The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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August 7, 2011

Ribbers meating demand at RibFest

MANKATO — Curtis House is about as recognizable a character as you’ll find at Mankato’s annual RibFest.

Donning a lone-star bib and manning the grill at the front of the Texas Thunder BBQ hut, House belts out a persuasive rhetoric that’s part baseball announcer, part penny paper newsie.

“You’ve tried the rest, now check the best!” you have heard him say. Or, “I do what I do, I do it just for you!”

House has been with Texas Thunder for nine years, and has been coming to Mankato as long as the Chicago-based owners have brought Texas here with them.

“I love Mankato, I love the people,” House said. “I’m like a celebrity when I come here. I go on TV, I’m on the radio.”

House is part of a culture that has evolved right along with America’s eating habits. While ribs have become a high-cost, deeply emotional food that prompt people to claim titles and ribbons, Americans have steadily become a savvier clientele, and the rib-making festivals that take place around the country have turned into a places where people can not only dine on what used to a “poor man’s food,” but critique the flavors and methods of ribbers in a way that is constantly changing.

Andy Jepsen has been ribbing for decades, and he says he works hard on making his product better every year.

Jepsen used to be the president of the National Barbecue Association, a title that put him right in the middle of the ribbing world. He’s given pointers and gotten pointers from all of the top ribbers working today, and even some who have passed on. Among the ribbers he’s counseled is Dave Anderson, aka Famous Dave, who is perhaps one of the few household names in ribdom. (“I knew Dave Anderson before he was ‘Famous Dave,’ ” Jepsen said.)

He said that 15 years ago, the association had a goal of making the world aware of the wonder of barbecue and ribs. About that same time, though, something else happened. A proliferation of cable television networks — including the Food Network, which focuses exclusively on food — have found there is money to be made in featuring food.

Shows such as “Man Vs. Food” glorifies the hunt for and consumption of large amounts of food, while shows such as “Pit Bosses” have inspired interest in barbecue worldwide.

Jepsen, who cooks with wood, some of which he buys locally, considers himself a pit boss.

“I personally cook every rib,” Jepsen says as checks racks of ribs and brisket cooking in a smoker, heated by sugar maple who owns The Barbecue Co. “Those don’t come out of there until I say they’re ready. ... I’m a bit of a control freak.”

Back at Texas Thunder, owner Tim Dennis busily holds down two rib huts. Right next to Texas Thunder is a place called Chicago BBQ. Dennis runs them both, but says they happily compete against each other. Different spices, different sauces, different techniques. Same idea, though, in the end: capture the attention of the public.

Dennis said barbecue and ribs simply captures people’s imagination. And at its roots, he said, it was a food for masses. It was messy, it was unsophisticated.

“It used to be a poor man’s food,” he said. “And it wasn’t something people were very interested in.”

But eventually, that started to change, and in the process people started to take pride in their ribs, and different parts of the country began to boast of having the best ribs.

St. Louis, for example, claims to have the best. As does Kansas City, as does Chicago and Texas. You can even find claims of superiority from New York and Alabama and Utah. And if you’re in southern Minnesota, you won’t have to go far to find someone who will tell you the Kaiserhoff Restaurant in New Ulm makes the best ribs anywhere.

Such is the beauty, the ribbers say, of a rib festival.

They typically bring ribbers from various parts of the country together, leaving the people, the attendees, to decide.

At most rib fests, the public gets a chance to vote on which ribs they liked best. Ribbers proudly display such winnings on the vertical billboards that rise above their huts.

But even after a win, it’s on to the next city, the palate of which may be vastly different that what came before.

“You’re only the best on a given day,” said Jepsen, who has a pair of national titles under his belt, “judged by the people of the town that you’re in.”

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