by: Clifford Mitchell

Every community has been shaped by the influences of its past. For most, it's a distinct characteristic that comes from a culture or nationality that settled the area. Areas with a rich tradition of raising cattle, the unique features often are tied to a cattle drive, branding or stories around the campfire.

Few traditions are as distinct to one area of the country as the Santa Maria style barbecue is to the Central Coast and the fertile Santa Maria Valley.

“I think what makes the Santa Maria style barbecue unique is the combination of a red oak fire, quality meat and all we season with is salt, pepper and garlic salt. It makes a great flavor, but we have to start with a quality piece of meat,” says veteran Elks Lodge member and area cow/calf producer Ernest Righetti II.

According to R.H. Tesene in his book Santa Maria Style Barbecue, this type of grilling meat over red oak wood can be traced to the mid-1800s. The Santa Maria style came from these early gatherings and according to Mr. Tesene, was perfected when people began stringing pieces of meat on skewers or rods and cooking it over the coals of a red oak fire.

“My dad told me back in the days of the Spaniards, when he used to help other ranchers, they would put the beef on willow branches and cook it over open red oak fires,” Righetti says. “I guess that's how it all got started. Santa Maria style barbecue is not thin cut steaks like a lot of people think of barbecue. It's a four inch piece of meat with a two hour cooking time.”

The other unique thing about this style of barbecue is all the components that will make a tasty meal come from the Santa Maria Valley. Quality beef is at the center of the meal.

“Lettuce is grown here for the salad. The pinquito beans are grown here and we get them fresh. The red oak grows throughout the valley and makes the flavor,” Righetti says. “It makes it a lot easier to barbecue when you have a quality piece of meat. Most people started with the rib-eye for this style of barbecue and we'd still prefer to use the rib-eye, but economics forced us to use the top block sirloin that we age ourselves. We have to have a Choice product. There was a time when we were producing a lot of lean beef and it was hard to get a good piece of meat. I applaud the beef industry because we have been able to get back to a consistent quality product.”

Some confuse the grand style of the Santa Maria style barbecue with a backyard gathering. This style of barbecue is meant to feed the masses, but another cut of meat was discovered to help the backyard get together.

“Many people associate the Santa Maria style with Tri-tip, but we use the Top Block for our events,” Righetti says. “Tri-tip is fine for individuals or backyard barbecues. True Santa Maria style you cook on a rod and one flip is 25 to 35 pounds of meat on that rod. Tri-tip has to be cooked on a grate and people can't be reaching over that hot fire to keep turning the meat.”

“A lot of people crave the smell of barbecue. Red oak and tri-tip are kind of the backbone of any family gathering,” says Shannon Kelley, Public Relations Coordinator, California Beef Council.

Foodies or cooking shows have educated a lot on quality products, the freshness locally grown items have and the carbon footprint associated with some items. The Santa Maria Elks Lodge No. 1538 not only uses all locally grown products for their meals; Harris Ranch supplies all the beef.

“We use Harris Ranch, they are very easy to work with and they also work with us on the size we want for quality control,” Righetti says. “The processing of beef has changed a lot over the years and having the ability to get one-quarter inch trim has sure saved a lot of waste.”

The Santa Maria Elks Lodge No. 1538 has long been known for its Santa Maria barbecues. Not only serving it up to the home town crowd, but also taking it on the road to many events.

“I served as the Cow Palace Barbecue chairman for 38 consecutive years. That first meal was meat and tortillas and we fed 1,500 people,” Righetti says. “A cattleman who grew lettuce donated it and another cattleman who grew beans donated them. That is how the Grand National Barbecue evolved.”

“The Santa Maria Elks has served thousands of people over the years and really has done a good job bringing that style of barbecue to the forefront,” Kelley says.

Those early years convinced Righetti and other members there was no substitute for genuine Santa Maria Style barbecue and its original ingredients. “We learned the hard way that we always had to take our own food and we can't leave town without the red oak,” he stated.

The barbecues were done for organizations in different locales. Much effort and organization had to be taken to make sure everything was right. According to Righetti, the Cow Palace was a logical destination for most groups and the Elks fed a lot of hungry folks at this venue.

“The largest gathering I can remember feeding was 9,500 people in one afternoon. Another time we served 620 people in 18 minutes,” Righetti says. “The work is done before the barbecue. The cooking is the easy part. The beans take four hours to cook so we always had to be there four hours ahead. I remember one year we had 80 hotel rooms during the Grand National for the volunteers to make the Cow Palace Barbecue happen.”

In June, the Santa Maria Elks No. 1538 was honored with the Honorary Beef Backer from the California Beef Council. This prestigious award will be cherished by the entire membership.

“I am thrilled to death for the Elks Lodge to get this award. We have been working for a long time. There are a lot of Elks members who deserve credit. We are fortunate to have had all the willing volunteers that we have had over the years and I think they worked harder than paid employees would have worked,” Righetti says. “The Elks have worked so many years at this because it is a form of beef promotion and a lot of members are ranchers in our community. Most ranchers like to go help cook, when they can get away, because they can promote their product.”

“This group has done a tremendous job promoting beef over the years,” Kelley says. “They deserved to be recognized.”

As ranchers face a lot more complicated issues today than just drought or market, Righetti hopes the work they have done to promote the beef industry will help make a difference.

“There is no question we're proud to be cattlemen and we have to serve beef at its best. All of our meat is served rare to medium rare and there is no sauce,” Righetti says. “We have to tell our story and about our product at these barbecues and let the people know how the cattle are finished. I went to give Harris Ranch back their banner one time and they told me to keep it they like the way we did barbecue.”

In addition to the travelling barbecues the Elks Lodge No. 1538 hosts an annual rodeo and funds many programs for local youth organizations or other charitable groups.

“Thanks to our volunteers all of our profit went to charitable activities and we have hosted a lot of fundraisers over the years for youth groups in the area. We have made donations to the local chapters and even arranged for the group that couldn't afford to show to get to the cow Palace or another event,” Righetti says. “We're in the 65th year of our annual PRCA rodeo and we have donated more than six million to youth organizations.”

“They are always behind the scenes putting on barbecues or helping fund an event,” Kelley says. “The Elks Lodge is involved in a lot of community projects and has scholarships available.”

Santa Maria style barbecue may mean different things to some, but one word comes to mind for most and that's a “celebration.” The region has benefitted through its fertile soil and the traditions passed down from generation to generation.

Many activities are celebrated with a Santa Maria style barbecue. Most get their first taste at the annual Rodeo or a branding. To the Elks, keeping the tradition alive is very much a family affair and volunteers are as much of that tradition as the barbecue.

“I built my first pit in high school and still use it today every time I work cattle. A lot of ranchers help each other work cattle and the only pay you get is a good meal. This is part of the tradition my dad shared with me,” Righetti says. “Today, many of the Elks members are second and third generation putting on the barbecues today. I was proud of my father and very fortunate to be able to follow in his foot steps. A lot of our members feel that way today. We feel like we do a little more than barbecue.”


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