Watering eyes and tons of pork at RibFest

by Keith Barber

After the sun dropped below the horizon, the air was still sticky with humidity, which kept the smoke emanating from the 11 rib vendor booths close to the ground. It’s the fifth annual Texas Pete Twin City RibFest at the Dixie Classic Fairgrounds in Winston- Salem, and this weather phenomenon allowed for the olfactory senses of festivalgoers to take over and lead them to the earthly version of rib nirvana. To help offset the excessive heat and draw customers, a number of rib vendors directing oscillating fans with misting water out into the thoroughfare. This technique had the dual impact of cooling folks down while making their mouths water for the delicacies being prepared over open flame just a few feet away. Mark Little, ribs pit master for Bib’s Downtown, brought me a sample of the Winston-Salem establishment’s top menu item — slow-cooked pork ribs. The moist, not-too-spicy, succulent ribs simply fell off the bone. The secret to great tasting ribs is relatively simple. “Cook them slow and low and cook them with love,” Little said. Bib’s secret 13-spice rub also has something to do with the restaurant’s increasing popularity since it opened off 5 th Street back in December. “We do everything from scratch. We work our rub in from front to back,” Little said. “That makes a big difference and people appreciate it.” This year’s event represented Bib’s first foray into RibFest. “This puts us on a level playing field with some of the best ribbers in the country,” Little said. Smokin’ Joes’s Ribs out of Columbus, Ohio was situated next to Bib’s booth during last Friday’s event. Founder Joe Jackson worked with great precision over a cherrywood open charcoal pit. Jackson’s elaborate food booth displayed signs boasting that Smokin’ Joe’s had served more than 2.5 million ribs over the years. One whiff from the pit left no mystery as to the reason why. Smoke billowed out into the fairway at the Dixie Classic Fairgrounds, drawing a long line of customers. Jackson said he uses a dry rub that is a 65-year-old family recipe, and creates his own varieties of sauce. The result are tender, smoky-flavored ribs that have just the right bite. Across the way, Gary Preston of Smokin’ Rednecks BBQ took a cigarette break in a lawn chair. Preston is a veteran of the ribs circuit; Smokin’ Rednecks makes 48 annual appearances in 32 states, bringing their supertender ribs to the masses. “If you can’t pull that bone out of them ribs, they’re not cooked enough. That’s just my opinion,” Preston said. “People around the country like it different.” All of Smokin’ Rednecks rib sauces are made from scratch and customers are given the option of selecting their sauce, be it mild, medium or super hot. Preston said the secret is the rub, which was passed down from his grandfather’s recipe. I made my way through the smoky purple haze of the fairway to discover scores of people waiting patiently in line to sample the ribs of 2008 defending champion, Carolina Rib King out of Spartanburg, SC.

Pit Master James “Danger” Henderson offered up a sample of Carolina’s wares, two delectable ribs that I wolfed down in a matter of seconds. To explain Carolina’s success, Henderson lauded the talents of his boss, Solomon Williams, “the rib king.” Henderson said customers rave over the rib sauce, and the texture of the meat. Carolina Rib King, like many other ribbers, favors the cooking technique of slow and low. Whatever secret or not-so-secret techniques of Carolina’s chefs, the result is amazing. The elaborate booth set-ups at the fifth annual Texas Pete Twin City Ribfest made a lot of claims about the awards garnered by each vendor. One that caught my eye was the Pigfoot booth’s claim of being the People’s Choice Best Ribs in America. Owner Kevin Gift said the St. Louis-style is to have a little “tug” when you pull the meat off the bone. A previous winner at Ribfest, Pigfoot has compiled an impressive track record on the rib circuit for their meaty rib and chicken delicacies. I emerged from the thick grey black smoke with my clothes smelling of ribs, and with a greater appreciation of the hard work and love associated with food preparation. For many, working in the food industry is just a job, oftentimes a second job to help pay the bills. But for a rare few individuals, serving greattasting food is a calling. The efforts of all the ribbers at fifth annual Texas Pete Twin City Ribfest did not go unappreciated. As I exited the fairgrounds, a queue of 50 people stood in line to buy tickets to get inside. No wonder those rib pit masters pride themselves on making more smoke than the competition.

Fans of meat on the bone queue up for Pigfoot. (photo by Keith T. Barber)