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Believe It

Come to Big Papa's for great baby-back ribs.

For the past month or so, National Public Radio has been featuring a project called "This I Believe," airing essays from listeners -- famous people, regular joes, politicians, pipe-fitters and everyone in between -- willing to rise to the challenge of condensing and codifying their personal beliefs. The final product must fit into three minutes, which isn't much space for a big subject. But as long as they confine their sermonizing to the requisite time, people can believe in any damn fool thing they want.

This is a fine concept for a project. It's involving, equalizing; it forces individuals to think through a subject that, for most people and for most of their lives, is just a nebulous, disorganized clutter of notions and half-held convictions that serve as a kind of reflex belief system. The process of putting these thoughts down on paper or committing them to tape helps cement those few things a person truly believes -- the core of a principled life.

I've been hearing the results of this project for the past couple of weeks off and on, during commutes and when I've been out restaurant hunting. Not surprisingly, most essays have dealt with the big topics: truth, love, compassion for one's fellow man, and the inherent goodness of the world. Weighty stuff, to be sure, and usually handled with spirit and good humor. Last week, as I was driving home from a quick pit stop at Big Papa's BBQ on East Evans, I listened to another "This I Believe" segment -- documentarian Errol Morris doing his three minutes on his belief in the search for truth -- and when it was over, I realized that I could do three minutes, too. Not on world peace or anything as grave and serious as that, but on a belief just as true.

Nice rack: Andrew Besemer does ribs right at Big 
Papa's BBQ.
Mark Manger
Nice rack: Andrew Besemer does ribs right at Big Papa's BBQ.

Location Info

Map

Big Papa's BBQ

6265 E. Evans Ave.
Denver, CO 80222

Category: Restaurant > Barbecue

Region: Southeast Denver

Big Papa's BBQ

12652 W. Ken Caryl Ave.
Littleton, CO 80127

Category: Restaurant > Barbecue

Region: Southwest Denver Suburbs

Big Papa's BBQ

5151 S. Federal Blvd.
Littleton, CO 80123

Category: Restaurant > Barbecue

Region: Southwest Denver Suburbs

Details

6265 East Evans Avenue, 303-300-4499. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily

Brisket po’boy: $5.99
Baby-back ribs: $16.99
St. Louis-style ribs: $14.99< br>Pulled pork: $7.89
Half-chicken: $7.99

My subject was sitting on the seat next to me, in two plastic bags, filling my car with the earthy scent of wood smoke. I thought about it through NPR's world-news roundup, and while the fact that I was very hungry (it's difficult to eat while negotiating rush-hour traffic) probably had a lot to do with my choice of topics in the echelons of faith that govern my life, that didn't make my convictions any less pure.

I believe in barbecue. As soul food and comfort food and health food, as a cuisine of both solace and celebration. When I'm feeling good, I want barbecue. And when I'm feeling bad, I just want barbecue more. I believe in barbecue in all its regional derivations, in its ethnic translations, in forms that range from white-tablecloth presentations of cunningly sauced costillas, to Chinese takeout spareribs that stain your fingers red, to the most authentic product of the tar-paper rib shacks in the Deep South.

I believe in the art of generations of pit men working in relative obscurity to keep alive the craft of slow-smoking as it's been practiced for as long as there has been meat and fire. I believe that there is nothing so simple, or simply enjoyable, as a rack of barbecued ribs presented on a clean white plate, and nothing so uniquely complicated as making those ribs turn out right. A barbecue cook must have an intimate understanding of his work -- of the chemical reactions that occur during the cooking process, the physics of fire and convection, the hard science of meat and heat and smoke -- and then forget it all to achieve a sort of gut-level, Zen instinct for the process. There's a theory that the greatest pit men -- like the greatest painters, the greatest novelists, the greatest scientists -- are born, not made, and that no amount of instruction can ever raise a person without the gene above the level of bush-league plugger. I believe that, too.

Still, there have been many technological improvements in the science of deep-smoking over the years. Aficionados used to be able to pre-judge the quality of a barbecue joint by the wood stacked up out back and the smell of the smoke coming from the chimney, back when the best barbecue was cooked in a pit dug in the ground -- lending to the meats not just the flavor of the wood being burned, but the particular earth in which it lay -- or in a split metal drum. Today we're in a science-fiction world of stainless-steel sealed smokers and custom ovens and grills that look like something out of the old Flash Gordon pulps. While there's been much hue and cry over the loss of traditional cooking methods, I'm no Luddite. I believe that technology is not always a bad thing (the exception being Liquid Smoke, which is always evil incarnate), and that any barbecued meat, no matter its modern provenance, can be judged by its line -- that fading of color down from the brown and blackened rubbed surface of a rib or shoulder cut into a purplish shade of bruise and, finally, a pinky-gray strip of color that shows how deeply the smoke and flavor have penetrated the meat. That's the defining characteristic of any barbecue, whether made in a pit or an industrial kitchen. You can't fake the line; you can't gimmick it. The line is proof of commitment to doing a thing right, and an infallibly accurate measure of taste. Deep line, deep flavor. No line? Just walk away.

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