HIStory of TRI TIP
By Brent Walton
Like all regions of the world and all regions of the United States, we all have barbeque in common. Texas has brisket, the Carolinas have pork, Kansas City has sauce, Memphis has ribs and California has Tri Tip.
Man cooking over fire is as old as man himself. There is just something about it. We sit around a fire and just stare for hours at the flames. It holds our attention like a first run mystery movie. As men we like to tend to the fire and we really love to cook over it. There must be something in our DNA, our genetic make-up somewhere that causes us our fascination generation after generation. Even today with our speed of light, high tech devices and comforts we could never even imagine a few decades ago, we are still attracted to fire and the power it seems to have over us.
Tri Tip plays into our instincts perfectly and it has become the definitive barbecue of California without question. It has a history; it was discovered In Santa Maria, Ca. in the late 1950’s. It has an inventor in Bob Schutz, a butcher and meat manager of a Safeway market at the corner of Mill and Vine St. (No longer there)
The butchers were aware of the triangle shaped muscle located at the bottom of the sirloin but it was not easy to get out. It seamed it was a tough piece of meat so it was generally cut up for stew meat or ground into hamburger.
Larry Viegas who was a summer replacement butcher at the Safeway recounts the day the Tri Tip was born! On that fateful day they had plenty of stew meat and hamburger. As Larry cut the big primal piece of meat he had set the triangle piece aside to address later, Bob Schutz decided to grab a piece and put it on the spit with the top block sirloins that they cooked at the store. Top block sirloin was the traditional Santa Maria barbeque started by the Vaqueros’ and cowboys at the local ranches in the mid 1800’s. Putting large hunks of meat on a spit and cooking over hot coals of red oak that is so prevalent in that area.
Bob seasoned the meat with the simple traditional method of salt, pepper and garlic then let it go for about 45 minutes on the spit over the red oak fire. Larry Viegas recalls chiding him over cooking that tough piece of meat, “that he would chew at it all day”. When they pulled it off and prepared to cut it (sliced across the grain) they were shocked at how tender it was. It had a flavor and texture all its own.
No one had ever cooked it whole before! Bob Schutz dubbed it “Tri Tip” and began giving samples to the customers and selling some whole. It did not become popular right away. Safeway did not promote it even though the cost savings were significant at the time. Top sirloin went for about 1.90 a lb where Tri Tip could be sold at .90 cents.
It really started to gain a following when Bob opened up The Santa Maria Market on N Broadway. He promoted and showed customers how to prepare and cook this 2-3 lb triangle of flavor. A local supermarket chain called the Williams Bros picked up on Bob’s little discovery and began to promote the Tri Tip as well. It slowly gained its place in California barbeque history. By the 1970’s visitors and workers transferring in and out of Vandenberg Air Force helped spread the word. People from the San Joaquin Valley could not get enough of this perfect barbecue nugget. They bought it by the case and spread the word up and down the valley.
By the mid 1980’s most of the independent markets had Tri Tip available. In fact meat processors in the mid west sent us their tri tip while we sent them our briskets as we needed the tri tip to meet the demand. Today the word barbecue in California means Tri Tip and rightfully so.
Bob Schutz did not live long enough to see how important his discovery became to California‘s heritage. He has never been recognized or received the accolades he deserves for his important discovery and dedication to its promotion. He has made an incredible contribution to our way of life here in the valley. So next time you are out at the grill cooking your amazing Tri Tip and knocking back a cold one, propose a toast to Bob Schutz, I think he deserves that!