a welcome respite from warm, soggy PB & J’s.

My first experience with an authentic California rancho barbecue occurred when I was ten. A former vet school classmate of my dad’s invited us up to his cattle ranch outside of Santa Maria, to participate in the spring cattle gathering. We spent a cold, dirty, exhausting weekend riding over rolling green hills, rounding up the cattle to be vaccinated, castrated, and branded.

Work done, it was time to party. The old oil drums were heaped with red oak, and as is the tradition with brandings, the calf “fries,” or testicles, were grilled up as an hors d’oeuvre. The charred, crispy little morsels, still tender and juicy on the inside, were then laid on a flour tortilla, slathered with salsa, and rolled up, taquito-style. At that stage of my life, pizza was a culinary adventure, so eating greasy “prarie oysters” wasn’t an option.

But when my dad smilingly presented me with a testicle taco, how could I refuse? To say no would be to disappoint the man who had given me life, to fail the cowboy brotherhood. I wouldn’t be one of the guys. I had to prove I had cojones of my own! I grabbed the dripping tortilla and bit down…chewed…swallowed. It was good: smoky, salty, a little chewy, the tortilla a perfect foil for the savory juices dribbling down my chin.

Yep. Tastes just like chicken.

Santa Maria Style Barbecue can be found in and around the towns of Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo, usually on weekends, at local charity events. If you’re jonesing for a taste of true California on a weekday, you can stop by or The Hitching Post in Casmalia, which is still considered tops in ‘cue. You can also call the Santa Maria Chamber of Commerce at (800) 331-3779, to see what’s smoking around town during your visit.

Black Knight Barbecue Sauce

My dad discovered this recipe in a magazine insert in the early ’70′s called “Chuckwagon Cooking from Marlboro Country.” He always served it with grilled tri-tip if we had guests from out of town so he could show off his adopted state’s cowboy and culinary heritage.

Makes approximately 2 ½ cups

1 cup strong black coffee
1 1/2 cups Worcestershire sauce
1 cups ketchup
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 T. sugar
1 T. salt
2 t. cayenne pepper

Combine ingredients in a medium saucepan and simmer for 30 minutes over low heat, stirring occasionally. Adjust seasonings to taste before serving.

[Photo credits: Los Osos, Flickr user goingslo; Branding, Flickr user marty 11; "Prairie Oysters," Flickr user ffunyman]