Sometime in the late 1950’s our family acquired its first charcoal grill. Before then we had cooked over open fires, mostly on the shores of lakes near Hayward. The meat was skin-on wieners from one of the local butcher shops or grocery stores and dessert was marshmallows toasted over the coals. Cooking utensils were a can opener and sticks of hazel brush for roasting the wieners and marshmallows and stirring the can of beans.
If we didn’t forget them, there would be spoons for serving Mom’s potato salad and eating the beans and salad off paper plates. Over the years I learned that you could open a can with a jack knife, carve sticks into substitute spoons and eat off birch bark plates. I also learned the truly valuable skill of how to build a fire, even if it had rained just a few minutes before we got to our picnic place.
Later I learned to toast sandwiches over an open fire when I began going deer hunting and ice fishing with my father. By that time I had my own jack knife and the patience to find the perfect stick with two twigs branching off the central stem to make a toasting tool. Besides learning to read a fire properly so my sandwich did not turn black or get too smoky, I also learned how close I could put my wet gloves to the fire without setting them ablaze.
Thus, when we got our first charcoal grill, I became the outdoor chef. The grill was a shallow flat tray on a tripod base. There was no cover; the kettle grill was not yet on the market. But ours worked just fine and in addition to wieners, we were soon enjoying hamburgers, bratwursts, chicken legs and pork ribs from the grill.
One year I even tried to grill some meat from a bear we had shot. My mother had given up trying to cook it. She explained, “It’s just too fat. When I fry steaks, they’re floating in fat. I tried making a roast, and the pan was half full of grease. Even Dad said it was too fat for him.”
I had what seemed like a logical suggestion. “Pick out a nice roast. We’ll cut it into two-inch cubes, and I’ll grill them for dinner. The fat will drip out and the meat should be delicious. We can brush on some barbecue sauce when it’s close to done.”
The incident is stamped indelibly in my memory. It was a cold New Year’s Day. I set the grill up on the front porch. I carefully arranged a big pile of charcoal briquets in the grill, lit them and waited until the coals were an even gray. Heaven help me, but I think I may have wiped the grate with some lard or bacon grease before I put the chunks of meat on the fire.
Everything looked promising for the first three or four minutes. When I turned the meat, the bottom sides looked perfect. A couple of coals flared up as fat dripped off the meat, but as this often happened I was ready to sprinkle a few drops of water on the hot spot. However, more flare-ups occurred and rapidly grew into a conflagration. The remaining water seemed to fan the flames when I tossed it on the grill. Have you ever seen four pounds of flaming bear meat sending black smoke into the sky?
My father came out the door and told me that we had to put the fire out. “If we don’t do something quick, someone will call the fire department and we’ll have a fine for a false alarm. If it is a false alarm,” he added, looking at the flames rising above the eaves on the porch.
My mother rescued us. She came out with her big tea kettle and bravely doused the flames.
I don’t remember what we had for dinner that day, but I do remember that we gave the bear meat to Uncle Ruel and his family. He said that it was some of the best bear meat he had ever tasted.
Today I don’t do much grilling outside in the winter. Maybe it’s just that I don’t like standing out in the cold while the meat cooks, but it might be that I have learned how to make tasty country back ribs in the comfort of the kitchen. Once you put them in the oven, they cook for at least two hours, so you have plenty of time to read a book, watch TV or even take a nap if you have a good timer to wake you after an hour or so to check that the liquid in the pan has not boiled away.
Non-stick cooking spray or vegetable oil
2 – 3 lbs. country pork ribs
1/4 cup water or wine
1 T liquid smoke seasoning
1/4 – 1/3 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. thyme
1/4 tsp. basil
1/4 tsp. rosemary
1/8 tsp. garlic powder
1/8 tsp. cayenne powder
1/4 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
About 3/4 cup barbecue sauce
Preheat the oven to 325º and grease a nine by thirteen-inch covered baking pan or casserole.
If necessary cut the ribs into serving-size pieces and place them in a single layer in the pan. Pour a quarter cup of water around the meat and add a tablespoon of liquid smoke seasoning. If you have a mortar and pestle, grind the salt and spices together or just stir them together in cup and sprinkle the mixture evenly over the meat. Dribble your preferred barbecue sauce over and around the meat. I use from two-thirds to three-fourth cup of sauce, depending on how much meat is in the pan.
Cover the pan and put it on a center shelf in the oven. After an hour, check to make sure that there is still adequate liquid in the pan. Add a little water or wine if necessary. Check the pan every thirty minutes or so after the first hour.
Serve with more barbecue sauce and your choice of bread, potatoes and salad.
NOTES: Feel free to adjust the seasonings, but start with at least a teaspoon of liquid smoke seasoning. Make sure your oven is at or slightly below 325º when you start cooking the ribs. If you worry about the pan going dry, feel free to check the amount of liquid after forty-five minutes or so. You don’t want to boil the meat, so be careful not to add too much water.