Got a bone to pick when it comes to baby-back ribs

May 16, 2001|By Rob Kasper

THE WAY I SEE it, the recent trouble in the world of baby-back ribs has been God's way of getting even for sins committed against true barbecue.

Put another way, baby-backers are pushing the wrong kind of ribs.

Real ribs are spare ribs. The big boys. There is nothing "baby" about them. They come from big American hogs, down near the bacon. They weigh 3 1/2 pounds or less per slab, and, while they are a little fatty, they cook up real fine. They are cheaper than baby backs. They are heavenly in your mouth and feel primal in your hand.

I say if you can't defend yourself with it, then what you are holding in your hand is not a real rib. It is an hors d'oeuvre.

Baby backs, by contrast, are smaller; a slab weighs about 1 pound and comes from near the pork loin. I think of them as the pleasant-tasting toothpicks of ribs. For reasons of global economics, international tastes and swine management - stuff I don't understand - about half of the baby-back ribs sold in America are imported from Denmark.

Go figure. It is hard to believe that red-blooded, God-fearing, flag-waving Americans would prefer the flavor of foreign pigs to those born and grain-fed in the U.S. of A. As that great patriot and country western singer Merle Haggard once warbled, or should have, "When you're talkin' down our hog meat, you're walkin' on the fightin' side of me."

But commerce happens, and until a few weeks ago boatloads of attractively priced Danish ribs were being sold to supermarkets and to chain restaurants all over America.

In March, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture slowed the flow of Danish ribs. In a move designed to ward off hoof-and-mouth disease that has attacked livestock in Europe, it put the kibosh on importing uncooked meat products from Europe. The virus that causes this disease poses no health risk to humans and can be killed in the cooking process. But the disease is devastating to livestock.

With this drop in the supply from Denmark, the price of all baby backs shot up. One day last week when I checked with Henry Reisigner, a butcher at Fenwick's Choice Meats in Baltimore's Cross Street Market, he told me baby backs were selling for $6.29 a pound.

I took Henry's word that this was a high price for baby backs. I wouldn't know because I never buy them. I buy real ribs, spare ribs, which are selling for $2.69 a pound.

One big bubba of barbecue who doesn't care for Danish baby backs is J. R. Roach. Based in DeWitt, Ark., J. R - everybody calls him J. R. - runs the School of Southern Barbeque, puts recipes on his Web site (jrenterprises.com) and travels around the country teaching weekend cooking courses, including one held early in May in Baltimore County.

J. R. scoffs at Danish baby backs, calling them "fish-fed ribs," and contends that the Danish practice of feeding hogs fish meal produces pork that is lean, but not tender. "Those fish-fed ribs I got in Baltimore one year, I cooked them for four hours and they were still tough," J. R. recalled in a recent telephone conversation. By contrast, he says, racks of ribs from American-raised hogs have higher fat content and yield a more tender rib. "They fall off the bone after 2 1/2 hours."

For the record, J. R.'s favorite rib is the "loin back," which he describes as a thicker, meatier version of the baby back. As for Danish ribs, J. R. says he would be happy if they stayed in Denmark. As for me, some of my best friends are baby-backers. They are nice people. I just wouldn't want to live with them. I would worry about getting enough to eat. They treat those itsy-bitsy ribs as a meal, not an appetizer. I suspect that many baby-backers started out on the right road, eating big racks of spare ribs at smoky outdoor feeds. But I figure as they got older and richer, they started cooking in fancy, cream-colored kitchens and began to feel that real ribs were too messy for their new lifestyle.

In short, they stopped livin' large.

As Memorial Day - the traditional beginning to the backyard barbecuing season - draws near, the price of baby-back ribs looks high. But I bet it will fall. The secretary of agriculture has talked about lifting the ban on Danish ribs. Apparently there have been no reported outbreaks of hoof-and-mouth disease in Denmark. But Denmark is a member of the European Union, and the ban has applied to uncooked meat from all the countries in the union. While no one has called for a Washington summit conference on baby-back ribs, the situation is under review.

Meanwhile, I can only hope that some baby-backers, put off by the high prices, will return to the real rib, the spare rib. I recall the ancient story of the day the joy of cooked pork was discovered. The tale tells how, in the aftermath of a fire, a young Chinese farm boy ran to his dad exclaiming, "Father, Father, come see how the burnt pig eats."

You gotta believe that the kid had spare rib, not a baby back, in his hand.

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