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The return of an old L.A. flame

No wonder pit barbecue once ruled the rancho. Meat this tender and smoky is worth the wait.

November 01, 2006|Charles Perry | Times Staff Writer

BY 2 a.m., the fire was a roaring beast, orange flames leaping skyward in the darkness. Stick by stick, over the last five hours, I'd thrown a pile of wood 4 feet high into the pit.

I would feed it no more tonight. In an hour, the fire would burn down to red-hot coals and the 55 pounds of meat could go in.

Then I'd cover the pit with a sheet of iron and leave it for nine hours. Diners were due at noon.

You think you know barbecue? This is real barbecue, the way people did it around here 100 years ago. Angelenos had their own style of 'cue, a heritage from the days of the 19th century Spanish rancheros, who called it carne tatemada.

Down through the 1920s, no convention, charity extravaganza or Fourth of July was a party without a huge spread of our distinctive pit-cooked barbecue. We proudly served it to honored visitors, confident that it was superior to grilling and Southern barbecue alike. As late as the mid-1930s, when old-timers lamented that barbecue was dying out, you could get as many as 60,000 people to come to one of these events.

Los Angeles barbecue grew out of cattle ranching, which was our main industry for many decades. We might have barbecued chicken or mutton from time to time, but the overwhelming choice around here was beef.

And we used huge amounts of beef. Because there weren't any railroads to ship cattle East until late in the 19th century, hides and tallow were all that cattle ranchers had to sell. In effect, beef was a byproduct of the leather industry in L.A., so it was absurdly cheap for a very long time.

That's probably why we didn't bother barbecuing ribs. Ribs and steaks were stewed to make a filling for tamales, enchiladas and chiles rellenos.

When I learned of old-time L.A. barbecue, I was desperate to know one thing: What did it taste like?

The only way to find out was to try it myself. Of course, it's harder to do an earth-pit barbecue today. We no longer have as many empty lots lying around where we can dig holes 6 feet deep.

I thought of doing it at a historic site such as an adobe or 19th century house museum, but most of them understandably didn't want me digging up their historic grounds, building a fire amid the landscaping in the middle of the night and so on.

Then I hit pay dirt with the Adobe de Palomares in Pomona, which had actually been famous for barbecues 150 years ago when it was built by a cattle baron named Ygnacio Palomares. The Historical Society of Pomona Valley had already dug a pit there and barbecued whole pigs on a number of occasions.

I wanted to re-create the beef barbecues of the rancho days, and my model was Joe Romero, a one-time East L.A. cowpuncher who put on 50 barbecues a year from 1885 to 1932, serving an average of 3,000 people at a time. He had emerged as a barbecue chef at an 1885 event held in what is now Exposition Park.

"Meat was cheap," he recalled 43 years later, "and a butchers' organization was having a steer killing and dressing contest. We had 65,000 pounds of meat on our hands, so we had a big barbecue and invited all of Los Angeles. It lasted for days." It was a smash success, and Romero became a star.

He typically cooked 30-pound chunks of beef (as well as whole longhorn bull's heads, which were particularly prized at barbecues). A collection of Old California rancho recipes published in 1964 said the proper cut was a whole top or bottom round.

Well, just try getting a whole round these days. Butchers told me the only way was to special order it. But I knew Smart & Final regularly has wet-packed large cuts of meat, and I found top rounds on special for $1.89 a pound at the Glendale branch -- 26 1/2 pounds and 27 3/4 pounds, pretty close to the size old Joe used to 'cue.

Now, you'd have to be crazy to throw a naked chunk of meat in a hole. It has to be wrapped in something to keep it moist and protect it from the coals and the dirt. In Old Mexico, maguey leaves had been used for this, but California barbecue chefs took to wrapping the meat in marinade-soaked cloth and stuffing it into burlap sacks. For the cloth, I used cotton sacking, and burlap sacks are easy to get -- coffee roasters give them away.

Pit barbecue being the extreme of slow cooking, Jordan Vannini, president of the L.A. convivium of the Slow Food movement, volunteered to help and hauled about 30 cubic feet of pecan and oak wood to the Adobe.

At Romero's barbecues, the meat always came with salsa, plain boiled beans and salads made by Romero's wife, Modesta. I dug out the recipe for his salsa and recruited some helpers to make the other sides.

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