Yes, I’m more than just someone who can wax poetic about fundamentalists and perform killer weddings…..I am one HELL of a bbq chef. To be honest, as much as I love to cook (and I generally do an okay job at most things I try), for whatever reason I’m probably the best at my bbq. Ribs, pork and brisket, to be specific. Just to clarify something for those of you who may not be from a bbq hub like Kansas City, Memphis or the Carolinas (and I guess I can add Texas, although people who use rotted railroad ties….a.k.a. mesquite wood, don’t really count as bbq’ers), I’m talking about bbq. Not grilling. When you have friends over to your house to cook hot dogs, hamburgers, steaks and whatnot….you are NOT bbq’ing. You are grilling. The two terms are mutually exclusive, so keep that in mind. And don’t mix that shit up around me. Or else. Seriously. Rule of thumb is this…..did it take you less than two hours to cook it? Then it’s not bbq. You can add your little wood chips on top of the charcoal underneath your ribeye all you want, but you’re still just grilling. Any monkey can do that. It takes a man of substantial patience and talent to cook a humble pork shoulder low and slow for 14 hours until it transforms into something that would prompt even someone as hardcore as Ingrid Newkirk to drop to her knees and beg for just one precious morsel. The ribs? The brisket and its prodigious offspring known as “burnt ends”? Don’t even get me started….. when it comes to the art of indirect cooking, I am Godzilla and you are Japan.
In all seriousness, compared to many of the 270+ bbq teams that were assembled at the Great American BBQ contest this weekend…I’m just a backyard hack. Sure, anything I cook is better than what you’ll find at 99% of the bbq restaurants out there, but that is due in part to the fact that it’s so much easier to babysit 8 slabs of ribs instead of 80 at a time. As far as the type of cooking that goes on at contests….it’s kind of like if you were a visitor from the moon and you watched two baseball games; one minor league and one major league. As an alien, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Likewise, as a non-bbq person, you can probably eat at a restaurant like Famous Dave’s or KC Masterpiece and not realize that what you are eating is the bbq equivalent of vomit. It takes a pretty decent aficionado to know their place on the food chain….and me and my team captain know our place on the food chain. We bow to the masters who do 15 or 30 of these contests every year, and are just glad to be a part of the club on weekends like this one. BBQ contests are a LOT of work, but they are also a LOT of fun.
As a weight loss surgery patient, I approached this year’s contest with dread and loathing. I can no longer suck down three or four slabs of babybacks and a gallon of bourbon in an evening, so I thought that this weekend would be totally lost on me. I spent Thursday and Friday of this week all pissed off as I cooked a ton of food for the party that we hosted last night. BUT, once I got there and got settled in, and the smokers were going, and we met the folks at the spot next to us (a “for real” bbq team) who gave us some great tips throughout the contest prep, I had a ton of fun. BBQ folks are, in general, very friendly, helpful and down to earth. So when you get a few thousand of them together in one spot at a meticulously organized event like GAB, you’d have to be a sociopath not to have fun. Plus, there are fireworks! Sure, on Saturday night I had maybe two ribs, a couple of slices of brisket and two or three bourbon and cokes, but I decided to make the contest all about the craft for me….brainstorming how to make the food better next time, figuring out the equation of the right amount of food to cook for a party, and relishing the fact that my physical stamina for one of these ordeals has increased exponentially since surgery. When I got home today I didn’t just lie in my bed in my sweaty, smoke-soaked clothing for a couple of hours and weep in crippled agony…I took a shower, got dressed, went out and ran some errands then came back and started a-bloggin’.
I just want to take a moment to clarify something for any elitists or food snobs who view bbq as something low-brow, pedestrian or common. Know this…I know food and I know chefs. Yes, there are many, many people out there who have the means and the obsession to one-up me in many respects when it comes to being a, for lack of a better term, foodie. I think about food about as often as I think about sex…….how often is that for a guy? Something like every nine seconds? I know good food, for-real good food…..and when you talk about the passion and the genius that has driven men like Thomas Keller and Ferran Adria to the summit of the pantheon of culinary cocksmanship in the modern world……I am telling you it is matched by dozens and dozens of the people you will meet at any bbq contest across the country. Today when we were getting some of our food ready for turn-in, I noticed a woman across from us who had an entire pallet of live parsley plants. Basically, parsley is a garnish (along with leaf lettuce) that goes into the clamshell under and around your food in order to enhance the appearance of your entry. Appearance is just one of the things that factor into your overall score, and 99.999% of the people that I know are more than happy just to buy some damn parsley at the store and bring it along. But not this woman. She brought live plants….because on some level she was certain that LIVE parsley just looks better than what you buy in the store, and maybe it would enhance the overall appearance on her entries enough to add a fraction of a percent to her overall score. And that’s how close the scores can be…….the difference between being a ten thousand dollar grand champion and going home with nothing can come down to a fraction of one percent. So these folks play for keeps. Weekend to weekend, year to year, it is a combination of art and science……reduce the amount of brown sugar in your pork rub by a couple of teaspoons and try it again next contest, take that one tendon out of the chicken thigh so that when you cook it the skin looks more taught and try it again next contest, modify your smoker so that you can hang your ribs instead of putting them right on the grate and try it again next contest, increase the heat in your smoker by about twenty degrees for the last half hour and try it again next contest, cook FIVE whole briskets in order to get six perfect slices for judging and try it again next contest…….the list, and the obsession, and the dedication, and the madness, is endless. And no matter how finely they tune their method, they are at the mercy of anonymous judges whose tastes and preferences run the gambit. Even when they know they have cooked the best food of their lives, they are totally at the mercy of strangers who may unknowingly cut them off at the knees. Plus, for every contest in which they compete and DON’T win one of the categories…..that is all money out of their pockets….and entry fees, gasoline, and meat are NOT cheap when you are doing a couple dozen of these things every year. These are real chefs. Genius artisans, completely lost in the culture. Spend five minutes with any of the folks who travel the circuit every year, and you will agree. They love to talk about their craft, and they want to get you hooked enough to compete against them someday. And you know what? When you DO compete against them and you run out of an ingredient, or smoke wood, or you need any number of favors from them…..they’re the kind of people who will do anything to help you out.
