As I grow older, I’ve become more vociferous about things that I’d like to do when I’m invited elsewhere to give a talk. I usually, for example, specify that I’d like to try a certain kind of indigenous food, or visit a local attraction. When I went to the University of Kentucky, I expressed a desire to try bourbon, a “hot brown” sandwich, and to see thoroughbreds run, all of which were kindly gratified by my hosts.
So I was quite chuffed when my academic visitor, Michael Turelli from the University of California at Davis, asked—nay, demanded—to be taken for ribs. Turelli, a friend of more than thirty years’ standing, was giving the departmental seminar on cytoplasmic incompatibility in insects caused by an infectious bacterium, a microbe he’s using to try to control dengue fever (which is carried by mosquitoes) in Queensland.
When someone asks for ribs, and is serious about the request, there’s only one place to go. Chicago has great ribs, but the best are the rib tips found at Uncle John’s Barbecue on the South side. It’s only a ten-minute drive from my house and lab. It’s an unprepossessing place, and is only carryout, but what delights lie within!
Dr. Turelli (right) about to sample the best ribs in Chicago (click all pictures to enlarge):
Ordering. The South Side of Chicago is crime-ridden, so many food emporia serve you from behind a plexiglas wall. You order, push your money through the slot, and receive your comestibles through a small revolving window:
Here’s a menu (this is not my photograph, so it’s slightly out of date). What you want is the #7 (links and rib tips), which is now $9.50. It’s a combination of rib tips (the ends of the pork ribs), and “hot links,” homemade sausages infused with spices, hot pepper and, of course, BBQ smoke:
The ribs and everything else are smoked in an “aquarium smoker”: a large glass box with the smoke provided by hickory and other woods burning beneath. The ribs are lovingly tended for hours so that they stay juicy and become deeply infused with the wood smoke. It’s not an easy job, and only a few people can do it properly. Here’s the guy chopping ribs on the day we ordered; you can see the wood underneath the counter:
The real pitmaster, though, is Mack Sevier, a large and amiable fellow who honed his skills at other BBQ joints before starting his own a few years ago (this is not my photo, but comes from the LTH Forum):
The goods! The bag, with two orders of tips and links, must have weighed about eight pounds:
Getting ready to feast. The ribs were consumed with a lovely bottle of 1989 Chateau Meyney. The postprandial tipple was a 2006 half bottle of late harvest Riesling from the Belle Terre vineyard of Chateau St. Jean in California.
Here’s one order, which includes two large hot links, a heap o’ rib tips, two pieces of white bread (obligatory for sopping up the sauce), a pathetic little container of cole slaw (the “vegetable”), and a pile of fries underneath, which rapidly become sodden, acting not as fries but as another starchy vehicle for the wonderful sauce:
To those of you who feel compelled to tell me that ribs and sausages are unhealthy, be aware that I know this already, and that I don’t eat these too often. But I can’t imagine life without ribs. Say “ugh—I don’t like these” if you must, but please refrain from health lectures!