Word spread about how my friend Bernice was going to rent a margarita machine for her summer margarita bash. The guest list started growing from 20 to 40 to over 100. Along the way, someone noted that Bernice and her husband Frank are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year, and that became the theme. For Frank's sake, I decided to go barbecue hunting -- in particular, on-site barbecue. I didn't want him to have to cook, but I knew he'd want the smell of meat and smoke in the air.I found Gib's Ribs (619-517-1659; www.gibsribs.com ). Chef-owner Keith Gibson, who hails from Maryland, explained that while there are different types of barbecue, it's all "comfort food. There's nothing like good barbecue, slow-cooked so the meat falls off the bone. Some people like a mustard-type barbecue, but in Memphis, you've got your vinegar-based, with the sauce served on the side. That's what I do. My sauce is sweet and tangy, with a hint of lemon, hickory flavor, and spice. Just a little bit of hot; nothing serious, just a little burn on the back of your tongue."
Gibson serves slow-cooked meats done in a smoker (though burgers, veggie burgers, and hot dogs may be added to some menus). "When you slow-cook and smoke, you're cooking around 225 to 250 degrees on indirect heat. That means the fire is off to the side." Wood provides the fuel. "California doesn't have a lot of wood, not like the southern states, which have all the fruit and nut trees. There, you can use pecan wood, cherry wood, and apple wood. Those give the meats different flavors, and even colors. When you first cut into your smoked meat, you will see a smoke ring. It's like a red film all the way around the meat. The color of the ring changes, depending on the type of wood. Red hickory or red oak wood make the meat come out very dark. I think it's so dark that the meat looks almost burned; that's why I don't use them."
In California, "the most popular wood is mesquite. I mix mesquite with apple wood. I leave the mesquite on the bottom layer in the smoker -- it burns hotter -- then I wet the chunks of apple wood and put them on the mesquite. They mix together. It gives a wonderful flavor, and it smells good. When you first light off your smoker, you let the mesquite burn until the coals get white; it takes a good 30 minutes. Then I put my racks in to start cooking the meat, and I close down the smoker lid. The smoker operates through vents, which control the airflow and the temperature. If I want the temperature at 250 degrees, the back vent is open halfway. If I want to bake a pie at 350, I open the ventilation up all the way."
One round of hot coals will hold its heat a long time in a smoker. "Those ashes are actually hot a day or two after cooking. That long heat-life allows for lots of slow cooking. Ribs slow cook for three hours, chicken for two, tri-tip an hour and a half."
Tri-tip sounded like an option, so I asked after his method -- Frank and my husband Patrick are forever arguing about whether or not to trim the meat before cooking. "I put a rub on it and stuff it with garlic," said Gibson, "but I prefer to buy it with the fat on. They call that 'un-neutered.' I cook it fat-side down, and when it cooks, the fat produces juices in the tri-tip and it puffs up." Score one for Frank. "I let it rest and cool for 30 minutes, then I cut the fat off the back. Then I slice it. I get 13 to 15 slices out of it. Then I've got a little secret method for tenderizing. I do this with all my meats. I pan it up and put in a little wine. Then I seal it with a commercial-grade aluminum foil and put it back on the grill for an hour and a half. It steams, reheats, and tenderizes it. The ribs fall off the bone, and the tri-tip melts in your mouth."
Other meats get much longer treatments. "You can smoke anything -- pork shoulder, pork butt, or brisket. Brisket takes a very long time, 12 to 14 hours. The pork butt for my pulled pork takes 10 hours. When it's done, I can grab the bone in the meat and twist it right out. We serve that with rolls and everything, so you can build your own Memphis-style sandwich" -- roll, meat, sauce, and coleslaw.
Because of the long cook-times, Gibson often does some prep before arriving at the event site. "Sometimes, we cook it partially ahead of time, sometimes we cook everything except maybe a case of food. We call that 'show food.' People enjoy the ambience and the aroma," and the show food will provide that as they chow down on ten-hour pork.
Gibson's smoker, which he converted from a pig-roaster with the help of a welder friend, arrives on a 20-foot trailer. "It's pretty impressive. When I bring both my smokers, I can cook for 1000 people. But I'm flexible; I do parties for 30 people. (Menus range from $13.95d to $17.95 per person based on groups of 200 or more. Prices are higher for smaller groups.) "My menus are full service. With each menu, you get your main dish and three side orders" (e.g., baked beans, corn on the cob, Caesar salad, coleslaw). Pricing includes rolls, fresh-baked cookies, cutlery, condiments, buffet-table setup, linens for buffet table, "and canopies that we can put over the buffet table. We give you a two-hour serving time, and when we are finished, I give the leftover food to the client. We package everything up, put foil on it, and label it. You get the full deal."