Joseph Epstein, lip-smacking, finger-licking rib-lover.
Dec 6, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 12 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
Is some food, in one of the leading cant phrases of our day, sexist? Food cannot of course take political positions, but some food, let us agree, has a greater masculine than feminine appeal, and probably always will. Try as I might, I cannot imagine the Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher whispering at half-time to one of his teammates that he cannot wait for the game to be over, because he has a reservation that night at a restaurant where they serve the most divine salade Niçoise.
No food is more masculine than ribs. I know women who eat ribs, and even show a genuine appetite for them, but at bottom ribs are a guy meal. What makes them so is their fundamental coarseness. Not always but usually one has to pick them up with one’s hands. Many napkins are required to remove sauce from one’s hands and around one’s mouth. The spectacle of a man eating ribs is reminiscent to me of a 1940 movie called One Million B.C., starring Victor Mature and Carole Landis. I can still see Victor Mature, who had glistening rib-lips to begin with, gnawing meat off a bone. Men, the movie underscored, are brutes.
Ribs were not served in the home in which I was brought up. Neither of my parents was religious, but my mother clung, culturally, to some of the old habits of keeping kosher with which she had grown up: no pork of any kind was allowed in her kitchen, and, along with her belief that all politicians were crooks, she also never veered from her equally firm belief that a kosher chicken was superior to a nonkosher one.
My first ribs were eaten in a neighborhood restaurant called Miller’s, owned by a man, a bachelor, in the heating and air-conditioning business, who needed a place to spend his evenings and so opened this restaurant. Mr. Miller must have had nearly unlimited funds, for several times he bought the champion steer at the Chicago Stockyards and exhibited it in a small pen in front of his restaurant. Beef in its ideal, its all but Platonic, forms was available at Miller’s: hamburger, steak, prime rib, and of course ribs.
In Chicago, traditionally a beefy town, even though the city no longer has an active stockyard, many men pride themselves upon their rib connoisseurship. The late Chicago journalist Mike Royko used to run and judge a rib-cooking fest at the end of summer in Grant Park. “It’s the sauce,” is the motto of a rib joint in my neighborhood called Hecky’s, where the ribs served are, as a friend once put it, industrial strength.
Ribs come of course in different forms: beef and pork, regular and babyback, short and now St. Louis, which are alleged to be meatier. Some ribs fall off the bone, and can be eaten with a knife and fork; some ribs are baked rather than grilled. A few years ago I was taken to a famous—is it still?—New York restaurant called Daniel, after its chef and owner Daniel Boulud, where I ordered short ribs. A mistake. Should have ordered the salade Niçoise. The Chinese know how to cook ribs but not the French.
Subtlety has nothing to do with ribs, either in their preparation or their devouring. Ribs come, after all, in slabs, not a subtle word or form. A full slab of ribs—how the very phrase must make vegetarians quiver, vegans faint dead away!
The last place to find either vegetarians or vegans is Mike Ditka’s restaurant in Chicago, where I was taken a few years ago by George Will and his son Jeffrey, who was my student at Northwestern and is now in the FBI. (“Betcha can’t guess which of us at this table is packing heat?” George asked once we were seated.) A strong notion, if not the actual aroma, of Mike Ditka’s, its food and ambience, is available upon my mentioning a single item from the appetizer section of its menu: Pot Roast Nachos. I won’t say that every size‑46 suit in town was in the restaurant that night, but you would not have found many men in leotards.
Having neglected to major in nutrition in college, I cannot say for sure that ribs are, under the current health-food craze, among the most dangerous foods one can eat, but I should guess that they are probably up there. The cholesterol, the calories, the fat grams in a full slab of ribs—the numbers must be dizzying. Thus far the surgeon general has not pasted a label on ribs warning that they are dangerous to your health, though I suspect they are. Might this make them all the more enticing, at least to men? Men, as I mentioned earlier, are brutes.
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