Growing up in Middle America, I’ve grilled, smoked, and barbecued everything from chickens perched on beer cans to briskets marinated in root beer—with countless burgers, steaks, and chops in between. Needless to say I thought I had seen, or at least heard, of everything Midwestern grilling or barbecuing had to offer. But I was surprised when I came I across a group of people in southeastern South Dakota who were putting a unique spin on traditional barbecue: cooking with corncobs.
Being a native South Dakotan, I was admittedly a little embarrassed when my boss asked me if I had heard of this, but I couldn’t give her an affirming answer (I’d never heard of such a thing; to be honest, I was a bit skeptical). But skepticism gave way to excitement. Here was an opportunity to put a fellow South Dakotan pit master on the map—let’s face it, if South Dakota isn’t the last place you associate with barbecue, it’s pretty darn close. I felt like I needed to do them the justice they deserved and find out everything there was to know about corncob cookery. As it turns out, there’s a history and tradition as charming and rich as a perfectly cooked slab of baby backs.
During the 1800s, as early settlers pushed west, they eventually landed on the eastern edge of the Great Plains. While the rolling hill of prairie grass offered fertile soil for crops and ample grazing ground for cattle, they lacked an important resource for survival: trees. Necessity being the mother of invention—or in this case, survival—homesteaders heated their homes with whatever they could get their hands on. “Buffalo chips” were the most available and easiest heat source to gather. While they were functional and plentiful, Buffalo chips were anything but ideal to cook with or to heat a small home.
Eventually, as corn became the crop of choice, the leftover cobs were a far better alternative for heating and, more importantly, cooking. Soon, the people developed a taste for the nutty, sweet aroma and flavor the cobs imparted in their food. As time moved on, cobs were replaced with other more efficient methods of heating and cooking, but a few cob diehards—the aptly named “Norway Rib Eaters”—kept the tradition smoldering.
Enter Hector “Heck” Harnois (pictured at right), one of the founding members of the Norway Rib Eaters and jack-of-all-trades if there ever were one. During the early 1900s, Heck worked on a “thrashing” team that thrashed wheat from Kansas into parts of South Dakota.
Eventually he put down roots in Vermillion, a small town in southeastern South Dakota, but not before he acquired a secret barbecue sauce recipe from a carnival worker in Missouri. Heck passed the recipe down (on his deathbed, no less) to his daughter-in-law, Maryln Harnois, the only living person who knows the exact recipe and keeps it in a safety deposit box downtown. If anyone in the family needs sauce, they call her up; she’ll whip up a batch on commission (her brother Larry just paid $50 for two gallons). But the sauce—and the story—are well worth it; when Heck passed down his recipe, he stipulated that any profits Maryln made on the sauce would go to his wife so she would have a little extra money after he was gone.
The Rib Eaters were a group of guys that loved barbecue, and by the ‘40s they were putting on rib feeds using Heck’s sauce and barbecue techniques for the community. The first feed served a modest fifty people, but as time went on their popularity grew. At a later feed, the Rib Eaters cooked up and served 1000 pounds of ribs on makeshift grills made of army cots, corrugated steel, and mountains of cobs. Larry Mart—Heck’s protégé, grandson, and fellow Rib Eater—served up a ton (literally 2000 pounds of ribs) in one feed. Heck passed down his barbecuing techniques through his family, a tradition that now spans five generations and is alive and well.
Now, the weekend after Labor Day, Vermillion hosts a barbecuing competition. The Harnois/Mart family is still very much involved. Larry is 75-years-old now and still has barbecue sauce coursing through his veins; the community donates 100 pounds of ribs and Larry cooks them over corncobs for everyone to enjoy as they walk around the competition. Jody Harnois, Larry’s nephew (the son of Maryln the sauce maker), organizes the barbecue competition, cooks over cobs, and competes as well.
I figured the Rib, Rods, and Rock ’N Roll Barbecue Competition was a great opportunity to get a firsthand look at a different way to cook ribs. So I booked a flight to Minneapolis, rented a car, and drove to Vermillion—the Barbecue Capital of South Dakota. Here are some pictures and notes from my trip.
A shot of downtown Vermillion in the morning before the competition gets in full swing.
This is a shot of Larry’s homemade barbecue rig, 8 bushels of cobs, and a really long shovel they use to load the burning corn cobs into the cooker. Larry's setup is designed to cook a hundred pounds of ribs at a time over corn cobs.
What 100 pounds of ribs looks like
A hundred pounds of ribs ready to be cooked, but first they need to be rubbed down with Larry’s secret rub.
Rubbed ribs ready for cooking.
It's time to get the cobs ready. Larry’s grandson/helper lights the cobs on fire and waits until they are burned down to embers and glowing red.
Once burned down, the cobs are loaded into the bottom of the cooker and spread into an even layer. The ribs are almost ready to get cookin'.
cooking the ribs
The ribs are sauced with the family’s secret sauce, the lids are shut, and cooking begins. This process of burning down cobs and basting the ribs continues every 45 minutes or so. Once the cobs are just about burned out in the bottom, Larry lights another bushel; when they are ready, they're loaded into the bottom of the cooker again.
checking for perfection
After the ribs cook for three and a half hours, Larry begins checking them for doneness. Once deemed thoroughly cooked, he flips them to caramelize the sauce on the meat.
ribs, ready to eat
The ribs are slightly smoky; the cobs impart a sweet, nutty aroma and flavor. The rub is salty, the sauce is sweet, and both are tailored to this kind of cooking medium. Implementing corn cobs is definitely a different, yet tasty way to cook ribs.