Which city in America has the best barbecued ribs?
So far the answer to the question, according to a group of local eaters, is Baltimore. They say pork ribs from Baltimore-area eateries have bested those from rib outlets in Philadelphia, Oakland, Calif., Washington, D.C., and Kansas City.
And this group has the scoring sheets and the rib bones to back up its claims.
The folks making this semi-serious claim are the rib eaters of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association. They are led by Jerry Wachtel, a psychologist, and not coincidentally, the scorekeeper of the rib competition.
This is a small but spirited contest held in Baltimore homes. It began four years ago as the result of late-night boasts made among friends.
The boasts, as I got the story, were along the lines of "Ribs! If you want real ribs, come to Philadelphia (or Oakland, or Washington). We have the best."
The combatants are the folks who came to Baltimore for the American Craft Council's Craft Fair held in the Baltimore Convention Center last weekend. Along with their luggage, the crafts people brought some of their hometown ribs to Baltimore. They are joined in the rib-eating fray by a handful residents of Federal Hill who provide lodging for the out-of-towners during the fair. The locals bring ribs they buy from Baltimore-area restaurants. Last week when the score sheets from 30 or so tasters who gathered in the South Baltimore row house of John and Diane Baum were added up, the ribs from Bare Bones in Ellicott City were declared the winners.
Second place went to the ribs from Red, Hot and Blue restaurant in Laurel. Third place went to California, represented by Doug Texas ribs from West Oakland. Fourth went to Philadelphia, represented by Dwight's Southern Barbecue. And fifth place went to Salley's ribs, which at first purported to represent Kensington. But later the ribs turned out to be made by somebody's sister who now lives in the Washington suburb, but who once lived in Texas.
Reaction to news was predictable. The Baltimoreans smirked. The out-of-towners hollered "fix" and someone poured barbecue sauce on the bowl of ice cream Wachtel ate for dessert.
The same things happened the year before, including the saucing of the ice cream, when Bare Bones finished first in the contest and ribs from the Corner Stable in Cockeysville finished second.
I had heard of this contest a couple of years ago. But this was the time year I attended. When I arrived at the Baum's Federal Hill home for this rib tasting, I was chary.
Rib contests can be depressingly authoritarian. In the process of making sure that a contest is "totally objective" and "unquestionably fair" and "ruled by the numbers," organizers can stomp the fun out of eating ribs.
I have always believed that chomping on ribs was a "totally subjective" experience that thrived on personal prejudice. What makes or breaks a rib contest, in my view, is not the procedure used by judges, but the attitude of the eaters.
If they are solemn, given to pontification, and generally tied as tight as a rump roast, then the tasting turns out to be about as enjoyable as balancing your check book.
But if the contestants have a twinkle in their eyes, a secret sauce up their sleeves, and a shenanigan or two in mind, then the night can be a pleasure.
Such was the case the other night. For instance, instead of talking about the current contest, Guy and Leanne Corrie, from Oakland, kept mentioning the "glory days" of the event. This turned out to be the first two years, when the ribs from their town won.
And Wachtel, the Baltimore scorekeeper, admitted that after getting smoked in the early years, the Baltimore contingent now had a "pre-contest contest" to pick the ribs that would represent Charm City. It was similar to taking college entrance exams, he said: First you take the pretest, then the test. It is all perfectly legal, he said, with a grin.
He also acknowledged that he had stretched the definition of "Baltimore" to include Bare Bones in Ellicott City and Red Hot and Blue in Laurel.
Peter Handler of Philadelphia noted that since most of the eaters voting lived in Baltimore, the local ribs had an unfair advantage. He seemed to be demanding a recount before the vote was even taken, a procedure, I was told later, that is common in many Philadelphia elections.
By the time I got to eat the ribs, only three of the five plates had any meat left on them.
The winning ribs, those on plate No. 2, were the first to disappear. This caused a stir. There were mild protests from folks who said a rib couldn't win unless it had been sampled by all the tasters. But there were howls from folks like me, who realized that they had missed the good stuff.
I had to leave early, and on my way out the door Carol Hsu pulled me aside to whisper that "Salley's ribs" were not really from a rib shack in Kensington. Instead they were made by her sister-in-law.
When news of this non-professional entry was revealed to the eaters, it, too, caused a stir.
And so Wachtel and his colleagues are thinking about putting in a new category. The next contest for bragging rights on ribs might have two categories: professional and amateur.
In other words, more ribs and more disagreement.