The Barbecues of Santa Maria

Times Staff Writer

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.

In a pot simmering on a burner below the grids were the beans. Barbecue beans are part and parcel of the Santa Maria-style barbecue menu and are particularly unique because of the type of beans used. Pinquitos are said to have been the choice since the earliest days of ranching in the fertile valley, which today supplies 25% of the total production of broccoli to the nation. The valley, in fact, produces a good share of the nation's low crops, such as lettuces, cauliflower and sugar beets. Pinquitos are indigenous to the Santa Maria Valley and are grown by valley ranchers who produce only enough for local cooks. "Local demand takes care of the supply so you can't get them anywhere but Santa Maria," said Seavers. Anyone eager for the pinquitos may write to the Santa Maria Chamber of Commerce for a source (the address is given with the recipe below).

Like the pinto bean, pinquitos are red in color, but smaller than the pinto. Pintos can be substituted, however.

At the LASO barbecue station, Martinez speared a few ribs and dropped them on a paper plate along with a spoonful of beans. The plate then was passed to the women's auxiliary volunteers stationed in the trailer alongside. It is the women who prepare the accompanying rice, salad and salsa. And each has her own recipe for these side dishes. Several auxiliary women sit around the crammed table to dish up salsa into tiny cups. "We enjoy coming here on weekends," say the women.

Here are the traditional recipes for the beans, salsa and macaroni and cheese as provided by the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce, as well as those supplied by the LASO group, which you can try for your next major barbecue.

Menu for Santa Maria-Style Barbecue Barbecued Santa Maria Top Sirloin of Beef Santa Maria Style Barbecue Beans Santa Maria Barbecue Salsa Santa Maria Macaroni and Cheese Tossed Green Salad Toasted Sweet French Bread Coffee BARBECUED SANTA MARIA TOP SIRLOIN OF BEEF

1 (3- to 4-pound) top sirloin of beef, choice-grade, 3 to 3 1/2-inches thick

Salt, pepper

Garlic salt

Toasted French bread slices

Sprinkle both sides of beef with salt, pepper and garlic salt to taste. Place on grill over medium-hot coals and barbecue until done as desired. Cut into slices, reserving natural juices. Pour reserved juices over meat. Serve with toasted French bread slices for dipping. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

SANTA MARIA BARBECUED CHICKEN

6 chicken halves

Garlic salt

Pepper

1 to 2 (12-ounce) cans beer

Sprinkle chicken with garlic salt and pepper to taste. Grill over medium-hot coals until browned, about 30 to 40 minutes. Meanwhile, heat beer in pot large enough to hold chicken. Drop chicken in pot containing simmering beer, cover and steam 15 to 20 minutes or until chicken is very tender. Makes 6 to 12 servings.

LASO BARBECUED RIBS

Use 6 to 8 pounds beef ribs instead of chicken in recipe for Santa Maria Barbecued Chicken. Cook 45 to 60 minutes on grill, then steam in beer 15 to 20 minutes.

SANTA MARIA-STYLE BARBECUE BEANS

1 pound small pink beans (pinquito)

1 slice bacon, diced

1/2 cup diced ham

1 small clove garlic, minced

3/4 cup tomato puree

1/4 cup red chili sauce (preferably Las Palmas brand)

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1 teaspoon salt

Pick over beans to remove dirt and small stones. Cover with water and let soak overnight in large container. Drain. Cover with fresh water and simmer 2 hours or until tender.

Saute bacon and ham until lightly browned. Add garlic. Saute 1 or 2 minutes longer, then add tomato puree, chili sauce, sugar, mustard and salt. Drain most of liquid off beans and stir in sauce. Keep hot over low heat until ready to serve. Makes 12 servings.

SANTA MARIA BARBECUE SALSA

3 medium tomatoes, chopped

1/2 cup finely chopped celery

1/2 cup finely chopped green onions

1/2 cup chopped California green chiles

2 tablespoons snipped cilantro

1 tablespoon vinegar

Dash Worcestershire sauce

Dash garlic salt

Dash dried oregano, crushed

Few drops hot pepper sauce

Combine tomatoes, celery, green onions, chiles, cilantro, vinegar, Worcestershire, garlic salt, oregano and hot pepper sauce in bowl. Cover and let stand 1 hour to blend flavors. Makes 3 1/2 cups.

SANTA MARIA MACARONI AND CHEESE

1 1/2 cups elbow macaroni

2 tablespoons butter or margarine

2 tablespoons flour

1 1/2 cups shredded sharp Cheddar cheese

2 cups hot milk

3/4 teaspoon salt

Dash pepper

Cook macaroni according to package directions. Melt butter in skillet. Add flour and cook until flour is smooth and golden brown. Stir 1 cup cheese into hot milk and add to flour mixture, stirring constantly until well blended. Add salt and pepper. Turn into greased 1 1/2-quart casserole. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup cheese. Bake at 350 degrees 35 to 40 minutes. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

MARGARET ORTIZ'S HOMEMADE SANTA MARIA RICE

1/4 cup oil

2 cups rice

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 large onion, chopped

2 (8-ounce) cans tomato sauce

1 quart water

1 teaspoon salt

Dash pepper

Heat oil in skillet. Add rice and cook, stirring, until grains are glazed. Add garlic and onion and saute until onion is tender. Add tomato sauce, water, salt and pepper. Bring to boil. Reduce heat and simmer over medium-low heat 20 to 30 minutes or until rice is tender and water is almost absorbed. Makes 6 servings.

LASO BARBECUE BEANS

1 pound pinto or pinquito beans

1 large onion, chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 to 1 pound chorizo sausage

1 teaspoon dry crushed oregano

3/4 cup tomato puree

1 teaspoon salt

Cook pinto beans in water to cover until tender, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Saute onion and garlic in large pot until onion is tender. Add chorizo and saute until chorizo is browned. Add oregano, tomato puree and salt. Add beans and water to pot. Bring to boil, adding more water if necessary to keep beans covered. Cook until heated through. Keep beans hot. Serve beans with slotted spoon to drain before serving. Makes 12 servings.

Note: Pinquito are beans grown in local areas of Santa Maria. Contact the Santa Maria Chamber of Commerce, 614 S. Broadway, Santa Maria, Calif. 93456 for a source.

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