Everybody loves a fest – especially Wisconsinites. The muggy, mosquito-ridden Milwaukee summer is filled with fests. Summerfest is the big one, but then there’s also Irish Fest, Pride Fest, Greek Fest, Polish Fest, German Fest and Oktoberfest, African World Fest, Arab World Fest, Asian Moon Fest, Armenian Fest, Serbian Fest, Labor Fest (?), Festa Italiana, Fiesta Mexicana – and those are just the ones with “fest” (or a cognate thereof) in their names! Not to mention the more minor fests in bordering towns and suburbs, like Harbor Fest in Racine. One of Milwaukee’s nicknames is the “City of Festivals,” and although that’s probably just a marketing slogan deployed in recent decades, that doesn’t mean it’s not perfectly fitting.
Not content to passively partake in the rest of the fests, my Uncle Erik and Aunt Sarah have created their own: Rib Fest.
Rib Fest is exactly what it sounds like: a festival of ribs. Each year, friends and family are invited to enter their barbecue pork ribs in a competition, to be evaluated and ranked by a panel of judges. This year, probably because of my reputation as the family snob, I was chosen as a judge in this epic “Battle of the Bones.”
Ribs were to be scored in four categories: appearance, bone release, flavor, and overall impression, all weighted equally. Each of the seven ribs I sampled were categorically delicious – to paraphrase a fellow judge, any of the ribs, if eaten in almost any other context, would have been the best meal I’d had that day. It was a tough job, trying to find flaws in really excellent hunks of meat.
But somebody had to do it, and I did my best. Ultimately, my top score went to a saucy, spicy, brawny entry cooked by someone named Juanita; her ribs were intense and satisfying, with well-articulated layers of smoke, cumin, turmeric, and chili powder. But in the end Juanita took second place – the other judges preferred the ribs made by a man named John. Flaky and tender and visibly falling from the bone, John’s ribs were also outstanding, pink and black with fire and smoke and mysteriously fruity from a can’t-put-your-finger-on-it secret ingredient (I later learned it was pineapple juice and sweet tea-infused vodka).
After the winners were announced, the inevitable debates arose. Most people seemed fairly content with our picks, but the “bone release” category was hotly contested. I was of the opinion (as were the other judges) that rib meat is best when it pulls cleanly from the bone without much effort. However, I also feel that meat can reach a point where it is too loose, or where the tissue connecting meat to bone has become more tender and loose than the meat itself, so that when you bite into it, you tend to pull the entire strip of meat from the bone rather than just the bite you wanted. I marked ribs down for this sort of overly eager bone release.
However, some cooks and diners argued that ribs are best when the meat doesn’t fall from the bone, and requires a little chewing or gnawing to get the meat off. I could not understand this; their explanations were filled with words like “technically” or “officially” – except for my Aunt Lisa’s, who simply said: “I like it when you have to gnaw at ’em.”
Still, I’m not satisfied to chalk it up to “personal preference.” That’s a cop out. “There’s no accounting for taste” is a terrifically stupid axiom – there are all kinds of ways to account for taste! So this is very vexing to me. I just think there’s something wonderfully satisfying about ribs that lift off the bone with a gentle tug. It is one of life’s greatest small pleasures. Having to gnaw or tear at ribs isn’t the worst thing in the world, but I can’t understand why anyone would prefer it. And yet… people do.
Show of hands: who likes ribs that fall off the bone? And who likes ribs that don’t fall off the bone? And if you’re the latter: for goodness sake, why?
P.S.: Sorry there are no photos of the actual ribs; I didn’t want to clog my camera with sauce.