On Barbecued Ribs and Fallacious Independence


In Memphis, the spice rub used to flavor our ribs varies from restaurant to restaurant, family to family, but often includes amounts of salt, black pepper, paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, cayenne, brown sugar, white sugar, rosemary, ginger, celery salt, mustard, oregano, cumin. We must keep our grills cool enough not to burn these spices, especially the sugar. We will turn on our televisions as the smoke curls into the air, draws lassoes or nooses over so many backyards. On the news, we will see the faces of so many of our dead, watch our elected officials rise from their chairs, sit on the floor, their knees to their chests, their stomachs growling. Perhaps they too are thinking of a kind of Independence Day; perhaps they too are waiting for the real fireworks to start.

Here, in the face of all this spice, our mouths are confused as whether to parch or to salivate, cool themselves down with lemonade or bite themselves faint. Here, if left to cure overnight, the dry rub reacts with the wetness of the rib meat, and if we add heat, said reaction will form a crust we call a bark, and we will imagine all of our sourwoods and pecans and sugarberries, white pines, black gums and swamp oaks, dogwoods and locusts, hiding a softer meat deep into the middles of their charred trunks. While our ribs cook, we listen to the people on TV shout about 1776 and the dysfunctional relationship between independence and explosives. We read articles about how some of the earliest weapons wielded by human hands were the rib-bones of animals (and sometimes fellow humans), filed into sharp points.

The bark on the rib, the cage on top of the cage . . . Here, when we’re feeling hungry and patriotic, we’d rather think of music while we’re eating, than unearthing future weapons with our mouths. To get to the middles of all hard things, all it takes is an axe and the capacity for the chopping. On the TV, someone says, “dramatic,” and “roots,” and “smolder,” “freedom,” and “it’s time to do something.” We open up the fireworks drawer, look at the pathetic leftovers from last year. We somehow don’t have the heart to light these old limp fuses. We go back outside. By refusing to prematurely lift the grill’s lid, by allowing the ribs to cook, by having faith in all that smoke, we tell ourselves that we are doing something.

Our mouths are like the ribs themselves: such soft anatomy into which bones are pressed, the teeth the cage for the tongue, and the tongue, when unleashed, capable of so much damage and delight. The best-protected thing is the thing most surrounded on all sides: the bull’s eye, the iris, the bone. The best-protected thing, we think, is the thing with the juiciest of secrets. Our mouths, still, are the tools of war here . . .

The cure doesn’t heal. That pig is still dead. We bite our way to the middle, thinking that that’s where the answers are. Here, the tongue mops the last of the rub from the rib, the last of the meat from the bone, the last of the meat being its juice . . . We bite with these mouths made stupid with spice, and our superior labial frenula—those sexy cords connecting the insides of our upper lips to our gums—shudder with the spice as if plucked, as if, in tearing the meat from the rib, our mouths—if not our hunger—are building some horrible new instrument. “Shame, shame!” come the shouts from the television, “No bill, no break!” When the fireworks come, we wonder if our hearts will still be able to take it. We wonder if all that light and noise will finally be revealed as another kind of violence cloaking itself in tradition and celebration, desperation and dogma. This year, somehow, we don’t want to celebrate a narrative dependent on old detonated bombs.

Here, we bite into our ribs, and the steam escapes, commingles with the smoke that cooked them. Some of the rub’s power resides in the litany of its ingredients when spoken aloud, the tongue whirling in orbit like an electron in the cave of the mouth. This rub is different from all other rubs, which affects the tenderness of the meat, the caress of teeth to pig, the sort of kiss that is tipped in our favor, the sort of devotion to explosives that leads to our downfall. We wonder about the sort of freedom that begets shame, the sort of atrocity that trails independence like a parachute trying to slow some out-of-control racecar down.

According to George R. Stewart’s Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States, Memphis founders John Overton, James Winchester, and Andrew Jackson “cherished hopes for [the town’s] greatness, and were conscious of the Nile of America. They remembered the great city of ancient Egypt, and called their new venture Memphis.” Soon: ribs, and soon: music and dams, and the sorts of racial and political assassinations carried out by men with pig in their teeth, at motels named Budget and motels named Lorraine, new weapons made not of bone but of the sort of judgment and steel that guys like Overton, Jackson, and Winchester made famous through things called historical state rulings, militias, massacres.

Weapon or not, we can’t perform mouth-to-mouth on a rib. If we can’t revive it, we consume it and, in most cases, forget about it. Maybe it’s because of the television news, or all that barbecue smoke in our eyes, but we cry after the carving, the words, Happy 4th, heavy and disingenuous in our mouths. We finish our slabs, appear confused, don’t know what to do with the bones. We want to think of circulation, of things that move like water. We want to think even of the snake—or something almost as biblical; how its ribcage provides support and protection for its entire body; how sharks have no dorsal ribs, but do have that really big fin, and very sharp teeth; how the frog has no ribs, save for a sacral pair which confuses itself for a part of the pelvis; how we have ribs we identify by number, as true, as false, as floating.

We know that rib derives from the medieval Latin word costa, which has also come to refer to bone, to bow, to flank, to side, to slope, to shore, to coast, to the edge of a thing, to that thing’s limit, to the beginning of something else, some new thing, to a border crossing; to the cage, and the escape from that cage; to end, to finish, to freedom, to death . . .

Because the clouds are gathering, predicting rain, the fireworks show seems muted, out of place, old, outdated, but still trying to swagger as if fresh. We try not to think of how we’ve enslaved and slaughtered the cultures responsible for our 4th of July backyard barbecues—from the Arawak to the African-American. We try not to think of history at all, but only of this mad present, as we turn skyward and hope—almost prayerfully—that the finale will be grander than this.

Matthew Gavin Frank is the author of the nonfiction books, The Mad Feast: An Ecstatic Tour Through America’s Food, Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer, Pot Farm, and Barolo; the poetry books, The Morrow Plots, Warranty in Zulu, and Sagittarius Agitprop, and 2 chapbooks. He teaches at Northern Michigan University, where he is the Nonfiction/Hybrids Editor of Passages North.  He persevered through this past winter via the occasional one-handed cartwheel in his mind.

Image: Enrico B. via Creative Commons.

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