SANTA MARIA, Calif. — Straw hats shade the eyes that peer at a passing Chrysler that is too big and too brassy for Santa Maria--like a harlot stepping off a stagecoach.
Then slowly, one by one, the barbecue wagons, stationed at corner lots of this picturesque Central California farming community, appear. Smoke billows from their grids; the smell maddening.
At first, the barbecue stations are slow to appear. But once you enter the main artery of the town, the barbecues come at you faster and faster. Soon they are on every corner--at shopping malls, parking lots, empty lots and store fronts.
Suddenly you stop.
The Latin American Social Organization is one of numerous local groups sponsoring barbecues for all sorts of events that come to town. Their barbecue station is situated smack on the front lot of a Lucky Store on Alvin Street. You can't miss it.
Barbecues in Santa Maria are a way of saying "howdy" to newcomers, living up to the tradition of hospitality common to Santa Maria. They are a friendly way of raising funds for things like the rodeo, which is open this year from May 31 until June 2.
Groups like the Elks, Masons or Knights of Columbus may sponsor one of the nine candidates for the rodeo queen. As always, since 1960 when LASO became an organized group, it is sponsoring the Elks' candidate for rodeo queen. This year, Rosie Flores' photograph is posted on the sides of the LASO barbecue wagon, like a candidate in a political campaign.
Santa Maria barbecues date back to early California history when neighboring rancheros and vaqueros gathered under the oaks of the serene valley. Back in those days, rancheros in the valley would help one another round up and brand cattle. The gracious ranchero would host a barbecue in honor of his friends.
Since then, barbecues are touched off for any reason and have become both a tradition and way of life for the natives of Santa Maria, whether holding curb-side fund raising events or entertaining backyard guests.
The menu and recipes for the meat, beans and macaroni and cheese are copyrighted, and authorized barbecuers have traveled outside Santa Maria to hold what has become known as the "Santa Maria-Style Barbecue."
Each group--indeed, each cook-- boasts his or her own recipe for beans and macaroni and cheese, the two mainstays of a Santa Maria barbecue menu. But the recipe for the barbecued meat is standard--Santa Maria style, according to Bob Seavers, secretary manager of the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce for the past 33 years. Which means that the meat must be seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic salt (crushed garlic in the old days), then barbecued. No deviations allowed. No cooking ahead, either. An authentic Santa Maria barbecue calls for cooking and serving at once.
According to Seavers, old-time rancheros would barbecue ribs by stringing them together on willow branches and hooking the branch onto two forks over an open fire. Later, pits were devised to make use of coal, a longer-burning fuel. In recent years, when rising costs called for a switch from ribs to less wasteful sirloin, barbecue cooks began using chains and pulleys to enable the meat to be raised and lowered to desired levels for best cooking results.
A sirloin roast, usually 3 1/2-inches thick, is the traditional beef cut for Santa Maria-style barbecues, although some cooks, such as those in the LASO group, prefer the ribs. The steaks are strung on flat steel rods before lowering them over a bed of red hot coals. Once cooked, the meat is sliced at the pit and served in large stainless steel pans, with natural juices poured on. Toasted, buttered French bread for sopping up the natural juices is a must.
Chicken, a less costly alternative to beef, is generally used simultaneously, but most cooks steam the barbecued chicken halves in beer for added flavor. Some cooks in the LASO group also steam the ribs, although the practice is not considered traditional. The LASO group has also preserved the use of oak logs to cook the meat, just as their ancestors did in the old days.
The LASO group had just fired up the barbecue with huge oak logs when we arrived, and Tony Martinez, one of the many volunteers who tend the barbecue wagon on weekends, was slapping huge slabs of beef ribs onto the grid, turning them over and over with his well-worn, charred gloves.