A visitor gets ribs

March 16, 2011 • 5:38 am

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Here’s a menu (this is not my photograph, so it’s slightly out of date).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!

Bon appetit!

54 thoughts on “A visitor gets ribs

  1. Say “ugh—I don’t like these” if you must

    I mustn’t.
    For I am drooling just looking at the pic.
    (This is the ‘cephalic phase’ of digestive-system upregulation.)

  2. Yumbo! Reminds me of M & J’s, a BBQ that moved around location to location here for years since the 70’s. They had one sauce that felt like needles in the tongue and made your ears ring.

  3. Yeah, people have been eating ribs for way longer than we’ve had the Obesity crisis. Balance is key. You can’t balance ribs with McDonalds.

  4. Health smealth, but what I don’t understand is what you actually get to eat off a rib. Is there any actual meat or is it like chicken feet and you just suck the sauce off? Sorry to be so ignorant but the only time I’ve ever ordered ribs I was unable to locate any actual food! Ribs aren’t an Australian dish and I don’t know if they’d got it wrong or not.

    If this guy is working towards eradicating dengue fever in Queensland he deserves all the ribs he can eat 🙂

    1. I think you should wait until you get some place where they prepare them properly. It’s like ordering Mexican food in England — it’s edible, but you should have had something else. And I wouldn’t bother with BBQ here, either.

      Indian food — that’s something often done well in England.

      1. The rib tips are actually quite meaty: more so than ribs themselves. What’s great about them is that the meat can be either soft and juicy or crispy and toothsome. It’s a great combination.

    2. Hey Marella,

      Ribs are them selves pretty much inedible – unless you have the jaws of a hyena of course!

      The meat is *between* the ribs – intercostal muscles if I’m not talking a load of you know what again!

      There’s usually plenty of meat between the ribs. Especially cows ribs!

      (I used to work in a butchers shop, boning out the ribs etc after the prime cuts had been taken off by the craftsmen.)

      No jokes about “boning” please! 😉


      PS. Those ribs in the photo *look* decidedly disgusting to me!

    3. Marella, in the US barbecue ribs are usually pork ribs. They have plenty of meat and they are soooo good. If the ribs are done right the meat will “fall off the bone.” They have to be cooked “slow and low” to reach tenderness. If they are tough and chewy, and chunks of meat are stuck between your teeth, then they weren’t cooked properly.

  5. suddenly, this banana i’m about to eat has lost all appeal. too early, jerry. however, thanks for the culinary tip! a must have on my next visit to chicago, as well.

  6. I don’t eat these too often

    I think you meant to say that you don’t eat more than an olive’s volume:

    eating a ka-zayit [olive’s volume] of pork carries the punishment of flogging

  7. That is exactly what it must have looked like in Adam’s chest after that god bloke nicked a rib to make Eve…

  8. “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.”

    All part of the charm, I’m sure. (says the northsider)

    There’s so many really good places to eat in Chicago, but quite a few of them are hole-in-the-wall joints that you have to know about, or know someone who knows about it.

    1. Hot brown is a great dish. From my blog…

      Start with “toast points” (what distinguishes toast points from toast, I cannot say). Then, layer on ham, turkey, a slice of tomato to make it look healthy, smother the whole thing in cheese sauce and stick it in the oven until bubbly. Then, add a couple of slices of bacon for good measure.

      The dish was invented by the Porsche dealer of a Kentucky cardiologist.

  9. Dr. Coyne, you are an evil, evil man. Now I NEED ribs. At 10 in the morning. I shouldn’t eat them. BUt I will, thanks to your Satanic post (with pictures, no less!) I will be wiping sauce from my chin on the way to the Hell that does not exist…

  10. A patient visits his doctor for a check-up:
    Patient: Doctor, do you think that I shall live until I am
    Doctor: How old are you now?
    Patient: 40
    Doctor: Do you eat heavy/greasy foods, drink, gamble, smoke or do you have any other vice?
    Patient: No. I don’t drink. I don’t gamble. I don’t smoke. I don’t eat red meat. I have no vice.

