For Want of a Rib

clemsThere was a contest recently on the best rib places in the U.S. The fact that I am not sitting on a council that decides these sort of things is one of my great failings in life. I love ribs. Not a simple love like you love your wife or your children. This is real love. And the only thing I love more than ribs is Clem’s Ribs.

There’s nothing about Clem’s that isn’t awesome. It consisted of two small buildings: a dining room, a smokehouse. It was run by fat men, men who look like they should be running a rib joint. Men who look like they bathe in barbecue sauce. Men who take meat very seriously. Men who respect a good gut. Men who discriminate for other fat men. Men like me.

Clem’s was 45 minutes outside of Pittsburgh, which sounds like a downside, but for a few reasons it wasn’t. In the first place, there was the joy of anticipation, in itself a sensory delight. Second, we had the joy of smelling it from about five miles away. Third, it became a great tradition for my friend Joe and I. And fourth, because it gave us an excuse to visit the nearby drive thru strip club ($5 a dance, you can eat in your car while watching).

Joe and I went to Clem’s once every two weeks, which meant that we would drive two hours to eat for about 6 minutes. On one such day we opened the windows five miles away and took in deep breaths to imbibe the smell of Clem’s. But today, there was a problem: there was no smell of ribs. There was no smell at mile four, three, two, or one either.

Arrival at Clem’s confirmed our worst nightmare. Closed for repairs. There was probably a safety issue, but there were no ribs, so we didn’t care if it was closed for the Pope’s private luncheon. Panic ensued as we sat back in the car and thought about our options. We had to head back to Pittsburgh. We were so bummed that we didn’t even stop at the drive thru strip club.

Pittsburgh was a devastating tease. We went to two grimy ribs joints in the city and since it was after lunch they were completely out. Damn. We tried another one we knew of on the other side of the city, but they were closed for repairs as well. It seemed that for some reason, all the rib joints in Pittsburgh decided to fix their grills in late August. It was a nightmare.

Finally, salvation came in the form of a local bar near Bloomfield. I can’t remember the name, but I know it wasn’t Clem’s. I have heard that those in severe starvation hallucinate about food, and I can say this was the same for me. By the time we walked through the door, starvation pangs had begun drilling against my gut and I was having a conversation with a lovely talking hotdog named Larry.

We sat at the bar and ordered a barbecued chicken as an appetizer. The waitress, obviously thinking it was a joke, stopped laughing as she noted the cheerless and aggravated looks on our faces right above mouths that were drooling. I have no idea what that chicken did in its former life to be reincarnated as a barbecued chicken, but no matter what it didn’t deserve the dissemination we visited upon its corpse. I do not regret it.

Our ribs came and I think we cried as we ate. It was ribs, but it wasn’t Clem’s. It’s sort of like going to the Sinatra concert and getting Joey Bishop instead. I mean sure, he’s in the Rat Pack, but it’s not the same.

We didn’t talk on the way home. We didn’t bring this day for a while, I think until after the next trip to Clem’s took out a little of the sting. On that day one of the big men serving clearly saw a mixed look of hurt and elation in my eyes because he gave me an extra portion of ribs and a sincere nod.

But the moral of the story is that I should have been on the council to choose the best rib’s joint.

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