Santa Maria-style barbecue
Santa Maria-style barbecue is a regional culinary tradition rooted in the Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County on the Central Coast of California. This method of barbecuing dates back to the mid-19th century and is today regarded as a “mainstay of California’s culinary heritage.” The traditional Santa Maria-style barbecue menu was copyrighted by the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce in 1978.
Santa Maria-style barbecue centers around a beef tri-tip, seasoned with black pepper, salt, and garlic salt before grilling over coals of native coast live oak, often referred to as 'red oak' wood. The grill is made of iron and usually has a hand crank that lifts or lowers the grill over the coals to the desired distance from the heat. The Santa Maria Valley is often rather windy, so the style of cooking is over an oxidative fire as opposed to a reductive fire that many covered BBQs use.
Some regional variations within the Central Coast include sausage (such as linguica or chorizo) or venison, grilled alongside the tri-tip or in the beans, and fresh strawberries.
Santa Maria-style barbecue originated in the mid-19th century when local ranchers would host Spanish-style feasts each spring for their vaqueros. They barbecued meat over earthen pits filled with hot coals of local coast live oak. The meal was served with pinquitos, small pink beans that are considered indigenous to the Santa Maria Valley.
According to local barbecue historian R.H. Tesene, “The Santa Maria Barbecue grew out of this tradition and achieved its ‘style’ when local residents began to string cuts of beef on skewers or rods and cook the meat over the hot coals of a red oak fire.”
In 1931, the Santa Maria Club started a “Stag Barbecue,” which was held on the second Wednesday of every month, with up to 700 patrons attending each event. By the late 1950s, three local restaurants—The Far Western Tavern, Hitching Post, and Jocko’s were on their way to becoming landmarks of this style of barbecue. The Elks Lodge #1538 has huge indoor BBQ pits, and host what is called 'Cook Your Own' (CYO) every Friday evening. The original cut was top sirloin. Then, as today, the meat was rolled in a mixture of salt, pepper, and garlic salt before being barbecued over the red oak coals, which contribute a smoky, hearty flavor. In the 1950s, a local butcher named Bob Schutz (Santa Maria Market) perfected the tri-tip, a triangular bottom sirloin cut that quickly joined top sirloin as a staple of Santa Maria-style barbecue.
President Ronald Reagan was an avid fan of Santa Maria-style barbecue. Local barbecue chef Bob Herdman and his “Los Compadres Barbecue Crew” staged several barbecues for President Reagan, including five feasts on the South Lawn of the White House.
Pinquito beans are an essential component of the traditional Santa Maria-style barbecue menu. They are a cross between a pink bean and a small white bean, and grow well in the fertile soil and mild climate of the Santa Maria Valley, which is the only place where they are grown commercially. Betteravia Farms began growing pinquito beans commercially in 1972 . Another specialty purveyor of pinquito beans and other Santa Maria-style barbecue foods is Susie Q’s Brand.
- Madison, Deborah Renewing America’s Food Tradition book. Retrieved March 2009
- California Farm Bureau
- Santa Maria Visitor & Conference Bureau
- Tesene, R.H. Santa Maria Style Barbecue book. Retrieved April 2009
- Santa Maria Valley: A Brief History of Santa Maria Style Barbecue
- Righetti, Susan (Susie Q's Brand) March 2009