RURAL RANTOUL — On his last day of planting, Norman Hethke pulled into his farm and headed right for the barn, where there was a row of pork ribs waiting to become contest-quality Kansas City-style ribs.
Hethke learned from a master. He was an acolyte of the late Gary Hembrough, the football coach at Centennial High School. After playing for the University of Illinois, Hembrough was on the Illini coaching staff as an assistant for 11 years.
And he was clearly eating barbecue. Hembrough formed the Coaches Cooking Team, competing throughout the Midwest.
One of those teams, made up of Hembrough and his wife, Georgine, Gwen Davis of Champaign and Hethke, finished in the top 10 at the state contest more than once. They cooked up the state's best ribs award in 2007, among others.
Hethke became devoted to the art, even after his master's passing in 2012.
"You have to have a passion for it, that's for sure," said Georgine Hembrough.
She has retired from the game and likes to eat out — "and I love to get invitations."
She learned a lot at first. "A pinch of this, a pinch of that," she said of the secret recipe.
"My husband did a dry rub, didn't ever put sauce on it," she said.
Gary Hembrough had a rhetorical question: "Are you judging the rib or judging the sauce?"
Hethke remembers an anniversary party with Gary and Georgine and his wife Teresa that was rib heaven.
The coach had a 25-foot-by-13-foot smoker for competitions.
"It was sold to a group of bankers in Missouri who planned to smoke ribs and maybe try our pork-chop-on-a-stick mainstay at tailgates," Georgine Hembrough said. "This is the smoker that we parked on the west side of Memorial Stadium and at the Champaign County Fair, among other catering venues."
Hethke has a large Jedmaster smoker about half the size of that one.
But on this day, he used a smaller grill, a Traeger, that smokes and cooks with wood pellets. Apple wood is stacked nearby.
The smoke flavor is a killer, and there's no need for sauce, he said.
The rack is on an octagonal cable he calls "the ring of fire."
Everybody loves their different styles, but Hethke will always be true to Kansas City.
No, no, not North Carolina, with its vinegar finish. St. Louis, no way.
Important St. Louis fact: Residents are said to consume more barbecue sauce per capita than any other city in the nation.
This makes for a very sticky city.
All of this folderol is not at all to Hethke's taste.
Like his spiritual master, Hethke is committed to dry rub.
"I like mine naked, no sauce at all," he said.
For a rub, you can use whatever kind of salt you like — kosher or sea salt, or just table salt — and any kind of sugar, even confectioner's. Both sides.
Sugar brings out the moisture, he said.
For Hethke, it's brown sugar. And that's all he's going to reveal.
The application is more of a pat than a rub.
"You want it to stay on the meat," he noted.
The color comes from pepper, such as cayenne.Oddly, it's great to prepare the meat when it's raining, he said.
Before the rub, though, you've got to get the membrane off to let things soak in. The membrane is the chewy stuff on the back formally called the peritoneum. It's pretty much like plastic.
For competition, Hethke had to learn a lot of rules. For instance, each piece must be equal, and each must have a bone.
"I always use spare ribs in contests," he said.
Hethke lets the meat soak overnight. Then it smokes for four hours.
The final product?
"You should see bite marks, or it's overcooked," he said.
Each batch is a slight surprise.
"I've done different rubs that taste great, but I didn't write down what was different about it," Hethke said.
The rules of barbecue
The Kansas City Barbecue Society is the largest competitive barbecue organization in the world, more than 20,000 members all over the world, and it doesn't play fast and loose with the rules.
In fact, the rules go on for pages. Here's a tiny taste:
"Meat shall not be sculptured, branded or presented in a way to make it identifiable. Rosettes of meat slices are not allowed. Violations of this rule will be scored a one on all criteria by all six judges.
The Four KCBS Meat Categories:
-- CHICKEN: Chicken includes Cornish Game Hen and Kosher Chicken.
-- PORK RIBS: Ribs shall include the bone. Country style ribs are prohibited.
-- PORK: Pork is defined as Boston Butt, Boston Roast, Picnic and/or Whole Shoulder, weighing a minimum of 4 pounds at the time of inspection. After trimming, pork shall be cooked whole (bone in or bone out); however, once cooked, it may be separated and returned to the cooker at the cook's discretion. It may be turned in chopped, pulled, chunked, sliced or a combination of any of those.
-- BEEF BRISKET: May be whole brisket, flat or point. Corned beef is not allowed.