With the exception of Zach, my lovely cousin-by-marriage, we are not football people in my family. Zach is a Wisconsin-born, prominent Ann Arbor neurologist and you know how that goes: Packers and Blue paraphernalia everywhere. Don’t get me started on the foam cheese heads. Zach and his wife, my cousin Lauren, came to Thanksgiving one year at Lauren’s parents’ house in Virginia, and a little while before dinner, he dragged us all outside to the street to toss around a football that seemed to materialize out of thin air. We ran around in circles, like crazy people, trying to intercept each other, dropping the ball, and generally tripping over ourselves. I tried to get the pigskin away from Susan, who was on my team, and then I ran into the side of my cousin Bob’s BMW.
My father used to tell jokes about Jewish football players and Jewish hockey players and Jewish downhill skiers. And so I don’t ever recall watching one Superbowl as a child; it just wasn’t on our wavelength. While I knew that Joe Namath was purported to wear pantyhose to stay warm on the field, I couldn’t possibly tell you what a first down was anymore than I could speak to you in Swahili. Even now.
First down! someone announces, and then everyone yells YAY. So I’m assuming it’s a good thing.
When I was in college, I twice attended Superbowl parties at the sprawling Upper Fifth Avenue apartment of a man called Herman, who was one of my stepfather’s friends. Herman was a hard-drinking garment center kind of guy who looked like Finster Baby, and had worked his way up the ladder; his incongruous girlfriend, called Bunny, was tall and thin and wore frosted Palm Beach pink lipstick and her stick straight silver hair pulled back in a George tied with a ribbon of black velvet. Long before the coin toss, Herman and his man friends would repair to the bedroom and get polluted on the pitchers of Blood Marys he begged me to make for them (the only cocktail I knew how to assemble, and I did it well, even at eighteen) while watching the pre-game show on a small Sony Trinitron; Bunny and her friends and my mother and I stayed in the living room, drinking white wine spritzers and singing show tunes around her black Steinway baby grand. We nibbled on macadamia nuts and orangettes and dainty finger sandwiches; the guys ate individual, gargantuan turkey legs ordered from a nearby deli while sprawled on Herman and Bunny’s white Italian enamel California king, which Bunny had thoughtfully covered earlier in the day with a clear plastic dropcloth. Every once in a while, Herman would stumble out of the bedroom, hand me the empty pitcher, and growl MAW BWOODY MARWYS BABY…
And that was pretty much the extent of my formative Superbowl experience.
I still don’t quite understand the whole thing; I know that if the Giants are playing, I’m supposed to be happy. I know that I’m supposed to watch the spectacular soft drink ads because the media buys are something like $8 million dollars for a 30-second spot, but they invariably irritate me because I loathe Big Soda and everything it touches. Still, I love — I mean really love — going to our neighbor’s big Superbowl bash every year because it’s the one time every winter where I throw caution to the culinary wind and eat what can be simply defined as Superbowl Food. Translation: if you put a tray of pigs in blankets in front of me, I will inhale them like a Hoover. One year, I stood around my neighbor’s heavily laden dining room table while the game blared on the giant television set across the room, and ate six of them in one go before I realized what I’d done. I felt such shame; nobody noticed. They were too busy shouting YAY when the man in the black and white shirt said FIRST DOWN.
Last year, Susan and I decided to make a few healthy options. We put them out on the big food table at the party. No one went near them. The healthiest people on the street didn’t even go near them. Instead, everyone gorged on wings and cocktail wieners and chips and salsa. Even we didn’t eat the healthy stuff, which we wound up carrying back to our house, untouched.
This year, our neighbors decided not to have a Superbowl party tonight — the season has just been too busy and crazy and fraught for everyone. This morning, I finally admitted to Susan that I did not know what FIRST DOWN meant, and she actually didn’t believe me. She explained it; I told her that I’ve gone through my entire adulthood thinking that the two opposing teams just tried to make touch downs endlessly, until either they reached the end zone or their ball was intercepted and everything started all over again.
Not so much, she said.
Do you have any interest in watching? I asked.
