California-Style Barbecue

As interesting as it is to live in China, I am on a much-needed vacation back in the U.S. Other than suffering from a nasty week-long stomach bug, I have been indulging in things I never thought I had missed about American life. Crock-Pot cooking. The Food Network. Small town social events.

The past few days I have been in the Salinas Valley, specifically, a small town called King City where Jacob (partly) grew up. Surprisingly enough, I was almost giddy to get here, because after a year of living in a city of 18 million where elbowing is a way of life, it was a huge relief to spend some time in a tiny town of wide quiet streets and two traffic lights.

I confess to having a soft spot for, even somewhat romanticizing, the Salinas Valley, ever since reading The Grapes of Wrath in high school. A sunny California for dreamers outside the movie biz. Where rugged migrants had escaped the Dust Bowl for ""America's Salad Bowl", this land of large farm swaths where much of the country's lettuce, tomatoes, artichokes, and broccoli are grown. When Jacob first told me he was from this area my first thought was, "You had Steinbeck's childhood!"

And one of the best secrets about Salinas Valley is the barbecue. Specifically, the wood-fire barbeques that is the center of social life here. When towns are surrounded by ranches, you can be sure this is not grilling on a backyard George Foreman. The style closer to the Southern-style barbecue, with a distinct Western and Latin influence that seems distinct to the Salinas area. The grills are massive, with wheel cranks to lower and raise the jumbo meat loads that are smoked with California oak. A grill's size is measured by the number of chickens you can fit on each. The one below is a "40", though there are also "80"s and "100"s. This is a modern grill, but Jacob remembers the ones from his childhood being made out of 50-gallon oil drums.

In King City, any occasion is an occasion for a barbecue. Birthdays, Quinceañeras, weddings, or just because it's Saturday. Last year I attended a "Cowboy Supper" at the town park, during which I ate the best steak of my entire life, probably owing as much to the grill as to the fact that the cattle was just slaughtered a few hours earlier from a ranch down the street. Today we headed to a chicken barbeque fund-raiser. A one point two "100" grills and one "40" grill were at full capacity, surrounded by luscious oaky, chicken-y smoke.

According to the grill master, today's half-pieces of chicken were first marinated with a mixture of beer, vegetable oil, basil, salt, and pepper, before being grilled. They cooked an hour on the underside, then half an hour on the skin side, while being periodically basted. Foot-long sausages crisped and smoked alongside the chicken.

When chicken is smoked this long and the skin is charred this beautifully, it took little time before we were digging in. And the green chili salsa and side of baked beans didn't hurt either.