I won’t tell you what makes a good stack of ribs – you know that already. I will tell you what makes a good stack of ribs become a memorable stack of ribs, and that’s what comes with the stack of ribs, what you’re listening to while you’re eating the ribs, who you’re with, and whether or not you’re eating them in the country that does them best; tender mid-West, slow-cooked, 72-hour marinated ribs.
I’m not saying that ribs can’t be delicious ribs anywhere outside of the USA, but also, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Americans know the best time to smoke a rib, the best way to pull a pork and the only way to marinate a pig – for one whole glorious week. It’s in their DNA. It’s in the blood of their pigs, and it runs in the heady heel-kickin’ air down in Nashville, Tennessee.
There’s this place on the corner of Broadway, Nashville’s main strip, right opposite the world-famous Tootsies bar and literally down the road from the Ryman – a stage once second home to the likes of Johnny Cash and Elvis – called Rippy’s Bar & Grill. There’s a bar on the ground floor serving whiskey ‘till you got a problem and buckets of ice tea – and that’s exactly what you want on a mid-August day in Nashville. The heat is a bull and you are the red flag, and there is no relief. Not under the bridge, not on top of it, not even in the river.
I was staying with a group of friends just outside the city centre in an average KOA (in campsite terms, they’re about as common as McDonalds). Three of my friends and I got a cab onto Broadway. We asked our cab driver, Johnny, where the city’s best food was. “You wanna go to Rippy’s. Order their ribs with everything. Don’t hold back.”
We’d been gliding down Music City’s streets, and we were hot, so hot. We’d tried dipping our feet in the Cumberland River to cool our bones, tried hauling our tired feet through country music museums and cowboy boot shops. We needed sustenance. We needed to sit down. So we did, at Rippy’s Bar & Grill.
We sat on high chairs at Rippy’s, up on the roofed deck of the grill’s balcony overlooking Broadway. None of us were speaking. We couldn’t tell if we were hungry or tired or bored of each other and the sun. We examined the menus in a dizzy haze of pulled pork daydreams. We ordered Rippy’s signature ribs – all the sides. Fries. Coleslaw. Baked beans. Corn cakes. Onion rings. We waited, sipping furiously on our cokes, ice filled to the brink. When the ribs arrived, we became animated – animals diving in for the kill. We took our first bite, and we understood what Johnny meant.
Ribs are not a dish, they are a meal. Roll your sleeves up, don’t apologise for looking messy, go full carnivore. It’s like lobster, only wilder; least you don’t have to pretend to look like you know what you’re doing – eating them is second nature. Our ribs had been served on polystyrene plates, our fries in little baskets with red-checked napkins, our coleslaw messily tucked into small cups. They didn’t have to try hard, everything about Rippy’s was in the meat; so tender you couldn’t hold onto a rib for long before it left you for the plate instead; cold-hearted, caveman lust.
Pulling off a rib on that stack was like cutting into wedding cake – you married that rib, hard. Slavering creamy coleslaw – not too much mayo, a colourful marriage of cabbage and carrots – fries and beans into my mouth was a firework display of sensory carnage. We’d been given a full slab of smoky ribs each, another round of unlimited cokes, and extra BBQ sauce. We tucked into those ribs like starving carcasses, sweating the sun out of our hungry bones.
There’s a certain moment, climax even, when you’re eating a good stack of ribs or a juicy volume of pulled pork when your eyes become vultures and you’re no longer human. It’s happened to us all. It happened to me at Rippy’s, but something else too: the realisation that it wasn’t just the meat (a lot of it was the meat) that made this meal the greatest thing I ever ate – it was where I was. Tootsies was right across the street from us, a place that, according to our cabbie Johnny, Dolly Parton and Cash used to slink off to in between sets at the Ryman for a whiskey sour, to “sweeten their warbles”. Where I was sitting, right then in that moment, listening to the sugary tones of the Carter sisters in one ear and the distant Nashville street buzz in the other, and in front of me, a stack of smoked ribs, was better than any lobster meal served in any Michelin star restaurant anywhere.
We love ribs because they’re comfort food. They take us back to our roots, kinda make you feel like you shot your kill and now you’re tearing it up with your hands, its juice slithering down your chin. That’s how I felt on that rooftop: listening to banjos playing, eating with my friends, knowing I’d walked in the footsteps of Elvis – I felt hungry and hot and incredibly human, ready to devour.
Follow Carlotta on Twitter, @1chae.