2017-09-01 / Dishing

Sticking to his Ribs

Bill Asbury makes ribs for the public only five times a year, but the tradition is all in the family.
Michele Marchetti | Photos by Matt Fern

It’s the 1950s and Bill Asbury’s father, his sleeves rolled up and a trucker cap protecting his head from the Cincinnati sun, is hovered over a tin tub set up inside a community park, tending to the family’s summertime treat: ribs.

“I can see him leaning over the tub with the grate on it, turning the ribs, as I’m talking to you,” says Asbury, who was 14 at the time.

Fast-forward about a decade and Asbury, a calorie-packing running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, is watching a woman make ribs on an open pit. One half of the pit is filled with coals and wood; the other half is clear. Cooking 20 slabs at once, “she’d start the ribs on the hot end, them move them to the other end,” he recalls. “Whenever they were ready the people standing in line got their order. When she ran out of the ones that were finished, they had to wait again.”

After years of studying others, Asbury decided he was ready to make ribs himself. He got some concrete blocks and a grate that folded up like a suitcase and built his own pit. After he moved to Central Pennsylvania in the mid-’70s, he started cooking ribs for a fundraiser at the Boalsburg Memorial Day festivities, setting up a pit right on a street corner. Asbury was a Memorial Day fixture for about 10 years. Word spread and someone asked if he’d like to auction off his ribs for charity.

Asbury, a Vice President Emeritus for Student Affairs at Penn State who retired in 2003, has been providing ribs to five silent auctions annually for the past 15 years. Chefs On Stage, WPSU Connoisseur’s Dinner & Auction, The Youth Service Bureau, Global Connections, Trout Unlimited and many others have benefited from his culinary largesse, which generates as much as $500 per auction. (A minimum bid of $125 was set after a friend bragged that he scored the meal for as little as $90.) The nonprofit list changes every year and depends on which ones book him first.

Each winner receives a dinner of pork ribs, coleslaw he makes with sprouts and Herlocher’s mustard, and a mason jar filled with homemade sauce, all prepared on a date of the winner’s choice. Asbury cooks the dinner for 12 at home, then delivers it nearly anywhere within an hour of State College. (No, he doesn’t deliver to Beaver Stadium tailgates.)

While Asbury believes the quality of his home-cooked ribs matches any local restaurant, he also concedes to plenty of rookie mistakes, some of which have resulted in him using a spray bottle to beat back angry flames. He shares his past experiences and tips in summertime “Backyard BBQ with Bill,” an OLLI course that also covers beer can chicken, brisket and other meats.

Lesson one in cooking ribs: start with good meat, he says. When Asbury has the time and money to shop beyond the grocery store, he’s partial to Hogs Galore, which raises Berkshires, and Smithfield, a pork producer in Virginia. Next comes the rub (see recipe), which varies “as the spirit moves.”

A Kansas City Barbeque Society certified judge since 2013, Asbury has upgraded from an open pit to a Weber Kettle charcoal grill, a Traeger Wood Pellet Grill and an Oklahoma Joe’s smoker.  When cooking just one or two racks, he’ll fill just one side of his Weber Kettle with coals — high quality meat, he says, does best when using indirect heat. For two hours (for small babyback ribs) to five hours (for spare ribs), he’ll cook the ribs away from the heat and over a drip pan, moistening the meat twice during the final one-third of cooking time with a basting mix of apple cider vinegar, water and lemon juice.

His wife, Debbie, is the designated taste tester. “When you test it for tenderness, you want to see some juice squeezing out of that piece of rib.” If it’s falling off the bone, it’s actually overcooked — and it’ll get you a paltry 2 on a 9-point scale at an official Kansas City Society competition. The Goldilocks test:

“You should be able to see the impression of your bite.”

And the finishing sauce? “The only person who knows is my daughter and she lives in Alabama and isn’t going to tell anyone.” He will only divulge a favorite ingredient: Brer Rabbit Molasses.

Asbury doesn’t recall his dad’s sauce, but remembers the meat — and how his dad cut it. “He had a butcher knife with a wooden handle,” he recalls. “It was sharpened so many times, there was sort of a half moon in the middle of the blade, but it was sharp as a razor.”

His grandmother, mother, three brothers and two sisters joined Asbury at the picnic tables, where they’d indulge in the rare meal that didn’t reflect the family’s size or income level.

“[Those ribs] were great,” Asbury says. “They were probably as good as mine.”
He pauses. “If we had a competition, I think I would win.” •SCM

Bill Asbury’s Rub
inspired by Alton Brown’s BBQ Rib Rub

“This is taken from Alton Brown’s Food Network show,” Asbury says. “I share it with classes from time to time to show how each person can make a rub unique to their taste buds within a recognized formula.”

8 Tbsp. brown sugar
3 Tbsp. kosher salt
1 Tbsp. chili powder
1 Tbsp. spices (see directions)

Seal first 3 ingredients in a jar and shake to combine. Now we come to the final 1 Tbsp. of spices. Use about anything you like. Alton uses black pepper, cayenne, jalapeno seasoning, Old Bay, dried thyme and onion powder in equal parts (½ tsp. each) as an example. Add the spices to the jar and shake well. I use black pepper, cayenne pepper, ground mustard, onion powder, Tandoori mix, garlic powder and cumin…as the spirit moves. Sprinkle liberally on meat of choice, patting the rub onto the meat. Wrap in foil and let set for at least 2 hours if not overnight (but not more than 8 hours). Depending on what meat, cut and grade, you can grill, braise, broil, glaze, barbecue or smoke to your heart’s content.

This recipe makes enough for two racks of ribs; the amount is easily increased by simply retaining a ratio of 8:3:1:1.

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