A Brief History of Santa Maria Style Barbecue

February 16, 2009

Santa Maria Style BarbecueIn an age of fickle appetites and culinary fads, Santa Maria Style Barbecue continues to prove that good taste never goes out of style.

The roots of Santa Maria Style Barbecue date back to the mid-1800s, when large ranches occupied the hills of the Santa Maria Valley. Local ranchers would host Spanish-style feasts each spring for their vaqueros, or cowboys, as well as family and friends—barbecuing meat over earthen pits filled with hot coals of red oak, which is native to the valley. The meal would be served with a generous helping of pinquitos, small pink beans that are considered indigenous to the Santa Maria Valley.

According to local barbecue historian R.H. Tesene, “The Santa Maria Barbecue grew out of this tradition and achieved its ‘style’ when local residents began to string cuts of beef on skewers or rods and cook the meat over the hot coals of a red oak fire.”

In 1931, the Santa Maria Club started a “Stag Barbecue,” which was held on the second Wednesday of every month, with up to 700 patrons attending each event. Over the years, the legend of Santa Maria Style Barbecue grew, turning a local treasure into a major attraction.

In those early days, the favored cut was top-block sirloin. Then, as today, the meat was rolled in a mixture of salt, pepper and garlic salt before being barbecued over the red oak coals, which contribute a smoky, hearty flavor. In the 1950s, a local butcher named Bob Schutz perfected the tri-tip, a triangular bottom sirloin cut that quickly joined top-block sirloin as a staple of Santa Maria Style Barbecue.

By the late 1950s, three local restaurants—The Far Western Tavern, Hitching Post and Jocko’s—were on their way to becoming landmarks of Santa Maria Style Barbecue. These restaurants still thrive today, and are joined by Shaw’s Steakhouse, Historic Santa Maria Inn, F. McLintocks, A.J. Spurs and others in serving the homegrown barbecue.

President Ronald Reagan was an avid fan of Santa Maria Style Barbecue. Local barbecue chef Bob Herdman and his “Los Compadres Barbecue Crew” staged several barbecues for President Reagan, including five feasts on the South Lawn of the White House.

The relatively recent emergence of the Santa Maria Valley wine country—which placed two wines on the Wine Spectator’s list of Top 100 Wines of 2008—has further shined the spotlight on the local culinary scene.

In the words of the book Renewing America’s Food Traditions published in 2008, Santa Maria Style barbecue is nothing less than “a mainstay of California’s culinary heritage.” In fact, as more and more people seek regional authenticity in their food, the popularity of Santa Maria Style Barbecue continues to grow. Visitors can enjoy it at a number of local restaurants, or they can just follow the savory smoke along Broadway in downtown Santa Maria.

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