The Tangy & Sweet History of Baby Back Ribs

Coast to coast, North to South and around the world baby back ribs are a staple of the American barbecue scene. Every city, state, and region have their own way to prepare their smoky bones and they take pride in them. Even in states like Texas that claims to have invented beef brisket crusted in smoked salt, pepper and garlic, one can find BBQ ribs on every menu in every barbecue joint. That wasn’t always the case though. How back ribs came to be legendary might not be what you’d expect. But, it’s just that American journey that has transformed the rib into a cultural icon of American cuisine. Take in the aroma of the tangy, sweet history of baby back ribs.

19th Century America

In the 19th century fresh meat wasn’t available year-round like it is now. Back then ranchers had to wait until the temperature dropped below 40 degrees before they could begin to slaughter the herd. This was to prevent the meat from spoiling by keeping it cool but not frozen. A hog killing was a huge affair that took many people and lots of time. Not part of the hog went to waste and everyone in the community got a piece. After the kill, the carcass was left to cool overnight and then the butchering began. Hams, shoulders, and bacon were taken to the smoke house and the remaining parts like the ribs were eaten over the remaining days.

Industrial Meat Packing

The Industrial Revolution brought about massive meat packing operations. People that lived near one those massive operations were treated to the cast-off parts, namely ribs. In areas like Indianapolis, they were processing up to 2,500 hogs a day. Hundreds of barrels of meat were packed every day, filled with hams, bacon, and shoulders with gaps filled in by hocks and jowls, then filled with a brine. As reported in by Serious Eats, “The spareribs didn’t fit in the barrels, and packers found themselves with literal tons of unwanted racks on their hands. “It is said that during the hog-killing season in Cincinnati,” the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported in 1844, “any keeper of a boarding-house, by sending a basket to the butcher’s, can have it filled with the finest and most delicious spare ribs, and ‘free gratis for nothing’ at that.”

Refrigeration and Ice Making

Towards the end of the 19th century refrigeration and artificial ice making was invented transformed meat packing into a year-round endeavor. Now butchers could keep the ribs, refrigerate them, and sell them to retailers at low prices. Soon after recipes started to appear in periodicals and people were cooking them at home with their own seasoning like smoked salt, pepper, and garlic. Enterprising farmers and restaurateurs started to take note and saw the market forming and the rest is history. The history of baby back ribs is a journey from the farms to stock yards, to mass industry. A uniquely American story.

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