Just ask a hardcore barbecue devotee to list the signature foods of different barbecue regions. Almost reflexively, that person will tick off items like whole hog in parts of the Carolinas, coleslaw-topped pork shoulder sandwiches in Memphis, beef brisket in Texas, "burnt ends" of brisket in Kansas City, and so on. One regional favorite that may get overlooked is Chicago's famous rib tips. As Lolis Eric Elie explained in Smokestack Lightning, "There are four different cuts of ribs—the small end, which is the most expensive, the center cut and that the large end, which are slightly cheaper, and the rib tips, which are the tougher top portion of the spareribs."
Keeping in good company with other barbecue delicacies, rib tips have humble origins that trace back to Chicago's stockyards in the 1940s and 1950s. "Before we started buying them, meat wholesalers were throwing the back side of the rib cut away—as garbage,'" Leon Finney, Sr. told the Chicago Defender newspaper in 1979. If anyone should know the pre-history of rib tips, it was Finney. He moved from Mississippi to Chicago's South Side in the 1940s, and soon afterwards, opened up Leon's Bar-B-Q.
|Rib tips at Lem's Bar-B-Q in Chicago. Photo by Amy C. Evans, 2008|
As one would expect with barbecue, there's some dispute about who started selling rib tips first, but eventually, Leon's, Lem's Bar-B-Q and other African American barbecue joints in the area featured the specialty. Dennis H. Cremin, in his book Chicago: A Pictorial Celebration (2006), gives us a great verdict on whether or not Leon's and rib tips may lay claim to a central place in Chicago's barbecue lore: "Although off the beaten path, Leon's sells a staggering half-million pounds of rib tips a year—that's just how good they are at Leon's."
For further reading, check out these sources:
Dennis H. Cremin, Chicago: A Pictorial Celebration (2006).
Lolis Eric Elie, Smokestack Lightning (1996).
Roy Harvey, "Price of rib tips causing a crisis" (Chicago Defender, March 31, 1979).
And here's a recipe for "Chicago Style Rib Tips" from the June/July 2011 barbecue issue of Saveur. They are inspired by the rib tips at Uncle John BBQ on Chicago's South Side.
Follow Adrian Miller on Twitter at @soulfoodscholar.