In the Gateway to the West, pit masters bring a barbecue rarity to the fore
Author Nick Baines Photography Ryan Donnell
ONE OF THE APPEALS OF BARBECUE—apart from juicy, smoky meat that falls off the bone into spicy, delicious sauce, of course —is the regional variation that gives rise to rib trails and civic rivalries. In Kansas City, for instance, pork ribs in sweet sauce make mouths water; in central Texas, it’s beef brisket; and in North Carolina, the hollering over thin vinegar sauce versus thick tomato sauce can be heard for miles.
In this roll call of regional specificity, however, one delicacy tends to get overlooked: the St. Louis barbecue snoot, a cut of meat from the nose and cheeks of a pig that’s grilled until crispy, topped with a sweet tomato-based sauce and served with two slices of Wonder Bread.
Earline Walker, co-owner of Smoki O’s, one of only a handful of St. Louis barbecue restaurants still serving snoots, offers a simple reason why the specialty has had such a low profile. “It can be very difficult for people to find,” she says. “I’ve been cooking snoots for 40 years, and over that time they have certainly become harder to come by.” Walker’s customers come from all over St. Louis to get their fix, and she sells more than 350 pounds of snoots to them each week. “We cook them real crispy, which is what makes them so popular,” she says. “We’ve had people travel from California, New York, Florida and even as far away as the U.K.”
Another barbecue joint renowned for its snoots is Roper’s Ribs, opened in 1992 by Carl Roper and his wife, Denise. “Snoots are already quite rare,” Roper says. “In 10 or so years, who knows if anyone will still be left cooking them?” When asked the reason for snoots’ decline, he explains that for such a small item, they’re very difficult to cook—“it takes about two hours and a lot of attention to cook them right.” Rising pork prices have also taken their toll. Back when he was a kid, Roper says, an order of snoots cost about 55 cents; today it can be close to $10.
Despite the relative scarcity of snoots, however, they’ve garnered a devoted following of food geeks in recent years. Snoot sandwiches made an appearance on CNN’s Eatocracy blog last year, for example, and they even earned a nod from The Economist, in late 2010. For their part, Roper and Walker report seeing an increased interest in the dish over the past few years.
“I’m not going to stop cooking them anytime soon,” Walker says. “They taste good, and demand is growing.”