Let’s face it: The Markham Rotary Ribfest can be intimidating to a neophyte. Long lines, faces and fingers plastered with delicious barbecue sauce, the incessant beat from the bands, and that persistent, intoxicating aroma of perfectly smoked pork ribs wafting out from every corner.
It’s just too much; a veritable sensory overload. In the end, you jump into the nearest line, grab whatever is handed to you, and start tossing spent rib bones over your shoulder like Friar Tuck. Dignified? No. Fulfilling experience? Not by a long shot.
But fear not, even a newbie can experience a ribfest with the acumen of a seasoned vet with a little preparation. Here are some tips and tricks to getting the most out of this weekend’s Markham Rotary Ribfest in Downtown Markham.
Have a look at the site map so you know where to park before you get there, do a bit of research on the ribbers and check the entertainment schedule if you’re interested in a specific band. Bring a hat and some sunscreen if it’s going to be a sunny day, or a poncho if it calls for rain. Everyone accepts credit or debit these days, but it’s always smart to bring cash for easy admission, helping lines move quickly and for tipping your favourite ribber.
Know your ribs
There are beef ribs and pork ribs. Ribbers almost exclusively prefer pork because they’re less expensive, they tend to be a little sweeter and despite being a little less fatty, they generally absorb flavours better than beef ribs. Then there are four different types of pork ribs: Baby Back, Spare Ribs, St. Louis Style and Country Style Ribs, which describe the different cuts and locations of the ribs. Knowing a bit about your personal preferences going in makes it a lot easier to select ribs you know you will enjoy.
It all comes down to sauce
Truth be told, cooking ribs isn’t terribly different from ribber to ribber. Sure, some will add flavours to their coals and they may differ on cooking times, but the real difference between one set of ribs and another is the sauce that is slathered on them. Most ribbers will keep these treasured recipes top secret, and they can comprise a large variety of ingredients, spices and even splashes of bourbon, beer, cider or coconut milk. Seek out flavours that you like – if you prefer sweet over heat, find ribs sauced with ingredients like honey and sugar over Tabasco and chilies, for example. Some ribbers will happily provide sauce samples, but don’t bother asking about the full recipe. If they told you, they’d have to kill you.
Long lines don’t mean the best ribs
Once lines start to form, some ribbers will purposely slow down to let it grow – this is called “building the line” – because popularity usually denotes quality. Don’t let the slow lines dictate your decisions, they might just be a marketing gimmick.
Ignore the trophies
Every established ribber has won a pile of trophies; they’re as common as bottled water in the industry. And the judges who award the trophies at ribfests are often arbitrary or honourary, not culinary experts. So all the bling and ribbons don’t really mean much of anything. Let your taste buds and your gut do the judging for you.
Three words: Prepare thy belly
If you plan to sample a number of different ribs in an afternoon – and really, why else would you go? – you’re wise to prep your belly a day in advance just as you might before a family get-together at Mandarin. Have a big, hearty dinner the night before to stretch your stomach and then just a small breakfast of fruit or eggs to get the motor running a few hours before your visit for optimal rib-packing. Not following this advice could result in the dreaded “meat sweats”: an unexpected and sudden overload of meat that causes sweating, paleness and unpleasant gastric discomfort. Yes, they’re real.
Take a break!
Like food or wine connoisseurs, it’s a good idea to take a few minutes between courses. Get up and take a walk, have a beverage or head over to the carnival area before tucking into your next rack of ribs. Not only will you enjoy them more and pack more in, but you’ll better be able to discern the differences between the types of ribs. Bonus tip: Don’t fill up on bread or beer if you’re planning to sample a variety of racks through the day. They’re just unnecessary filler. Stick to vegetables and water, and leave the Beaver Tails for dessert or the trip home.
Consider the tapas approach
If you’re with a group of friends looking to save cash, get each member in your group to go to a different rib stand and share the bounty when you meet up at your table. This way you can try six different types of ribs without actually buying six different racks. You probably won’t be able to make a full assessment of the different ribs, but hey, you saved money – and sharing is caring.
Napkins are your friends
Sure, rib sauce is delicious, but it’s not delicious a week later when it’s still stuck to the steering wheel of your car. It’s impossible not to get messy during a ribfest, so familiarize yourself with the benefit of plenty of napkins or wet-naps unless you really want to re-live the ribfest experience over and over again until winter. And while experienced eaters and moms everywhere may prefer using the bottled-water-with-napkins technique, if you’re planning on going whole-hog (pun intended), maybe consider bringing along a towel.
The Markham Rotary Ribfest is July 5-7 at Downtown Markham. Visit www.markhamribfest.com for full information.