In the Elks barbecue room, the fires blaze up from the long pit. “I would say you’ve got about 200 years in barbecuing right here,” Simas says, gesturing at the crew. Who’s been at it the longest? I ask.
“I cut one of the first trees God made and barbecued with it,” says Jerry Lloyd.
Within two minutes they’re reminiscing about the epic catering jobs they’ve done.
“How ’bout that one at the Cow Palace, for 3,400, in 1976?”
“Or that one near Indio, when the wind kept blowing away the heat and getting sand in the meat?”
“I remember the police chiefs’ association at the L.A. Forum. We fed 5,000 in 48 minutes.”
They are not kidding. Cooking over mobile pits on wheels, skewering the meat on rods like the asadors of long ago, the Elks barbecue for crowds at events all over the state and beyond. Other area caterers have done so too, most famously the Los Compadres crew from Santa Ynez, who went to the White House five times to cook for President Reagan. Mabel H. Brandon, the White House social secretary back then, wrote to thank them: “It has taken me two days to recover from your absolutely delicious barbecue and to find the appropriate words to thank you … for the best meal that has ever been served outdoors at the White House.”
Yet Santa Maria–style barbecue has never taken hold beyond the region, not even four hours away, in San Francisco. People here speculate that it’s because building a log fire might seem daunting, or that people expect sauce with barbecue, or that “barbecue” is thought of as meat smoked long and slow over indirect heat—the way it is in Kansas City or Memphis—instead of grilled.
Or maybe it seems like a job best left to the experts, at least when done Elks-style. The skewering of the sirloins looks like some kind of atavistic Olympic sport. I watch an elderly Elk brace a 6-foot rod against the table, bend a chunk of meat into the shape of a C, and cram it onto the wickedly sharp tip with both hands. He does this repeatedly, until the rod is full. He isn’t even breathing hard.
Soon 12 of these giant shish kebabs rest over the pit. The scent of roasting meat rises up from the fire. Back during the rancho days, the asador would slice little pieces off the meat as it cooked, for the ravenous children. I’m not a child, but I really wish I were, so I could ask.
“Rib-eyes! That’s what we started out with,” Simas remembers, turning the meat. Grilled as thick, bone-in steaks, prime rib was the cut of choice in Santa Maria during the 1930s and 1940s. As rib-eye got to be too pricey, the Elks moved to top sirloin. Tri-tip, the cut most people associate with Santa Maria barbecue, came along only in the 1950s, when a local butcher decided to stop grinding it up for burgers and start selling it as a roast. But it will never be the star of an Elks barbecue. “Personally, I don’t like the flavor,” Simas says.
He’s not a fan of charcoal, either. “It leaves a little taste, like fast food.” What about gas? Simas just smiles, crosses his arms, and lets his silence answer. He cooks over red oak, period. And no sauce. “The reason they put all that goop on in other places is because they don’t have choice cuts of meat,” he says. “Our meat is good, and we like to taste it.” The Elks are the keepers of the flame, and they mean to pass on what they know. “We’re breaking in some younger guys right now,” Simas explains. “They’re in their 40s. We have older guys with them, of course. We don’t just turn ’em loose.”
Over the course of about two hours, the meat turns a glistening, rich brown. It’s time to serve. In the main kitchen, cooks are readying the beans, salads, and salsa. Moving fast now, the Elks toast up a bakery’s worth of split soft French loaves and dunk them in pans of melted garlic butter. They heave the rods off the fire one by one, push the hunks off in a meaty tumble, and slice them thick with curving knives that look like machetes.
The lodge manager bursts into the room. “I got 180 of ’em already lined up!” he yells, and runs out with a trolley of meat and bread. I trot right behind him into the dining hall.
It’s a vast room decorated with a mirror ball and set with what seems like an acre of tables covered in cheery green plaid. I settle into a seat with my plate from the buffet. The meat is still hot, stacked in rosy, tender slices, and so beefy and minerally that each bite sets up a craving for the next. With it are the velvety, bacon-studded pinquitos; cold, creamy macaroni salad; the almost indecently buttery garlic bread; and the mild salsa. “It’s always so good,” the man next to me says, sighing happily. “Mmmph,” agrees his neighbor, mouth full.