By Merle Blasjo
The popular Santa Maria style barbecue has its origin in the days of the ranchos. Then, the cattle roamed freely without fences to confine them to their owners’ ranch. Once a year, ranch owners would conduct roundups, or rodeos as they called it, in which all of the cattle was sorted out and each sent to the owners of record as determined by the brand on the animal. The calves stayed close to their mothers which enabled the vaqueros to brand the calves at this time.
At the end of the day, the ranch owners prepared a meal for the vaqueros and other workers at the rodeo. The cooks prepared “top block”, the preferred cut of beef (known as top sirloin today). They seasoned the meat by rubbing it with salt, pepper, and garlic and then placing it on the skewers in four to six pound slabs. Workers prepared the fire in a pit or trench, about two feet wide and about a foot and a half deep. They place piles of red oak wood in the trench and lit it at a time to assure coals were at maximum heat when it was time to begin. Over the fire, the meat was first seared close to hot coals, then turned and raised to finish cooking at a lower temperature. Traditional barbecuers adamantly insist that the meat be turned only once.
The menu at the rodeos consisted of the roasted beef cut into slices, along with salsa, salad, beans and French bread. Sometimes a macaroni and cheese dish was added, but the other items are basic. The preferred beans are pinquitos, a small pink bean grown in the Santa Maria Valley; no other type is acceptable to purists. We can picture the barbecue as a hearty meal allowing the robust participants to eat their fill.
A story is told—or perhaps a legend—of a barbecue that went awry. About the time all of the cattle were sorted to their own groups and the last calf branded, the barbecuer had beef squares on the spits and was ready to begin. He looked at the fire pits and discovered to his horror that only the faintest glimmer of red hot coals could be seen below the piles of ashes. Immediately, he recognized the problem and screamed, “white oak!”. He knew that whoever gathered the wood either did not recognize red oak from white oak, or didn’t know why the difference was important. White oak burns down several times faster than red oak, and will not hold heat long enough to roast such large amounts.
The story—at least the version I read—mercifully does not tell what happened next, but it is a valuable learning tool for beginning barbecuers.