Pork perfectionist takes to the road in search of a rib he can stick to

HOG HEAVEN A

July 04, 1993|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,ROB KASPER writes "The Happy Eater" column for The Sun.

As I drove down Furnace Branch Road I smelled the smoke. It was a good sign. The smoke meant the perfect pork rib could be nearby. I was hunting the ideal rib, the rib that had been transformed by wood smoke from a mere mouthful of protein into pork from the gods.

Having sampled over the years a variety of tame ribs served in local restaurants, places with piped-in music and air conditioning, this summer I set out to find ribs in more rural settings. Takeout places where you could smell the smoke, eat outdoors and maybe even swat a fly.

Real ribs, slabs of pork that have spent the entire cooking process in the healing presence of wood smoke, are hard to find these days.

They are not in step with the national healthy eating kick. Ribs are not exactly health food, unless you are talking about mental health.

Then there is convenience. Real ribs require hours of cooking over a fire that has to be tended. In a land where more and more people "beep" supper in a microwave and like their food quick and easy, ribs are old, slow fare.

Nowadays there is the increasing appearance of "polite ribs." These are ribs cooked in ovens, then warmed on charcoal grills before serving. For restaurants and others that use this method, the reward is a quicker, but mild-mannered rib. A rib often lacking personality.

Nonetheless, in every community there are few old-fashioned pitmen left who cook ribs over wood fires. These guys, like crab grass, can't be stamped out. And this bright morning as I drove south of Baltimore around the Beltway, down the Arundel Expressway (Route 10), then left on the Furnace Branch Road exit toward the 7300 block, I was hoping to find one at Dotson's Bar-B-Q.

The early signals were promising. The smoke rolled out of the cooking house, a screened-in structure that sat across the road from the storefront part of the business, where food is sold on a carryout basis.

At first glance Dotson's cookhouse met several of the criteria of an authentic barbecue joint, set out by Greg Johnson and Vince Staten in "Real Barbecue" (Harper & Row, 1988), a lively book chronicling the authors' visits to some 700 joints throughout America.

One promising sign, the authors wrote, was a messy stack of wood, a piece lying here, a piece lying there, in the back of the building. If the place is really using wood, the authors said, more than likely nobody has time to keep the stuff stacked. Dotson's had such a stack.

Another pretty good indicator was a guy standing around. This guy, the authors advised, was actually working. He was tending the fire, making sure the meat didn't burn.

Inside the Dotson's cookhouse I met James McCallum, the man watching over the fire.

"Since 1974 here I am," said Mr. McCallum as he leaned over the pit, dousing any upstart flames with water held in an empty tomato can.

It was a magnificent scene. Forty-three slabs of ribs and a smattering of chickens, stretched out on a wide metal grill, suspended over smoking wood.

Years ago, Mr. McCallum said, he was an assistant to Jim Douglass, who presided over the pit that sat next door to the tavern called Dotson's. "He [Mr. Douglass] cooked on this same grill. But then age caught up with Mr. Douglass and I took over."

With a long metal fork almost as tall as he was, Mr. McCallum flipped the slabs.

"I use oak, hickory . . . cherry if I can find it," he said as he worked. "But never pine. Pine turns the meat dark. . .For a time we used wood from old whiskey barrels, but they're gone now."

Mr. McCallum likes the intermediate-size slab of rib called "3 1/2 and down" in the meat trade. The number refers to how many pounds one slab weighs. He scoffs at the smaller, baby-back rib. "You cook those baby-backs and they waste away to nothing."

He sells his ribs for $14 a slab, $8 a half slab. They sell best in summer, he said, when people feel it's too hot to cook. And they sell well on Sundays when a softball game on the field next door "makes this place full of cars of people."

The ribs came off the grill without sauce, which was how I ate them. The naked ribs were very good, showing the presence of smoke yet not being overpowered by it.

At first Dotson's seems like the perfect barbecue spot, right down to the cold cans of Dr. Pepper -- an ideal ribs-eating beverage -- in the soft-drink machine.

But then doubts set in.

I liked the ribs; I started eating them in car as soon as I pulled away. But I didn't care for the sauce, which was served on the side. I could eat the ribs without the sauce, but somehow this seemed liked cheating. The perfect rib should be in love with its sauce, not separated from it.

And so my search continued.

A few days later I was again sniffing smoke, this time at Matthews Rib Park and garden center south of Baltimore-Washington International Airport, near the intersection of Dorsey and Ridge roads.

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