Santa Maria boasts a savory culinary history
By Jim Morris
With blazing embers and the smoke, sizzle and tantalizing scent from a barbecue pit, it's easy to understand why this cooking style has almost universal appeal. Our love affair with this simple, yet satisfying meal began in the Stone Age and has been wildly popular ever since.
You'll find one of the most famous and fervent interpretations of barbecue in Santa Maria, located in an alluring coastal valley in Santa Barbara County.
Santa Maria-style barbecue has a century and a half of history behind it, and it's as much of the region's foundation as are the cowboys, mighty oaks and scenic vistas that still dominate this unique part of California.
"I love Santa Maria-style barbecue for three reasons. It tastes good, it's so different and unusual, and there once was a time when it was totally regional--available just within a 20-mile radius," said Steven Raichlen, author of "The Barbecue Bible," "How to Grill" and "BBQ USA" and also host of "Barbecue University" on PBS.
"I like the story line. I love its intense regionality. It's very much a piece of history like all true barbecue is. That history is bound up in the original Spanish settlements of the area, the arrival of the Swiss-Italian workers who became landowners--and is now being reinterpreted by a different set of immigrants."
The region's barbecuing history began in the 19th century, when ranchers during cattle roundups needed a way to feed hundreds of vaqueros, the Spanish name for cowboy. In his book, "Santa Maria Style Barbecue," R.H. Tesene writes that among the first to savor this cooking style was the battalion of John Charles Fremont in 1846, as they traded 30 horses to a local rancher for 40 head of cattle that were used in a barbecue.
Santa Maria-style barbecue, hailed by Sunset magazine as "the best barbecue in the world," begins with heat from coastal red oak wood native to the region. Top sirloin, also known as top block, is seasoned simply with salt, pepper and garlic salt. The steak is often cooked via a long iron rod, placed fat side down over the fire. The finished product is served immediately, accompanied by a green salad, thick slices of sweet French bread, homemade salsa and pinquito beans, which are native to the area. True aficionados will say there is little wiggle room if you want to fully savor this regional dining experience, although tri-tip has elevated itself into top billing for many 'cuers.
So revered is this culinary art form that the local chamber of commerce copyrighted Santa Maria-style barbecue in 1978 and a barbecue hall of fame was in place in the 1990s, honoring local ranchers and barbecuing kings--who were often one in the same. It has long been the meal of choice for local institutions, including the Elks Club, the Shriners and the Santa Maria Club.
"It's just a way of life for us," said 80-year-old Ike Simas, a third-generation Santa Maria resident and barbecue expert. "It will live on forever. Here, very few homes are without a barbecue pit. We are teaching young people this cooking style so it will carry on."
Santa Maria-style barbecue has secured a place in the fabric of the area, as each generation has passed along its techniques and importance.
"I learned as a young man about Santa Maria-style barbecue from some of my idols--local ranchers and farmers," said area rancher Paul Righetti. "They showed me what it was all about. Since then, we've served it to thousands of people at catered events, to people who respect the heritage that has been set forth."
Righetti's in-laws, Clarence and Rosalie Minetti, own and operate the Far Western Tavern in Guadalupe, a restaurant that radiates feelings of history, family and fine food.
The Minettis, with their relative and business partner Richard Maretti, opened the Far Western in 1958 under the motto, "Where the pavement ends and the West begins," and have entertained nearly 5 million diners since that time. If you venture to this coastal treasure off of Highway 1, you will likely see the couple enjoying friendships and a meal.
Inside, the 1912-era building evokes stirring thoughts of the old West, complete with a cowhide draped around the front door, several massive steer heads mounted on the walls, a grand bar brought back from the horn of Africa a century ago and, of course, a menu that would satisfy the heartiest appetite.
Here, the central focus is beef--equal parts simple and wonderful--including their signature "Bulls Eye," a 14-ounce rib eye steak.
Retired farmers and brothers Clarence and Joe Freitas have sat at the same table for lunch at the tavern five to six days a week for more than 45 years.
"This food is habit-forming," Joe Freitas said--an understatement considering they have dined on some 15,000 meals since the restaurant opened. "We get together with family and friends," his brother added. "We're all really one big family. This whole town is."
The Freitas brothers and other locals will lovingly bend your ear about their gracious hosts, who have been a fixture in the community for as long as anyone can remember.
"When I was in high school, pitching hay onto a wagon, I used to eat rib eye steak and spaghetti in this very dining room for 65 cents," 89-year-old Clarence Minetti recalled. "I want our customers to be very happy and satisfied with the food and the service. I have a motto: If it's not good, don't pay!"
Clarence and Rosalie Minetti were wed in 1940. He had been earning $45 a month working with his uncle at a dairy and cattle operation in nearby Cayucos, living off of hot chocolate and bread every night. Two years later after they married, he took over management of the family cattle ranch, fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming a cowboy.
"A cowboy is the most underpaid, hardest-working person in the world," he said. "They have to be a carpenter, a plumber and just about everything else."
The Minettis say for all of their business success, their proudest moment is having all of their family in the immediate area, playing valuable roles in maintaining their heritage.
Rounding up cattle is all in a day's work for ranchers, including Mark Fowler (left), son-in-law of Paul Righetti (right).
Their daughter, Susan Righetti, established in 1981 Susie Q's, a series of products based on their family recipes. Her first offering was a bag of pinquito beans, which has expanded to several seasonings, beef jerky and strawberry glaze. Susie Q's products are available at retail outlets in California and a handful of other states, including in Costco stores, and have created a business that complements the family's ranching enterprise and lifestyle.
Righetti said her business grows by about 10 percent a year, which reflects the growing interest in Santa Maria- style barbecue.
"When I started, few people had heard of it," she said. "Regional cooking and cuisines have become so popular since then. It's just very appropriate. There's no right or wrong about American cuisine. It's about what flourishes in the region and the showcasing of local, seasonal ingredients."
Righetti said that as many benefits as Susie Q's has yielded, her biggest blessings come from family and their ranching lifestyle.
"My dad and mom are the two finest people one will ever meet," she said. "More than anything they've given us, they have taught us by how they live their lives. They posses a work ethic and generous spirit that have made them icons in this community. My dad once said, 'Any darn fool can make money, but it takes a special person to make a few friends along the way, too.' There's a lot to be said about that."
While Righetti handles her seasoning products and business details, her husband, Paul, roams their spread, doing what it takes to keep their cattle and horses healthy and content.
"You've got to be a big problem solver," he said. "You have to communicate with your horse, your wife and your fellow workers. Every day is challenging and no two are alike. One day you start to rebuild a fence but a pipeline breaks, you have to retrieve stray cattle or meet with the restaurant management. My job is 24 hours a day."
Despite the challenges, the Righettis and Minettis say they are exactly where they want to be: preserving a lifestyle that has provided abundant rewards.
"We live a simply great life," Susan Righetti said. "We are part of a profession and lifestyle that is difficult to acquire today. We have dedicated our lives to preserving it for our grandchildren and the generations to come. We are truly blessed."
Her husband agrees that their world, including close family ties, ranching traditions and a cooking style all their own, is as right a fit as a big barbecue on a summer afternoon.
"Santa Maria-style barbecue is just good honest food, simply prepared," he said. "It's almost a ritual. You gather with your family and friends and it's so easy to do. You can entertain and prepare a great meal at the same time."
Jim Morris is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation and administrative producer of the popular weekly television program "California Country." He can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com