At first I think that witty phrases, poetic incantations and well articulated prose are all beyond my reach today. As I sit behind my sterile desk in my glass walled office wolfing down raw vegetables, half a cold sandwich and a diet Pepsi, my mind drifts off to lazy warm summer evenings, crackling pit fires laden with heavy smoke and perfectly seasoned sizzling tidbits. The words begin to flow and my imagination begins to stroll through fertile fields. I longingly ponder a juicy and tender Santa Maria Tri-Tip steak – the high pinnacle and mainstay of real California BBQ – and conjure up memories so vivid I can almost smell them.
I entertain a flash back to the 1950’s when Bob Shutz, the butcher at a Safeway market (the hallowed spot is now an old folks home) in Santa Maria was flush with trimmings for hamburger and stew meat. He took the bottom portion of a top sirloin usually destined for the grinder, seasoned it with garlic salt and pepper and threw it on the red oak rotisserie along with the rest of the trimmed sirloins. On this seemingly uneventful red letter day, the Tri-Tip was born.
While simple to prepare, this unique cut of meat can be transformed into a piece of one of Akron’s finest whitewalls if not properly treated. This is a California legacy and should be afforded the loving tender care it deserves. A real tri tip cooking session is communal affair involving friends, music, beans and garlic bread. This usually goes on at a ranch or large picnic area but backyards and even balconies are not excluded from the list of acceptable venues.
Your perfect tri tip day is not one reserved for the venerable slow cooking smoke gazers, but a celebratory and raucous gathering. This day begins with a breezeless early morning when the air is still cool but electric with anticipation of a central California coastal range scorcher. Your beans are finished and in the fridge. The garlic bread spread is at room temperature and ready to be slathered on the fresh French loaves you have yet to pick up. The beer is cold.
Hot cup of coffee in hand, you check to make sure everything is at the ready – no last minute disasters today. A slow and deliberate walk around the yard and you begin your inspection. Gnarled and ancient white oaks surround the area in front of the cabin. Nuthatches and Downy red headed woodpeckers call from the shady branches. You can smell humble beginnings of an epic summer day. Way up ahead, in the rocky creek bottom that runs parallel to the cabin, a small family unit of black tail deer is browsing in the tall grass under the shade of a big stumpy palo verde. Dog like tracks in the dust of the road are the only reminders of the coyote pack that came through here early this morning at 3am and woke everyone up. You resist the temptation to stretch out on a hillside and dream the day away, for this is your perfect Tri Tip day!
The red oak is split and stacked. Clean towels are ready. The grill is clean. The good friends begin to show up in about two hours – around 10am – to help with the setup and drink your beer. You’ll see the dust clouds kicked up in the long driveway leading out about a half a mile to the main road before you hear the engines of pickups. The rest of them will trickle in around 2pm in open jeeps and SUVs. You carefully selected your meat yesterday and seasoned it generously with a little olive oil, minced garlic, fresh chopped rosemary, some fresh oregano, a few crushed red pepper flakes and plenty of salt and pepper. It’s been in the fridge absorbing the fresh herbs since you put in there last night, just before your wife called you to bed and told you to quit messing with it for the last time.
A last minute trip to the mountain junction store for ice, bread and fresh green salad veggies with a couple of your “helpers”, usually ends in an apology to the checkout girl who is rather quite embarrassed and not impressed by your juvenile antics in the store. Once back at the ranch, it’s time to light the fire. You have some thin dry splintered red oak pieces that you’ve carefully stacked under the grill and those readily take to the flame. Soon, you feed it some more chunks, progressively larger until you are adding certifiable logs to the ever hungry fire. By 2pm the rest of your guests have begun to show up. The fire is spread out meticulously below the grill in the pit. The grill is lowered and raised with something looking close to a gigantic steering wheel. When the fire is good and hot – and the flames have receded to white hot coals, you lower your grate to get it ready for the meat.
The beans are on the stove and the garlic bread is ready and wrapped in heavy duty aluminum foil. Your good friends are engaged in deep conversation in shady spots about the cattle that didn’t come out of the high country, the big deer they saw in the front country and the great big wild pig they’ve only been able to get a glimpse of and aptly named “Boss Hawg”.
It’s time to place the tri tips on the hot grate. You lower the grate to a spot where you can only hold your hand for a “3 Count” and put each of the tri tips at an angle to the grate – for perfect grill marks. They immediately sizzle and snap. After about 5 minutes you will rotate them to make lovely cross hatch marks. Between beers and tall tales you’ll flip the trip tips and repeat. Raise the grill up a foot or so and the tri tips are well on their way to becoming memories of a great California BBQ. These will stay put until you can see pools of juice forming on top of them and they’ve plumped up like little footballs. It takes some experience to really get the timing correct, but you’ve done it a thousand times – and can tell when they are done by simply looking at them.
The tri-tips come off to rest under an aluminum foil shield for about five minutes and you slice them thinly – at a 90 degree angle to the grain. This keeps them tender and juicy. Of course, you always serve your Santa Maria tri-tip with your salsa – a very, very simple concoction of finely diced tomato, onion, some bell pepper, cilantro, salt, pepper and a squeeze of lime. The crowd descends on the beans, the garlic bread that you’ve grilled, a green salad and your perfect tri tip. The conversation gets quiet while your guests are otherwise occupied, and all is well at the ranch.
As the last dust settles from the last vehicle and silence returns to your little ranch, the feeling of accomplishment is almost overwhelming. A wild turkey yodels in the distance. Today was your perfect tri tip day.