Not so much, she admitted. And we agreed: as non-football people, the only reason to ever watch the Superbowl is to be with friends and eat pigs in blankets, exactly once a year.
Still, this year — even without the party — we have to tune in for at least a portion of the game: the children from our local Sandy Hook Elementary School, including our friend Curtis’s lovely little girl, are singing America the Beautiful. So it would have been wrong not to prepare something at least a little bit Superbowlish. Tonight, I’m oven-smoking the ribs that came from the local pig we split this year with Mark Scarbrough and Bruce Weinstein. Both grills are covered with snow, so we’ll see how this goes, and how often I’ll have to whack the smoke detector with a broom handle while the man in the black and white shirt says FIRST DOWN and Susan says YAY.
Spicy Dry Steam-Smoked Pork Belly Ribs
copyright Carole Topalian, 2012. Image used by permission.
Last year, I had the honor of working closely with two dear friends of mine, Tracey Ryder and Carole Topalian — the founders, CEO, and president of Edible Communities — to produce a series of regional cookbooks representing the remarkable publications Edible Brooklyn, Edible Seattle, Edible Dallas Fort Worth, and Edible Twin Cities. Not only did I come away with a passel of new food pals all over the country (meaning you, Jill, Angelo, Rachel, and Terri) I had the pleasure of contributing my pork rib recipe to the Edible Dallas & Fort Worth: The Cookbook, which was a huge distinction, considering I am a Jew from New York who has never set foot in the Lone Star State (or, as my Texan friends like to say, I’m all hat and no cow). This method — you massage the ribs with an incendiary, smokey rub, then wood-smoke them, steam them, and finish them on the grill — yields meat that is dense yet tender; any leftovers can be pulled off the bone and folded into rice and beans, or tucked into a corn tortilla. My beverage of choice with these ribs is a crisp cold wheat beer, or a very dry Cava.
Note: This recipe calls for pork belly ribs, but I’ve also made them with country ribs, St. Louis-style ribs, and baby backs. If the rub seems is too spicy, reduce the amount of cayenne by half.
For the dry rub
1/4 cup Turbinado sugar
2 tablespoons dry mustard
1/2 cup sweet pimenton
1/4 cup garlic powder
1/4 cup finely ground sea salt
1/4 cup cumin seeds, toasted and ground
1 tablespoon ground Szechuan peppercorn
1 tablespoon finely ground black pepper
1/4 cup ancho chili powder
2 tablespoon cayenne
For the ribs
8 pork belly ribs, or 1 rack
Hickory wood chips
Roasting pan with rack
Make the dry rub by placing the sugar, mustard, pimenton, garlic powder, sea salt, ground cumin, ground Szechuan peppercorn, black pepper, chili powder, and cayenne in a large metal bowl. Wearing rubber gloves, toss everything well with your hands.
Place the ribs in a glass baking dish — a lasagna dish is perfect — and using your hands, massage the rub into the meat on all sides. Don’t hesitate to go overboard. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours. (Any extra dry rub can be stored in an airtight jar in your pantry for up to 4 months.)
Remove the ribs from the refrigerator, loosen the plastic wrap, and let them come to room temperature. Meanwhile, soak 6 cups of good-quality hickory chips in water for at least an hour.
If your smoker box is attached to your grill, turn it to medium and add about a cup of the smoked wood chips. Turn the left-most burner to medium and place the ribs on the grill grate over indirect heat. Close the grill lid and maintain the grill at a steady temperature of about 275 degrees to 300 degrees F for 1 hour.
After an hour, add another cup of the soaked wood chips to the smoker and continue to cook the ribs for another hour. If the wood chips seem to be burning too quickly, turn the temperature of the smoker down a bit. Continue to add chips for another 3 hours, turning the ribs after 1-1/2 hours on the grill.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Transfer the ribs to a platter and let them come to room temperature. Place a rack in a small metal roasting pan and fill the pan a quarter of the way with water. Place the ribs on the rack, cover tightly with foil, and place in the oven to steam for 30 minutes.
Remove the ribs from the oven and place them back on the grill over medium heat for another 30 minutes, turning them frequently. Serve warm, with bowls of your favorite sweet sauce on the side — and a lot of napkins.