For the dietetically incorrect, or merely the gastronomically intrepid, August is a great month to eat in Indiana. First off we have the Brickyard 400, with its Spam-Mobile, things on sticks and various unidentified frying objects. An afternoon spent in a hospitality tent surrounded by tables groaning under the weight of deep-fried wontons, ravioli or potstickers, not to mention the occasional Penthouse model, is worth a week in Disneyland. Then there's the State Fair, with even more things on sticks and the not-to-be-missed deep-fried Snickers bars. Finally, there's Rib America, a celebration of dining low on the hog: a fearless journey to the heart of flavor, a superfluity of things good or ungood, and to hell with the calories and cholesterol.
If you're like me in that you can't get enough great barbecue, Rib America represents a decent cross-section of styles within easy walking distance of one another. No need to load up the station wagon and drive half the length of Route 66 to sample some fine examples of America's other national sport. Although it would be nice to see some of Indiana's better exponents represented, such as the outstanding Anderson's Smokehouse in Franklin, the selection here isn't bad at all, and has certainly improved over the past couple of years.
Rib America is a lot of fun, and a good, boisterous, messy way to while away a few hours at the end of summer's dog days. In previous years, if you were looking for an in-depth sampling of barbecue styles from around the country, you probably wouldn't have found it here, as most of the ribs on offer were in the sticky, sweet, Kansas City style, which is fine for a while, but grows old rapidly. This year, however, with the inclusion of BBQ from as far afield as Arizona, Texas and North Carolina (by way of Virginia) things seem to be looking up considerably for the barbecue and rib aficionado.
As every student of this vast subject is well aware, barbecue is subject to innumerable regional variations, some crucial, others merely pedantic. The big differences, such as the use of brisket in Texas and pork butt in North Carolina fall, into the former category. Similarly, the sharp, vinegary, ketchup-free finishing sauce of North Carolina is a sine qua non of that region's cooking, much as the sweet, tomato-based basting sauce is crucial to St. Louis-style ribs. The minor variations, such as the amount of ketchup or mustard that might be used in one producer's "secret" sauce or another are largely incidental, albeit entertaining.
For those interested in the intricacies of long, slow cooking, dry rubs and authentic sauces, I once again recommend wholeheartedly the two excellent books by Chris Schlesinger and John Willoughby, The Thrill of the Grill and License to Grill. These two have elevated the simple act of throwing a hunk of meat onto some hot coals into little short of an artform. Both books are essential additions to any gastronaut"s library, and are available in paperback.
Personally, I'm a fan of the dry-rubbed, slow-cooked style of spare ribs (never baby back, they lack sufficient fat to cook for several hours) prepared without marinade or basting. Over a period of six or seven hours, over low and indirect heat, much of the fat simply melts away, keeping the meat moist and thoroughly basted at the same time. Served with a spicy, vinegary sauce, pork prepared in this way knows no equal. (As a quick plug for a friend in Bloomington, I must mention here that Opie Taylor's on Walnut Street offers one of the finest renditions of North Carolina barbecue I"ve ever tasted. Go and try some.) This year, Rib America offers two purveyors from Virginia, which should provide for some spicy variations.
Although portions are small, be prepared to take a wad of cash with you if you want to thoroughly immerse yourself in the rib culture. Although the admission is free, an afternoon's grazing can get pretty expensive: The samples of ribs, or even whole dinners, are really quite costly, running on average $3.75 for a taste of either two or three ribs. Try a sample from each vendor and you're looking at a bill in the region of $40, and that's before drinks or sides.
Last year, in the interests of scientific accuracy, a friend and I tried samples from each vendor and, although not exactly disappointed, we certainly came away with the feeling that there was more than a hint of homogeneity about the offerings. For instance, there were several "suicidally" hot sauces available that were, in truth, so lukewarm that, apart from making you unwell, you could probably have drunk them neat. There were more than a few very sweet sticky sauces, which showed little regional variation or imagination.
Although one really shouldn't rate these things, last year we decided to rank the ribs in order of merit. Far and away the best, we felt, were Famous Dave's from Minnesota. Prepared in the St. Louis style, these were easily the thickest, fattest and meatiest chunks of pig on display that day. Happily, Famous Dave's is making a return visit this year, so I know where I"ll be heading first. Next, in a close race, came Pigfoot from Ohio, who also make excellent coleslaw and baked beans. Pigfoot is also returning.
Rib America is offering an unprecedented lineup of entertainment this year, providing a little something for almost everyone, from a Hall & Oates reunion to a rare appearance by Zydeco great C.J. Chenier, son of the legendary Clifton. For my part, I"ll be visiting early to check out the Eastern North Carolina offerings, then hanging around to hear some authentic Louisiana sounds. I"m slavering at the thought already.