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Living history
Get to know Santa Maria's barbecue and ranching history as it translates to local ranches today
BY BROOKE ROBERTSON

Date: 06/12/2008


Some bull:
Cattle rancher Fred Chamberlain had to get rid of 80 percent of the cattle on his ranch last year, due to a lack of rain to water grazing grass.
PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
As spring moves into summer, the air over Santa Maria is heavy with aromas that can move even the most satiated of stomachs to feign hunger: the spicy-sweet savor of Santa Maria barbecue season.

Known nation-wide as the "Barbecue Capital of the World," Santa Maria boasts a combination of barbecued sirloin, salsa, pinquito beans, toasted French bread, and tossed green salad that's become synonymous with the city itself. Beef and barbecue are customs embedded in local culture, past and present.

As every good local knows, the tradition of barbecue in Santa Maria stems from the rancheros of the 1800s, who would gather together each spring to help brand each other's calves. After the branding, a ranchero would host a Spanish-style barbecue for the vaqueros and families, cooking beef over a fire made with branches from a red oak tree--an ever-present fixture of Santa Maria Valley scenery. Smaller barbecues were also a part of daily ranch life, with rancheros providing hired men with strips of beef while in the field.

"The boss would bring 'em some meat, cut a willow stick, and they'd roast it over an oak fire," said Santa Maria cattle rancher Ernest Righetti.

Although barbecues between ranchers and ranch hands remain, Santa Maria-style barbecue is now--obviously--available in a backyard nearest you.

The Santa Maria barbecue style is attributed to the 1960s, when locals experimented with different cuts to save money and waste less meat. The result was top block sirloin and tri-tip--now an integral part of Santa Maria barbecue. The meat is seasoned with salt, pepper, and garlic salt, skewered, and placed over a fire with red oak coals to give it a rich, smoky flavor.

"That's the flavor of Santa Maria barbecue today," Righetti said,

Keep on truckin':
Fred Chamberlin still runs the ranch that has been in his family for almost 80 years.
PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
adding that the best piece of meat for Santa Maria-style barbecue is cut 4 inches thick and cooked for about two hours on a skewer.

The well-known recipes that have given Santa Maria-style barbecue its top-notch reputation would be nothing without the valley's rich history of cattle and ranching.

In 1834, ranching settled in the Santa Maria Valley when the Mexican government secularized the Spanish missions, awarding their properties to Californians in the form of land grants. Large ranches sprang up, and the land grants were legally confirmed by the United States government through the Treaty of Guadalupe in 1848, after the United States had taken California from Mexico.

Then and now

Cattle rancher Fred Chamberlin--surrounded by a wasteland of seemingly unorganized (to the untrained eye) historical books and family memorabilia--reclined in his chair, his dusty cowboy boots on his desk, as he detailed the ownership of the land.


History of beef:
Fourth-generation Santa Maria cattle rancher Ernest Righetti calls himself a "beef producer" instead of a "cattle rancher."
PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Like most ranches in the area, the land that is now the Ted Chamberlin Ranch has passed through multiple families and ownerships. Few Santa Maria Valley ranches have remained under original family ownership for a variety of reasons, including financial issues and division among expanding families.

Chamberlin's father, Ted, bought the ranch in 1929. The property has been in the family for almost 80 years--longer than half the time California has been a state.

Ted's father, who came from a long line of California ranchers, ran away from his home in Concord, Mass., at the age of 17 to work on a relative's ranch in Long Beach before finally purchasing what's now the Ted Chamberlin Ranch.

"Those days you'd go buy some dirt to put the ranch on," Chamberlin said.

Today the valley is much different. Compared to the historic popularity of the cattle market, modern ranchers are a dying breed.

"There's no money in cattle," Chamberlin said. "There's barely enough money in the cattle business to do all your own work."


Lots of land:
The Ted Chamberlin Ranch in Los Olivos is made up of more than 9,000 acres of farm fields and golden hills, studded with the oak trees that help make Santa Maria-style barbecue what it is today.
PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Chamberlin said that he was forced to get rid of 80 percent of the cattle on his ranch last year due to a lack of rain, and consequently a lack of grass for grazing. But Chamberlin has started building up his numbers again.

Kerry Mormann & Associates, a realty company specializing in ranch land and high acreage estates in Santa Barbara County, handles various cattle ranching properties along Foxen Canyon Road in Santa Maria, a route filled with both California and ranching history. Despite the tradition, Mormann real estate broker John Vogel said that the majority of ranch land buyers are not cattle ranchers, but "people who just want property."

