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‘Smoke This’ Rib Festival kicks off autumn with a summer favorite

The autumnal weather recently has served as a bittersweet reminder that the days of summer are just about gone. On Sunday between noon and 4 p.m., the city of Cambridge finished off summer in a spectacular celebration of America’s finest barbecue with the fifth annual “Smoke This” Rib Festival, coordinated by the East Cambridge Business Association.

At the fifth annual "Smoke This" Rib Fest organized by the East Cambridge Business Association, hungry patrons were met with rib selections from local restaurants, as well as live music from local performers. PHOTO BY FRED SCHILLINGER/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF
At the fifth annual “Smoke This” Rib Fest organized by the East Cambridge Business Association, hungry patrons were met with rib selections from local restaurants, as well as live music from local performers. PHOTO BY FRED SCHILLINGER/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

“The goal of the rib-fest is to bring people to East Cambridge to show them all of the great restaurants here, all of the great businesses that are located in East Cambridge and to help ensure that people begin to recognize the value of this area,” said Steve LaMaster, EBCA clerk and volunteer coordinator for “Smoke This.”

The festival grounds, which stretched between Fulkerson and 5th Streets along Cambridge Street, were a rush of thick cookout smells, bluegrass bands and hungry people. LaMaster said he anticipated about 8,000 people during the four-hour span of the festival. Lining the streets were rib-sampling stations belonging to 19 different local restaurants. Each restaurant had its own unique flavor and aroma, ranging from spicy chili-seasoned barbacoa to sweet apple-glazed pork.

Festival attendants could go online to reserve vouchers, or “Taste Tickets,” which entitled them to 10 samples from the various restaurants for the price of $25. When the tickets sold out, participants were given the option to purchase ribs from individual stations, most for only a few dollars. Profits from the Taste Ticket sales will go toward city beautification projects, such as flower baskets and holiday baskets to decorate each streetlight in the city, LaMaster said.

The attendants who went online to pre-purchase their vouchers were able to check off their favorite restaurant after sampling the selections, which were later tallied to determine the winner of the People’s Choice Award. In addition, there was a panel of chefs and restaurant-owners who determined their favorite of the 20 contestants.

The chefs of East Side Bar and Grille looked to continue their reign as the People’s Choice Award winners, while restaurants such as Atwood’s Tavern and Puritan & Company tried to give them a run for their money. Even the Cambridge Police Department cooked up some specialty ribs for a shot at the trophy. In the end, East Side Bar and Grille secured its fifth People’s Choice Award and the Filarmonica Santo Antonio Cultural Center won the Judge’s Taste Test.

A festival this large takes a great deal of behind-the-scenes work, LaMaster said. A planning committee of ECBA members begin making arrangements in August to ensure the right restaurants and judges are present, occasionally securing several well-known faces from the community. In 2012, one of the judges was Dave Andelman, host of the television show “Phantom Gourmet” in which an anonymous food critic gives reviews of New England restaurants.

Still, LaMaster said it’s largely the efforts of everyday Bostonians that make the “Smoke This” Rib Festival happen.

“It’s all a volunteer effort,” LaMaster said of the 50 red-shirted individuals working at the festival.

As the “Smoke This” Rib Festival closes on its fifth year, the numbers prove that warm summer barbecue is the perfect escape for the fall-ridden residents of the Boston area, LaMaster said. And he has big plans for the festival’s future as well, saying he hopes one day “to have people say this is the best street fest in all of Boston.”

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