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.
This sort of cooking takes planning. You have to calculate backward from the serving time to putting in the meat and backward from that to know when to start the fire. To make it more complicated, there are no reports on how long Joe Romero cooked his beef, and anyway, he was cooking a ton or so at a time. Vannini suggested building the fire for six hours and cooking for six hours. The Adobe people liked five hours for the fire and 12 for cooking.
I decided on starting the fire at 9 p.m., putting in the meat six hours later and serving at noon, which happens to accord with the 1964 recipe. And not just because Vannini’s way would have required camping out by the fire from midnight until 6 a.m.
The last problem was how to put the meat in the pit and take it out. I invented a tackle made from stiff wire, wrapped around the burlap-sack packages leaving a large loop on top, which I could grapple using a long stick with a hook on the end.
At 8 o’clock that night, I headed out to Pomona with my 55 pounds of marinating beef, a sturdy lighter and a raincoat, because rain had been predicted.
I started the fire at 9 p.m. It turns out to be lots harder to build a fire in a pit that far below ground level than in, say, a fireplace, unless you want to jump down in there. I ended up not so much building the fire as chucking in pieces of wood where I hoped they’d do some good and not just put the baby fire out. I spent a tiresome hour nursing the feeble fire along, punctuated with intervals of singeing and smoke inhalation.
By 11 p.m., it was a respectable blaze and I had to step lively to stay upwind of smoke and scorching gusts from the pit, because the wind could change direction without notice. I was glad I was wearing safety glasses because of the occasional flying cinders.
By midnight, the fire was a wild inferno. For the next two hours, I threw in logs of all sizes and the fire cried out for more. Big fun! Vannini showed up and, on his recommendation, I kept the level of the wood about a foot below the top of the pit.
After we stopped putting in wood at 2 a.m., it gradually got quiet in the area. A few drops of rain finally spattered down. An evasive-looking raccoon skulked overhead in the ramada.
By 3 a.m., the fire had reduced to a malevolent bed of orange coals about 2 1/2 feet deep. I put a metal rack on top of them, just because Joe Romero always did, and lowered the burlap-wrapped packages onto it. Vannini and I shoved the sheet iron over the pit.
Almost as soon as we did, visible smoke -- no smoke had come from this pit for about three hours -- started curling out from under the sheet iron. We (well, Vannini) shoveled dirt over the leaks and also an inch or two of dirt all over the iron for insulation. Our work was done.
Back home, I had a restless night. That bed of coals had been blazing hot -- when we opened the pit, would we find the meat cooked to a cinder?
At noon, we removed the lid, and the question was answered by a rich beefy aroma arising from the pit. The burlap sacks were scorched on the outside -- next time I do this, I’ll soak them more thoroughly in water before putting them in -- but the meat was beautifully done.
So what was it like? Were our forebears just crazy?
They weren’t. It was quite smashing. Imagine rich, tender, smoky roast beef, with an indescribable elegance that may have come from the rosemary and vinegar marinade.
(Where did the smoke come from? Food science writer Harold McGee points out that coals produce smoke -- not as much as a fire does, but the pit retained it. There would also have been smoke from smoldering burlap and probably from meat juices seeping onto the coals.)
Obviously, after nine hours in the pit, the meat was cooked and well done, but it wasn’t as dry as well-done roast beef. It was so tender I cut some of it with the wrong edge of a knife before I noticed I was holding it backward.
When you’ve gone through the trouble of re-creating what people ate a long time ago, it’s gratifying to find it so delicious. Joe Romero’s salsa turned out to be a fine, sharply spicy accompaniment. The sort of plain boiled frijoles that Romero served were also a good foil for the salsa. The 15 diners who had come out to the Adobe de Palomares were warmly enthusiastic.
I can see why old L.A. preferred this sort of barbecue. Grilling doesn’t give such a tender result, and the char we enjoy in grilled food today must have tasted like sloppy cooking to people who were used to carne tatemada. And Southern barbecue, which concentrates on tough and boney (though tasty) cuts such as ribs, probably struck Angelenos as second-rate compared with a generous pile of tender round.
Romero died in 1932, and the old-time barbecue started fading away. After World War II, a huge wave of newcomers moved to town, eager to forget the privations of the Depression and the war and enjoy owning their own homes. Parties of thousands of people became a thing of the past. Barbecue was something you did for yourself, in your own backyard.
But the old L.A. barbecue may have left its mark. It might be one reason for our strong tradition of throwing steak, rather than ribs, on the backyard barbecue. Maybe that’s our last heritage from the Days of the Dons.
Dig your own hole, then enjoy
AN old-time L.A. pit barbecue needs plenty of space. If you must try this at home, pick a flat area that is at least 10 feet from trees, because of the danger of fire. Clear all weeds and other plants 5 feet around the pit. Make sure you have a water hose handy when you’re barbecuing.
Now dig a hole 4 or 5 feet in diameter and about 6 feet deep. The walls should slope outward very slightly to keep them from collapsing.
Put a 1-foot layer of bricks or rocks (preferably volcanic rocks) in the bottom of the pit.
Get a sheet metal shop to make you a lid large enough to cover the mouth of the pit. It’s a good idea to have a couple of handles welded or screwed onto it for ease in handling.
Buy a third of a cord (40 cubic feet) of hardwood; you probably won’t use it all, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Joe Romero used oak; we used a mixture of oak and pecan.
Before starting the barbecue, sort out a lot of thin pieces of wood for kindling -- you’ll need them, because it can be devilishly hard to get a fire started in a pit.
Buy at least one whole top round (and if you’re already going to all this trouble, you might as well get two and invite lots of guests). Trim off the fat. Make a number of gashes on each side of the meat and insert slivers of garlic -- use one head of garlic per round. Sprinkle the meat with cracked pepper and plenty of Mexican oregano.
Using stout twine, tie the meat into a compact shape, then wrap it in cotton sacking (such as tea towels) and tie the cloth onto the meat. Moisten the sacking generously with wine vinegar, up to a cup per bundle. Put the bundle in a large dish or a heavy plastic garbage bag and marinate at room temperature for at least 12 hours.
Start the fire 15 hours before the meal, allowing six hours to create the bed of coals and nine hours for cooking. The first hour will require constant attention. Put in larger and larger pieces of wood as the fire grows. Three hours after starting the fire, it should be a roaring blaze. Keep the level of the wood about a foot below the top of the pit. Continue feeding the fire for two more hours, then let it burn down to coals. At this point, the coal bed will be about 2 1/2 feet below the surface of the pit.
While the coals are burning down, soak one burlap sack per round in water until it’s saturated. Put the bundle of meat in its sack. For convenience, you may wrap a length of 1/8 -inch wire around the sack and twist a loop to create a handle.
When the coals no longer flame, put a large (18- by 24-inch) metal rack onto the coals and then lower the meat onto it. Move the lid onto the pit and shovel dirt around the edges wherever smoke starts to leak out. Sprinkle an inch or two of dirt all over the lid for insulation.
Rest for nine hours, then open the pit and remove the meat.
If you want to create a permanent earth barbecue pit, Jim Gallivan, who made the Historical Society of Pomona’s pit at the Adobe de Palomares, provides one model. He built a slightly raised brick lip surrounding the pit and lowered a cylindrical steel sleeve (weighing 300 pounds) into it, forming a wall. For details, see