The pitmasters behind Penngrove’s Independence Day celebration
The Penngrove Independence Day festivities marks its 43rd year, born out of the 1976 Bicentennial. The celebration’s food traditions, however, date back much farther and include barbecue chicken and the rarely offered deep-pit beef.
I grew up in Penngrove and have attended the Penngrove parade for most of my life. When local writer, Petaluma “Good Egg” and Penngrove Social Firemen spokesperson Lyndi Brown offered me the chance to speak with current Penngrove pitmaster Lee Brians, I jumped at the opportunity, although it was one that came with unusual instructions.
“Even at age 74, he rises early with the cows at 5:30 a.m. and can be hard to reach by phone,” warned Lyndi. “But he comes into town every morning for coffee and the newspapers, so let me know if you need help corralling him.”
Although I missed him on my first try, Lee called me back mid-day to give me the scoop on Penngrove’s deep-pit beef, while also sharing some Penngrove history sprinkled with plenty of names I recognized from my youth.
Chicken barbecues have long been popular as fundraisers in Penngrove, which, like Petaluma, is no stranger to the business of poultry. Chicken barbecues even helped fund the building of the Penngrove Church, which still stands today on Oak Street. In the 1960s, Earl and Marvin Wacker, of the Wacker & Sons house-moving company, added deep-pit beef to the menu, presumably bringing that tradition from the Dakotas, from which their father migrated.
Lee has been a dairyman, rancher and oat and rye grower his whole life, farming his family’s property on Petaluma Hill Road near the intersection of East Railroad Avenue, on the north end of Penngrove. Lee’s father and uncles were all members of the Penngrove Social Fireman and used to handle the pit duties before handing them off to Lee and his cousin Tom Brians some years ago.
“Tom and I grew up side by side,” said Lee. “We still have plenty of family in the area, many of whom still live on the property settled by my great grandfather.”
I asked where Lee’s kids went to high school. Once Rancho Cotati opened in the mid-1960s, Penngrovians could choose between Petaluma, Casa and Rancho.
“Sure, we were closer to Rancho Cotati, but we all went to what was in my time the newly built Petaluma High,” Lee beamed. “Petaluma High had a strong FFA (Future Farmers of America) program and was an ag school, with metal, wood and auto shop, so that’s where we sent our kids.”
Even though Lee is still working at well over 70 years old, he is thankful for Nick Bursio’s help with the digging necessary for deep-pit beef cooking. “Nick brings in his backhoe and digs two pits,” said Lee. “They are 5-feet wide, 10-feet long, and 4-feet deep. After we’re done, we backfill them and dig fresh pits the next year.”
Although “pit beef” is a term associated with open-pit barbecuing made famous in Baltimore, what Lee calls “deep-pit beef” is something different. It is more in lines with an earth oven, which is sealed off from the outside air, unlike a pit barbecue, which is basically a hole in the ground that is filled with coals to cook over.
“Our method is anaerobic,” proclaimed Lee. That means the cooking process occurs devoid of oxygen. “Once the pits are filled with coals and the roasts, they are each topped with a steel street construction plate and then completely covered with dirt.”
The whole process starts the day before the parade, with the digging of the pits. Lee and Tom use two pits so they can stagger the cooking time of the 500 pounds of cross rib roasts, ensuring everyone gets a hot bite.
That same afternoon, Stanley Pronzini and Paul Gilchrist take over the kitchen at Penngrove Park to smother 15-pound sections of roast with onions, rosemary and a secret recipe of herbs and spices.
“All the recipes and sauces have been handed down over the generations,” said Lee. “They have become Penngrove traditions.”
The roasts are wrapped in butcher paper first and then three layers of newspaper, which are wet down in order to keep the roast from burning. “It’s a great way to recycle all our Argus-Couriers,” Lee said with a chuckle.
The roasts are then tied with bailing wire, a mainstay of most any farmer. A loop is added to the wire so the roasts can be retrieved with a long pole since the pit is far too hot for hands.
Firewood is piled into the pits and set aflame around midnight on the morning of the parade so the wood will burn down to a pile of coals by 6:30 a.m., when it’s time to put in the roasts. The wood is usually oak or eucalyptus, donated by Steve Turner of Maestretti & Sons Firewood Company.