For those who know Santa Maria barbecue, this will be no surprise. It is one of California's heritage foods, as much a part of the state's culinary soul as abalone and orange trees. On the Central Coast, you'll find it at restaurants, charity fundraisers, farmers markets and even stalls set up in random parking lots - basically anywhere a crowd of hungry people might gather.
First, a little history. Santa Maria barbecue is a throwback to California's rancho days. Traditionally, it was made by threading 3-inch-thick blocks of top sirloin on willow poles and then cooking them over long pits filled with smoldering coals of local red oak.
These days, rather than those monstrous top sirloin blocks, the meat is more likely to be tri-tip, which has the main advantage of coming in family-sized pieces of 2 to 3 pounds. The tri-tip began to gain popularity in the late 1950s when, according to Santa Maria legend, a local butcher named Bob Schutz started setting aside meat he had previously ground into hamburger.
This was a handy bit of timing, because that is just when Santa Maria barbecue was beginning to boom.
Though it had always been appreciated locally, during the 1950s its reputation was spread by the hordes of hungry pilots and other Air Force personnel who had trained at Vandenberg Air Force Base during and after World War II.
Somehow, despite such popularity, tri-tip has remained almost exclusively Californian. It is virtually unknown east of the Rockies. Last year, according to the National Cattleman's Beef Assn., 80% of the tri-tip sold in the United States went to California (add in the rest of the West and you've got more than 95%).
If you've ever been to a big Santa Maria barbecue, you surely have noticed the grills. These look like something dreamed up for a joint episode of "Emeril Live" and "Monster Garage," big as U-Hauls and tricked out with elaborate systems of pulleys and counterweights for adjusting the height of the grid. The meat is seared down low and then raised away from the heat to allow smoking.Go read. There's a couple pages of background and several pages of recipes.
Mrs. G is from a little town just up the road apiece from Santa Maria. She grew up with this dish, and was surprised as all get-out when she moved to L.A. and couldn't find it anywhere, although in the intervening forty years it has spread far and wide around the state and beyond. She introduced me to it and I have eaten it many, many times, mostly outdoors, but not always. I firmly believe that the locals, the guys anyway, are not allowed to graduate from High School without displaying proficiency in whipping up a Santa Maria Tri-Tip. Every city park for miles around has the humongous grills, and every weekend finds them in use along with many that are towed almost anywhere. My mouth is watering so much right now I'm afraid I'm going to short out this thing, so Adios, amigos. Sometimes politics has to take a back seat to the pleasures of the flesh.
For a good introduction to our Central Coast, click here. And by all means, read this.