What America Tastes Like

Rib Artistry in America’s Unhappiest City

In 2014 a team of researchers set out to discover the amount of happiness in the world. Using modern technology and the massive amount of information provided through social media, a measurement tool took place. Through Big Data analysis, the “Hedonometer” was born.

Out of 304 cities in the United States – Boulder, Colorado was ranked happiest. At the other end of the scale, small manufacturing town in Wisconsin pushed the needle back against the left-hand side of the meter. Racine, Wisconsin was indicated to be the least happy city in the United States.

Out of the 48 states I’ve traveled through and the 11 I’ve lived in, my response to Racine’s spot on the list would be: “Yup.”

Although gifted with beautiful Frank LLoyd Wright architecture and featuring one of the most charming rows of houses you’ll find near any US lake, the city now manufactures almost none of the things it did a few decades ago. Just vague despondency and toxic household cleaners.

Hidden among all the bars and taverns, however, is a Saloon. An “Oh Dennis! Saloon and Charcoal House” that is home to artisan ribs of unimaginable craftsmanship and originality.

Finding these ribs in Racine is like visiting a junk store full of some crazy old guy’s woodshop tomfoolery and discovering that Al made a Stradivarius.

The Ribs – These are top-level contenders. The meat itself is tender and fall-off-the-bone – but not mealy and overcooked. These have been slow smoked, and I’d guess that they’re sauced and then thrown across the grill one final time to get a char on the sauce.

You can put them up against anything from the South and they’ll hold their own. Although Fox’s BBQ in Atlanta has a line out the door for ribs, these edge them out for one reason: originality.

Of any ribs I’ve had in the US, these are the most masterful and deliberate with their use of “char” as a flavor. It isn’t overpowering. The spots where the sauce begins to brown, and the places where the tips of the bones have taken on a blackened twist of flavor are used deliberately. That bitter edge plays against a totally unique sauce designed to complement it.

The sauce has sweetness, but none of the expected heavy, drippy molasses flavor. Instead it provides a unique umami/tang. The sauce does not steal the show from the meat, but the way its subtle flavors work with the meat is profound.

The tang in the sauce comes from fruit. I don’t know if it is reduced orange juice or tamarind or what. But it was the right idea, whatever it is. It plays against that hard edge of the char, and the result is magic.

“What America Tastes Like” is an exploration of sub-cultures in the US by way of food. Eating is something all people do, and it also happens to be one of the few expressions of “difference and diversity” in culture that just about all people are ready to celebrate. Regardless of our politics and religion and ontologies, we all like to eat food with our mouths.

Food makes family happen.



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