It’s not often enough that you encounter the union of business and pleasure. For a lot of people, making ends meet means putting passion on the backburner. But this long weekend you can see passion on the front burner, blazing up a savoury storm for more than a dozen seasoned rib-masters at Toronto’s annual Ribfest.
These aren’t just portable grills rented out for a public occasion, and they certainly aren’t whatever that is you call a BBQ moping about on your patio. These are entire trucks custom built for the purpose of barbequing. A convoy outfitted with smokers and slow roasters, smouldering thousands of pounds of rib meat in rich heat for hours upon days, awaiting the moment you nibble them off the bone.
“It’s not just a retail business, where you see the same people coming in week to week. I move all over,” said Larry Murphy, a smokey older chef, self-described as a Southern boy “stuck with it” until the day he dies, he reckons. He’s representing Camp 31, an outfit out of Alabama, though they also have a restaurant in Paris, Ontario.
“I would guess I’ve been at about, say, 95, 96 per cent of all the shows in Canada. Been coming since 1985. My good friends, Billy Bone BBQ, actually got me involved in the first ones up in London, Ontario. The Canadian BBQ season is shorter, shorter than what people down South are used to seeing, it was just a big hit.”
Wood in the back, gas in the front, Murphy sticks with one sauce, promising he’s never even so much as sampled the competition. His ribs are tangy and sweet, though his real triumph is the texture: smokey and crisp on the outside, and perfectly in-between a smooth bite and a solid hold inside.
Humble isn’t the word that comes to mind as we look across the fairground, as bright, bold, award-trumpeting banners tower over the BBQ pits. Some BBQ masters, like the ones at Jack on the Bone BBQ, had trouble manoeuvring around their booth due to the surplus of behemoth trophies. “It’s really a matter of how much weight you can haul to make yourself look good,” Murphy explained.
“Even the worst rib you can get here is better than anything you’ve ever had,” said Greg Brunton, Fort Erie local, representing Billy Bones BBQ. “As Canadians we have to try a little harder to win over the crowds, but once they taste us they know that we can compete with anyone else out there. Stereotypically people think that a redneck can cook better BBQ than a Northerner, but we’ve all got a little bit of redneck in us and it shows when we cook. When you’re standing in front of the grill there is no warm day, there is no cold day. Every day is just hot.”
Opening his smoker, Brunton reveals a sight that’s hard to describe at first, though he’ll delightfully suggest, “a train wreck. It’s shocking but you just can’t turn away.” A deep, hot cavern, smoke flutters about rotating carriages of meat, slow cooking for irresistible hours as strips of the food ooze off.
The Billy Bones rib is certainly uncanny. Its well-blended, well-balanced flavour left even seasoned tasters a little stumped for words. Neither too sweet nor too bitter. A little bit of vinegar, a little bit of soy. It tastes like a sauce that, on paper, was built for something else—grilled fish, say—but has instead proved its worth on the rack. It’s a taste that’s odd for a rib, but a good taste that’s hard to forget.
“There is an actual Billy Bones, Bill Wall,” said Brunton, “he’s known as one of the godfathers of BBQ. He’s been doing this for over 30 years. We are fortunate enough to be able to represent him in Canada, we don’t change up a lot of stuff other than what he gave us. We know he’s got a winning system and it shows. This is our fifth event of the year, we’ve all done four events so far and we’ve won first place at every single one, we are undefeated.”
“You Canadians are a lot smarter than us, I’ll give you that,” said Victor Annas, another thick-accented southerner, in his case representing Kentucky Smokehouse. Annas is a charismatic teen who rides around the grounds on a pocket bike covered in the smokehouse’s logoed stickers, when he isn’t resting atop the cooker truck, alternately rocking a bandana and a straw hat. The Kentucky Smokehouse rib is the rebel in the house—on a mission against the reign of overbearing sauces. They go easy with a very light, fruity sauce, letting the taster focus more on something more important than the concoction the cook slathers it in near the end. No, they want you to focus on the process, with a shockingly layered meat that practically gives you a history lesson in the stages of its cooking.