    Doctor: Then why do you want to live for another fifty years.

    If I ever go to chicago I’ll be sure to try that place.

  11. There’s a Chicago-style BBQ joint a couple miles away from my home. It’s not bad, but I have no doubt it’s nowhere near the same league as Uncle John’s. The menu is much the same.

    I’ve hardly done anything resembling a thorough census, but Houston’s has the best ribs I’ve eaten in town. If beef ribs are your thing, then I’d steer you to Bandera.



  12. Oh my.

    I live smack dab in the middle of pork country North Carolina.

    We don’t have anything that looks remotely that amazing.

    Although ’12 Bones’ in Asheville is a reasonable substitute.

    1. Southern barbecue is really good, but it has been transformed to something else up here. Much like the difference between Mississippi blues and Chicago blues. It’s all pretty tasty, and comes down to personal preference. However, I’m sure we can all agree to stay the hell away from St Louis style ribs.

  13. Those look amazing! As for the health concerns: as far as I’m concerned life is about quality, not quantity.

  14. Oh, this will be on the must-visit list when next I get to Chicago.

    The place itself, and sauce-happy combo brings back pleasant memories of a rough Baltimore equivalent during the 70s, now sadly just history:
    Leon’s PigPen at North Avenue and Greenmount.
    There the spcecialty was barbecue chicken sandwiches – deeply sauced chicken (with bones!) between two pieces of white bread. An undergrad’s late weekend night feast!

  15. Damn, you did it to me again with food Jerry. This brings back memories of rib tips at QL’s in Muncie, IN.

  16. I feel compelled to tell you that eating white bread and fries is not healthy. The ribs and sausages are probably corn-fed so not ideal, but definitely the healthier part of this meal.

    I’ve been curious about this before. What is your take on the paleo diet (which makes a lot of sense to me)? Being well-versed in human evolution I figured the idea that we should eat what we are well-adapted to eating would be appealing to you as well.


    1. The error is in the assumption that what we’re “well-adapted” to is actually good for us. Deinococcus radiodurans is well adapted to living in nuclear reactors; that doesn’t mean gamma radiation is good for it.

      1. Analogously, humans are well adapted to living a life based on farming; that doesn’t mean grains are good for them. They would be better off eating the foods that they’ve spent several million years adapting to instead of the food that it so happens they are able to live on. Deinococcus radiodurans would be better off in the environment it has spent many generations adapting to instead of nuclear reactors where it happens to be able to survive.

        1. What does it mean to have a diet that we are adapted to? Even if the paleo diet was best for our paleo ancestors, the diet that is optimal for producing offspring is not necessarily the diet that is optimal for maintaining good health to a ripe old age. I’ve finished with the breeding part of my life, and my kids are no longer dependent on me, so my continued existence is no longer relevant to evolution.

          1. You make a good point that our evolutionary diet is focused on generating off-spring. Longevity is a part of that though, since we as a species do a lot of child (and grandchild) rearing. See http://www.anth.ucsb.edu/faculty/gurven/papers/GurvenKaplan2007pdr.pdf for a summary on longevity of modern day hunter gatherers (tl;dr: 70 years).

            How you define health is also an interesting an question. Personally I am happy to define it as being able to do the kinds of things that hunter gatherers would have to do to survive. That implies a pretty broad base of fitness, both mental and physical. I don’t have a good reference for this, but I’ve read that hunter gatherers by and large do not suffer from our “modern diseases” like cancer, Alzheimers, diabetes, etc. If you have more specific goals (living as long as possible for instance through calorie restriction) then you might not want to emulate hunter gatherer diets.


