Become the God of Ribs and Rubs
By Geoffrey Norman

Interrogating a pig properly over a well-made grill under a bare lightbulb will cause it to spill all the secrets of great BBQ.

Become the God of Ribs and Rubs


I have grilled many a rack of ribs.  And lots of other things, too. Spent a lot of my life looking at a hot bed of charcoal.

I love my grill the way some men love their classic cars or their split-cane fly rods. 

The arguments on how to cook a rack of ribs are not quite theological, but close

To many fundamentalists, 325 is far too hot, the sort of temperature you'd encounter in the furthest reaches of hell.

My daughter has a farm in Vermont, and one day she presented me with a rack of ribs from one of her animals.  I’d probably fed scraps to that pig when I was helping out with the chores.  But its principle diet had been been whey, which my son-in-law gathers from cheese makers in the area.  That diet also includes acorns and other forage. The ribs were, then, some quality meat.  Nothing artificial about them.  No supplements or drugs. No deterioration as a result of long, frozen storage.  These ribs needed to be approached with reverence.

I wasn’t intimidated. I have grilled many a rack of ribs.  And lots of other things, too. Spent a lot of my life looking at a hot bed of charcoal while cooking everything from venison tenderloins to pork butts to goose breasts to beef briskets… well, you get the picture.

In grilling, as in many of life’s undertakings, it helps to have the right tools. Some years ago, with help from a master welder named Howard Reginbald, I made an offset grill from junkyard parts. For my daughter’s wedding, which we held in the meadow behind our house, I cooked two one-hundred-pound pigs, North Carolina-style, on that grill. I started at midnight and the cover came off the grill around four the next afternoon.  An hour after that, there was nothing left but bones.

Howard Reginbald has since deceased.  We named the grill after him and must have roasted more than a hundred Carolina pigs on it before it finally just wore out from the effort.

I kept going, however.  I now cook on an offset grill that replaced the Reginbald.  It is made by a Georgia company called Char Griller and I love it the way some men love their classic cars or their split cane fly rods.  The grill is solid and tight and I can fuss with the air flow and the amount of charcoal in each firebox and land right on the temperature I want.

So I have the technology.  But caveman cooking is also a matter of theology. For there are many ways to cook a rack of ribs and much disagreement about which methods and recipes are godly.  The arguments are not quite theologically abstract, but close. Example: All true-believers understand that using gas to provide heat is downright heretical.  (Might was well microwave the ribs!)

OK, no gas. But what? Do you use charcoal or dried hickory?

That is an epistemological debate that goes on and is never settled.  In my travels, I have eaten ribs at two of civilization’s premier rib temples, representing the opposing faiths. In Memphis, I went down into a basement on Beale Street to feast on what are known around the civilized world as “Rendezvous ribs” from Charlie Vergo’s Rendezvous Ribs.  Legend has it that when he was entertaining in Las Vegas, Elvis Presley would have them flown out from Tennessee.  First class, of course.

Rendezvous ribs are cooked over charcoal.

But I have also dined on the ribs at Dreamland in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, when I was in town to research a book on Alabama football. Dreamland started as a place that could be accurately described as “a rib shack” after the founder, Big Daddy Bishop got a message from God — in a dream. Hence the name. And hence it has spread to a dozen or so locations throughout the land, or the very southern slice of it.  But what it lacked in architectural grandeur is well-compensated for by the quality of the ribs.

Dreamland ribs are cooked over a hickory wood fire.

Over the many years that I had been cooking ribs, I have become a little soft in some of my opinions.  On the matter of fuel source, I use charcoal.  But, then, I hedge my bet by throwing some hickory chips on top of the hot coals. And here’s a grilling tip I got from Ecclesiastes: “Of the making of books there is no end and he that increaseth knowledge also increaseth sorrow.”

Well, none have ever been sorrowed by my ribs. Here is how my daughter and I (reverently) treated that rack.

We began by pulling off the thin, translucent membrane, using a paper towel and a paring knife to strip off as much as possible. (Some say this isn’t necessary.  To which I say, “whatever.”)

We then let the rack soak in a mixture of the vinegar, water, and a bit of the dry rub.  The vinegar is not a matter of doctrinal disagreement, being common to both Dreamland and Rendezvous. But the rub is from the church of Rendezvous; Charlie Vergo made up his own recipe for seasoning. It was heavily dosed with paprika, resulting in a rich red hue and a taste that was…well, good enough for Elvis …

So, here is the rub as my daughter and I make it.

  • 1/3 cup paprika
  • 2 tablespoons of chili powder
  • 1 tablespoon of garlic powder
  • 1 tablespoon cayenne
  • 1 tablespoon of dried Greek oregano
  • 1 tablespoon of kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons of coarsely ground black pepper

 We might add mustard seed and celery seed, which Vargas included in his original recipe.  But, then, sometimes less is more. So, time to cook.Now, the final doctrinal question: the right temperature.

Rendezvous ribs are cooked at 325 degrees.  Which, for many fundamentalists, is far too hot, being the sort of temperature you would encounter in the furthest reaches of hell.

Doubters tend to be of the ‘low and slow’ church, in which 225 degrees is a matter of faith.

After much experimentation, I have come down on the side of Elvis and Charlie Vergos. We cooked that rack at 325, mopping it down every twenty minutes or so, and you could taste the flavor in the smoke.

After an hour and a half, we took the rack off.  Coated it with the dry rub.  Let it sit for a few more minutes.

Then, as the good book would put it, we sat down to feast.