Thousands of people will work their way through about 5 tons of pork this weekend during the 21st Ribfest at Vinoy Park in downtown St. Petersburg. But with 13 vendors, each selling the same style of ribs, the St. Louis cut, how can you tell who's got the goods and who doesn't?
For guidance, I checked with a couple of experts: Ray "Dr. BBQ'' Lampe, a nationally renowned barbecue judge from Lakeland, who will size up the slabs at this year's event, and John "Ribdog'' Verville, a financial planner by trade and master barbecue judge on the side.
While they don't always see pit to pit on who has the best, they do agree that judging ribs comes down to two things: balance and texture.
Good ribs are smoky, but not so smoky that it's all you taste. Tender but not quite fall-off-the-bone, which just means overcooked. ("We want just the slightest tug off the bone,'' Verville says.) A caramelized exterior that's slightly crispy but not too much. Same for sauce: a balanced blend of sweet, tangy, spicy, salty. And easy on the sauce, too.
In many ways, it's the sauce that distinguishes the myriad varieties of this distinctly American food. Parts of South Carolina favor a mustard-based sauce, North Carolina vinegar-based, parts of Alabama go for a white sauce with a mayo base. Most of the sauces at Ribfest will be variations on tomato-based sauce.
Some serious barbecue fans, like our judges, prefer their ribs sauceless, the better to taste the meat. "If the rub and the sauce are so heavy you can't taste the pork, what good does that do you?'' says Verville, who teaches barbecue at the Rolling Pin Emporium in Brandon.
And then there's smoke. "You can't make real barbecue without smoke,'' Lampe says. Hickory is the most popular, but other wood, like cherry or pecan, imbue the meat with subtler flavors. So ask Ribfest vendors what wood they're using and compare.
Many of this weekend's pit masters compete on a national circuit. They hail from throughout the South and beyond — Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, Ohio, Canada, Australia — and Florida, which as the land of refugees is not known for its own style of 'cue.
Nearly all the vendors have been to Ribfest before; some come every year. Awards are given for best ribs and best sauce, and a few vendors, like Johnson's of Chesapeake, Va., and Desperado's of Hinckley, Ohio, are repeat winners.
But even trained judges like Lampe and Verville admit that barbecue is a personal thing. "Everybody has their own idea of good barbecue,'' says Verville. "You find what you like and go with it.''
So judge for yourself. And follow Lampe's advice: "Have fun, get there early, get in line and try as many as you can.''