So yeah, I thought about saying fuck all of this after this weekend. And granted, I’ll only be up for one per year….probably this one every Memorial Day weekend, but there’s just no way I can let it go completely, no matter how much I miss the debauchery that was the hallmark of these events for me up until now. I know we’ll never place very high in any of the meat categories, because although we are passionate about the food that we prepare, we are novices compared to the REAL cooks. Today when we were joyous about cooking “the best pork butt we have ever done”….we took a taste of our neighbor’s entry and went “well shit”. They are the Yankees, and we are the Special Olympics. But they are really, really humble and super cool Yankees who are more than willing to give us advice on how to work our way off of the short bus, so there you go.
And now I will share some images of food made by us poor hacks………again, about five times better than what you’ll find at a restaurant, but hack-grub nonetheless…..
This is my main side dish entry. They are stuffed mushrooms. These stuffed mushrooms have enough pork fat to stop your heart. I am not kidding. The first year I made them I won second place at the American Royal BBQ, and have been trying to perfect them ever since. By “perfect them”, I mean find ways to put even more pork fat into them without being TOO obvious. The filling is cream cheese, crushed bacon, sauteed onions and red bell peppers, fresh cut uncooked corn and various spices. They are topped with panko bread crumbs and a little bit of rub. See how cool I am? You know I’m a bbq person because I’m just GIVING my recipe away……well most of it anyway; these things are all about the technique with which you prepare them.
Beans! Not much to add here, my buddy the team captain (there’s pretty much just two of us on the team, but a third is being groomed because the guy can actually cook) made these, and they are tasty.
Chicken thighs…..they look pretty great, but realize you are looking at the food of people who will be overjoyed to place in the top 100 overall. I don’t even try making the chicken, I don’t have the patience.
Ribs were my first real assignment when I joined the team about six or seven years ago. They have been tweaked over time, but again, it’s total HACK crap!
Pork butt, the king of all bbq foods in my opinion, is another thing I kind of inherited a few years ago, but most of this stuff (except for chicken….I don’t have the patience to mess w/the chicken, and he pretty much runs the brisket) is a collaborative effort between the two of us. In fact, we did get a BIG compliment from our neighbors today when they told us how efficient we were considering the fact that our operation is so bare bones (a very nice way of saying white trash).
Brisket is the king of bbq meats to most people, and it used to scare the shit out of me to cook it. I don’t do the competition briskets, but I am now able to blow your mind with this very tough and unforgiving piece of meat. A ten pound whole brisket is cooked in order to get just these six passable slices….
So anyway, there’s my weekend so far. More than anything I just wanted to pop in here and prove to myself that on the day of a goddamn bbq contest I could manage to do something more productive than lie in bed in a fetal position praying for the sweet release of death. I’m not going to go and mow the yard now or any crazy shit like that, but if you’ve seen me at contests in the past, you know it is basically a miracle for me to be this lucid after a huge competition.
I will probably pop in again Thursday or Friday. I have a trip to DC coming up that I’ve been dreading for a little while now. More on that later. As highly evolved as I think I’ve become, I somehow manage to get suckered/blackmailed into drama that drags me across the country….folks, what I’m telling you is this: the sins of your past WILL eventually catch up with you. Just pray that in your case it won’t involve very misguided stalkers and uncomfortable secrets you cannot let come to light. I know, I know, I’m the ex-pastor porno dealer who could give less of a shit about who knows what about me……..so by saying that you must realize how serious this situation is. And if you DON’T hear from me ever again, this has all been pretty fun. Thanks for doing me the honor of reading my ramblings…….
*************UPDATE- CONTEST RESULTS******************
YES! Just as I suspected……we SUCK! As I said before, all of our food tasted great and would have been well received by most laypeople, but when it comes to the rigors of competition we just need to stay in it for the sheer joy of the event.
For the meat categories, we did not do very well. Our measure of “success” is if we rank in the upper 50% of all competitors, and we only did that in one category. Out of a total of 225 teams, brisket was 219th, chicken was 158th, pork was 112th and ribs came in at 99th. Overall we ranked 181st place. Not terrible for ribs and pork, we all thought the chicken would do a LOT better than it did, and we knew the brisket would be in a fight for the basement.
For the sides categories, we did a LOT better. Generally, half as many people who turn in meat categories participate in sides, but even with that in mind we did a good job. Potatoes came in 55th, beans came in 23rd and my insane stuffed mushrooms came in at 13th……three spots away from some money and a ribbon. Overall we ranked 28th place for sides. Not too shabby, it definitely takes the sting out of our performance in the meat categories. We’ll be back next year!