“The deal with our ribs is this: When we smoke our ribs we use a hickory, plum, and peach wood… We believe that the smoke the rib gets from cooking should be complemented by the sauce, not any sort of flavouring agent like MSG or liquid smoke. It’s a real authentic BBQ right here. You can tell when you bite into our bone. First you bite in and it’s got a sweetness, then you bite in and you get the smokey flavour. It has different levels and different textures to it. It really does explode on the tongue. Kentucky Smokehouse has been coming up to Canada for, I believe, about nine years. We went to Etobicoke for all of those nine years, won best sauce multiple times, we won People’s Choice in the London rib fest, just last week I was in the Stratford news for winning first place, week before that Sarnia newspaper for winning first place and I’m hoping for a repeat right here.”
There’s more than just ribs at Ribfest (though there are few complaints that it dominates the affair). No, that’s not an excuse to go with Pizza Pizza just because the booth is there, and please don’t be the person who lines up for an onion bloom first. But if the ribs are the meat on the bone, Ribfest has plenty of tangy sauce surrounding it. There are two stages for performers of every variety: on Thursday night Neverest and Dr. Draw will take to it, and on Saturday KISS and CCR tribute bands. There’s also a carnival, full of games and rides which you should consider partaking in first, before you stuff your tummy with sticky meats, fried food, and beer. But one attraction at the fair is by far more unique than the standard pitched carnival. And while a haunted house is no oddity, its backstory is what makes it special.
“There’s two things we’re doing here” says Jason Datsi, one of the people who runs PACT Haunted Theatre, while being corpse-painted. “We’re promoting the Powerhouse of Terror… [and] we’re also promoting PACT, which is an organization that helps at-risk youths to get on a better track. These trailers that you’re seeing here at the Ribfest are primarily built by the kids. So all the set design you see inside, all the lighting, the character development, make-up, all that stuff is thought up by the kids and built by the kids.”
CarnEvil Manor is no standard annual Screamers effort: it’s got a lot of creativity and a lot of heart. The premise is that you’ve wandered into an eerie commune of carnies, and “they don’t like unexpected visitors,” as the demented ringmaster will explain upon entry. From there you will wander through twisted bedrooms, decaying wardrobes, and strange prize rooms that will force you to navigate through halls of shuffling plush toys and eerie actors. Noah’s the youngest volunteer: ten years old, shirtless in a pig mask, unaware of the irony of dressing like killer swine at a Ribfest. “It’s fun to see people’s reaction,” said Noah, “it’s an adrenaline rush.”
“This is about giving a good show, that’s what it’s all about,” explains Datsi. “It’s giving them an awesome theatre experience. The need for these kids to do community hours is there, they need to do it for school. So for them to volunteer, to build these set designs, do make-up, acting, all that kind of stuff, it’s the sort of thing they aren’t really exposed to otherwise.”
With so many of Toronto’s festivals, food fests included, being palpably corporate in their sponsorship and organization, seeing passions run high for something as simple (though sublime) as BBQ is a breath of fresh, sweet-smoky air. “If you love it, it’s going to come out amazing,” said Brunton of the food. “When Canada Day’s rocking at the Toronto Ribfest, we never see as many people in front of our booth as we do that day. Even though Burlington is the biggest show, the biggest single day for a rib fest in Canada is Canada day here.”
“With this,” said Murphy, “people are able to come across a greater quality of rib from a broad cut of culture. For instance, in the States, when I go get BBQ sauce in, say, South Carolina, it’s a mustard-based BBQ sauce. In Alabama, it’s a tomato-based BBQ sauce. From North Carolina, it’s a vinegar-based BBQ sauce. We got Kentucky here, we got Florida here, all different kinds of tastes you can’t pick up in your own kitchen.”
Just remember to bring some spare wet naps.
Photos by Corbin Smith/Torontoist.
Ribfest takes place in Centennial Park from June 30–July 3, 11 a.m.–11 p.m. each day. Visit their website for more details.