Vogel said that many property owners choose to lease their land to cattle ranchers, not necessarily because cattle ranching is profitable any more, but because of added security--cattle ranchers keep an eye on the property, taking care of the land and the roads.

Chamberlin doesn't believe that cattle ranching today has much of an influence on Santa Maria culture.

"I think now it's very small in the earlier days it was very large," he said.

He attributed this change to the growing popularity and wealth of the wine industry, which has converted--or at least diluted the cattle portion of--many a ranch in the Santa Maria Valley area.

"With the grapes taking over," he said, "all of the supplies for cattle agriculture have dwindled, as cattle agriculture has dwindled."

The number of cattle markets has drastically decreased (the closest one is in Templeton) and cattle supply stores are low, on items such as vaccinations. Despite the dwindling supplies, however, Chamberlin is thankful for the few existing outlets for cattle ranchers.

"It would be very difficult to run a cattle ranch here [without them]," he said. "It would be like trying to farm out in Australia--a million miles from supplies and markets."

Follow the beef

Righetti is a fourth-generation cattle rancher, now producing beef on the property that's been in his family for years. He has lived and breathed the business of cattle: "I was born into it," he said.


Fancy footwear:
These boots were made for walking on the Ted Chamberlin Ranch.
PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Righetti's grandfather immigrated to the United States in 1835, when he was just 13 years old. He worked milking cows, and eventually saved up enough money to buy the property Righetti works today. Righetti's father introduced beef cattle to the family ranch, which, up until that point, had only raised dairy cows.

The Righetti family ranch has undergone significant changes since its establishment, a testament to the changing face of the ranching and cattle business.

The Righetti family was one of the first in the area to convert its ranch strictly to "beef property." Before World War II, Righetti said, there were more than 100 dairies in Santa Barbara County. As of 2007, there were only two.

And now Righetti said that his days of being a "cattle rancher" are over, at least in name.

"Today, I'm calling myself a 'beef producer,'" he said.

The title change has come from Righetti's partnership with Harris Ranch, the largest fully integrated beef operation in California. Righetti's cows are raised in Santa Maria, and then transferred to the Harris Feeding Company, an 800-acre feedlot where cattle go to fatten up and die.

After Righetti's cattle are harvested, the beef is sold under the

Big view:
Ernest Righetti's ranch land extends from the bottom of this photo to the treeline in the middle
PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Harris Ranch label at grocery stores, including Spencer's Fresh Markets and Scolari's Food & Drug.

A Harris producer since 1999, Righetti is under a contract guaranteeing that his cattle are free of antibiotics and added hormones. He also uses the Angus bulls that Harris recommends.

"The quality of [my] cattle has improved since I started the program," Righetti said.

Like Righetti, Chamberlin also primarily sells feeder cattle, but the majority of his animals go to Beef Products, Inc. and Tyson Foods, which Chamberlin labeled "huge cow killers" who supply most of the meat to McDonald's.

Change can be good

The American Heart Association previously encouraged U.S. consumers to purchase leaner steaks in order to control cholesterol, which--according to Righetti--produced beef of a lower quality and flavor. Now that the association has determined that cholesterol is controlled by hereditary factors and genetics, Righetti is pleased that there's once again a demand for rich and flavorful Angus beef.

"When you go to buy a steak, you want a nice, thick piece of steak," Righetti emphasized. "[Consumers] can enjoy good quality beef today."

It's what's for dinner

One of the influences at the heart of the tradition of barbecue in Santa Maria is the sense of camaraderie between ranchers and their hired hands, and among the ranchers themselves.


Atmosphere:
Cattle operations, like Ted Chamberlain Ranch, are becoming more and more rare.
PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
The big-barbecue tradition started as a thank-you to other ranchers and vaqueros for helping out at the host ranch, but it's still not uncommon for ranchers to volunteer their time and resources to help out a neighboring ranch come time for cattle roundup.

"You do your own work until you need help, and then you call your neighbors," Righetti said.

Santa Maria ranching is almost a fellowship in itself--everyone involved knows everyone else, even if only by name or reputation. And while ranchers run their own daily operations--most have a hired hand or two assisting them--they're not shy about helping out a fellow rancher. They know the favor will be reciprocated.

Perhaps the real tradition of barbecue in the Santa Maria Valley is the code of brotherhood and concern for the neighboring rancher, even when dealing with industry hardships. And, of course, there's always the beef.


Editorial intern Brooke Robertson can be contacted at intern@santamariasun.com.


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