Santa Maria Style Barbeque
Back in the mid 1800’s, the Santa Maria Valley was dotted with large cattle ranches. Owners of these ranches (rancheros) would often throw Spanish-style feasts after every roundup, inviting family, friends, and local vaqueros. Johnny Soto, a ranchero of the valley, developed a distinct way of cooking the meat that soon became very popular. His method was to dig a deep pit in the ground, fill it with coastal live oak or red oak and charcoal, skewer a bunch of thick cuts of meat on a willow stick, and cook the meat over the fire. His choice of meat was not all that particular, as they were eating whole cows at these events. But ideally he would use the top block or top round loin. He cooked the meat for an hour or so with the fat cap facing up and would serve the beef sliced thin.
These feasts brought together people of various backgrounds. Their heritage merged to form a true California cuisine, one that incorporated the corn, tomatoes, beans, and peppers of the New World with the beef, lamb, and olive oil of the Old World. The parilla, or grill, became the province of the vaqueros and rancheros. The mild, Mediterranean climate fostered a tradition of outdoor cooking still beloved by Californians today. Barbecues became a way to get down and party with family and friends, to mark special occasions, and to partake of the culinary offerings that reminded these early settlers of their homelands.
In the 1930’s, this technique was refined at the monthly Stag barbecue at the Santa Maria Club. Here, on the second Wednesday of each month, members of the club would work as a team to create a massive red oak barbecue pit, prepare aged meat by seasoning it with garlic salt and pepper and then skewer the meat on steel rods. They would serve the beef with pico de gallo, pinquito beans, French bread, tossed salad, macaroni, and local red wine. These meals were often served to up to 700 locals.
This tradition merged with the area’s other culinary invention, tri-tip, to form what we often regard today as the traditional pairing.
The Santa Maria grill, with its distinctive adjustable grate and large wheel, was also invented in the area, to mimic the open-pit cooking. This grill is important for Santa Maria style barbecue today, it allows grillers to sear the meat, giving it a distinctive red oak char, and then raise the meat up to cook it low and slow, all while getting lightly smoked. Again, though, the purists will insist that this is not the original style of cooking, as it does not use the steel rods.
All in all, it’s clear that Santa Maria barbecue has changed and evolved over the years. But the definitive standards that have remained present since Johnny Soto began cooking are clearly good beef, seasoned simply, and cooked uncovered over oak.