          2. I would not be particularly happy if I had to do most of the things required to survive as an h-g. I do my best to stay somewhat fit, but find exercise to be boring, so I don’t think I want to put in anything like the equivalent to the paleo level of walking around to fetch my nuts and fruits and roots, plus chasing down the meat. It’s not worth it to me to put in more time to prolong my life than I get back in the end (see Secular Dentist @#13).

            Also, I wonder how the paleo proponents picked their cutoff date. Evolution doesn’t stop just because we get civilization. It’s interesting to note that a significant proportion of humans have at least some genetic adaptations to agriculture – eg some people do not lose the ability to produce lactase when they reach adulthood. So, those people are adapted to drinking milk throughout their lives, but the paleo diet people say that casein is bad.

          3. I’m not talking about doing what it takes to be a hunter-gatherer, but about being able to do it. For me, 3 hours at the gym a week plus whatever walking I feel like doing has me feeling pretty good about myself.

            The cutoff was chosen as the time when there was a large shift in diet relatively recently (on an evolutionary timescale). That was when people started farming, about 10,000 years ago. As you said, people have adapted somewhat to drinking milk, but there is a difference between being able to digest, and being able to function optimally with the nutrients it provides.

            I don’t feel that 10,000 years is enough to thrive on a new diet the way we did on a diet that we spend 2 million years adapting to. That’s really the crux of my personal belief, and I am interested in hearing what people who study evolution think of that.


  17. That looks almost as tasty as Dreamland!!

    Glad Turelli got his rib fix during the visit- there definitely are NO good BBQ joints around Davis.

  18. Now what I would do is make a pot of (brown) rice to soak up the sauce. Is that considered a violation? (I just think rice with sauce is a lot more delicious than wonderbread with sauce.)

    1. In Chicago it is. Not a bad idea, but it would have to be white rice. We prefer not to mix your healthy and unhealthy foods.

      1. So it’s trayf to mix healthy and unhealthy?

        I just like brown rice better. That’s no doubt partly because I think it’s betterforyou, and if I thought the same of white rice, I would like that better – but still, brown rice is more substantial, fatter, more soaky.

        1. Is the question what Ophelia would like, or what is a violation of imaginary Chicago rib rules? There are no barbecue police. Your secret is safe with us. I don’t think they’re going to serve rice anyway, unless it’s red beans and rice or dirty rice.

    1. Have I tried it? How could I not have tried it? I do like it as an occasional treat: half chicken mixed dark and light, mild sauce (yes, hot is too hot for me). Wonderful and addictive stuff. My question to you is why haven’t you tried it? (Your question implies that you haven’t.) You can’t find happiness in this world–or at least in this town–without Harold’s.

      1. Quite honestly, I’m afraid if I tried it I’d contract a permanent case of irritable bowel syndrome. But your point about finding happiness without Harold’s strikes me as possibly true and deeply concerns me.

  19. Dr. C: Have you had Dixie’s BBQ in Bellevue, WA? Darned good!

    I gotta say though that the best ribs I’ve had were made at home by a Brazilian grandma. Whoo-baby those were good. Eat til you feel sick sort of good.

  20. Is it coincidence that the good BBQ post is right after the “Evidence for God” post? Meseems otherwise…

  21. Hmm, this is not good. I haven’t had ribs in more than 10 years. Until today I didn’t think I was missing anything.

  22. Ribs in Kentucky? Who told him that? Now if he had asked to go and have five (5) year old country ham with “red eye gravy”, aiggs and biscuits he would have known where he was. And you don’t worsh it down with Bourbon and branch water “neither”, coffee will do; the B and W later in the day.

  23. Wait! Wait!

    So what would I order if I adore ribs but *hate* sausage?

    And I mean *any* kind of sausage: I don’t care if it’s real pork sausage, beef sausage, deer sausage, kosher sausage… I just do not like sausage… at all.

  24. Oh, man! Nuttin’ like a rack of baby backs!

    Here in Brookings, OR, near as I can tell, I make the best ribs in the county.

    It’s one of the few reasons that I miss Texas.

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