Monday, December 31, 2007

Part 8- Landover Maryland 5/18-5/19

Our first contest, the quest for a plastic pig begins.

Other team members did not take to the new name as I had hoped they would. “That’s our name?” and “you’ve got to be kidding” were some of the nicer responses that I heard. Even after I explained the Butch Cassidy connection, I was still getting funny looks. I guess it was to be expected, the name being a little different and all, but I felt confident that it would grow on them as it had me. Just give it a little time I thought, we still had time to make a change if we had to.

The date for our first contest was fast approaching and before I knew it, there it was. Mike ordered the meat, I had been over the trailer a dozen times checking, and rechecking to make sure we would have everything we would need. Al was in charge of the Friday night feed, he whipped up a pot of potato soup, and brought along some bratwurst, one thing was for sure, we would eat well.

Al is the senior member of our team and a very fine home cook. I had asked if he would mind taking charge of the Friday night feed and he enthusiastically agreed. This is a great help as there are many things to do prior to a cook-off and any time some of the responsibility is shifted elsewhere, it is a good thing. Al had recently bought himself a new Harley Davidson, which displays the vanity tag “olefool” as his license plate. There seems to be some debate as to where the handle came from originally. Rumor has it that it was a name coined by his wife Pete, when Al rolled home on his new wheels, “look what that ole fool went and bought!” she was heard to say.

The only thing we were missing was some tunes. I took along some CD’s and decided to stop on my way down the road and buy a CD player. Most of the guys worked a half a day on Friday and somewhere around noon we were all headed south for the one hour or so drive to Landover.

This was the first year for this contest and I was not sure how many other teams would be attending. I knew of at least two other contests, one in Pennsylvania and the other in Virginia scheduled for the same weekend. This would surely split up the teams that would be available to cook this weekend.

When we arrived, John the contest rep met us. I told him this was our first contest and he said if there was anything we needed, just let him know. He made us feel very welcome, explained the meat inspection and stopped by several times to make sure things were OK. As it turned out, there were sixteen teams present for this contest. Not a large turnout, but certainly a respectable number for a first time contest. We did not know any of the other teams that were present with the exception of Brett Brown from Free Range BBQ who was one of our neighbors.

Once we had our meat inspected, we started the prep work. I had made some notes of how we wanted to season our different meats and with a good team effort, got our meat trimmed, rubbed and into the cooler ready to go into the smoker. We had one packer brisket, one brisket flat, 2 pork butts, 25 pieces of chicken and 4 racks of spare ribs. This is a lot of meat, when you consider you are only handing in enough for six judges to get a taste. Extra meat is cooked in the event that some of the product is not as good as you want it to be.

With all the meat ready to go into the smoker, it was time to kick back and relax a bit. We dined on Al’s potato soup and bratwurst, it really hit the spot as the night air was chilling down and the soup was very warm. We had Muddy Waters and Charlie Brown on the CD player and all was well in the world, at least it was pretty good in our little corner of Landover Maryland that night. After dinner, Bobby passed around a couple of fine cigars and with a few beers, we capped off a very relaxing evening.

It was not long and it was time to fire up the Tall Boy and get it up to temperature. We loaded the firebox with charcoal and lit it off. Before I knew it, we were up to 225 and ready for meat. The big meats, (pork and brisket) go on first, and then you have a couple of hours to get a little shuteye before the ribs go in.

Mike had brought along a lazy boy recliner that he had set up at the site. We moved it into the trailer for the night and that was were Mike slept. The name “lazy boy” was born. Bobby and Al slept in their trucks and I checked into the hotel Tahoe. Erich erected a cot under the canopy and racked out there, that guy can sleep anywhere. Bobby insisted that he could not sleep in a vehicle, however, we had to send in a wake up service the next day to roust him up for breakfast. So much for not sleeping well in a vehicle.

Personally, I do not sleep well at a contest, as I was up several times during the night checking on the cooker. The alarm on the Guru sounded a few times and I was bunked closest to the cooker. At some point before sunrise, one of our butts was done. Needless to say, it was a little early. It was wrapped and dropped into the cooler to be held until needed. The other meats were cooking along nicely. The ribs were inserted at the proper time. As other meats finished, they were transferred to the cooler to be held until turn in.

While sitting around having our morning coffee I thought this would be a good time to have a team meeting. I went over the duties and tasks that were ahead and outlined how I thought that they should be handled. Bobby volunteered to run the boxes to the judges table and was henceforth known as “the runner”. I also went over our team expectations. We all wanted to do well and I knew that as a group we would do the best that we could. I just wanted everyone to know no matter how we did, that we should not be disappointed if we did not get a call to the stage, this was our first contest after all. We would give it our best and see what happens. Everyone agreed for once, as we anxiously awaited the first turn in which was chicken.

Erich had prepped the boxes and with our eyes on the clock we loaded the chicken into its box for turn in with time to spare. Ribs were next, our ribs looked good but a mistake cutting two racks into individual ribs by yours truly added a little excitement into what had so far been a very smooth morning. I finished cutting the remaining ribs correctly and we laid them all out on the cutting boards and tried to decide which we would turn in. The correctly cut ribs did not look half as good as the ones that I had botched. After we tasted and bickered, we decided to go ahead with one of the racks that I had “miss-cut”. Of course, I would like to blame the cutting malfunction on anyone else but me, unfortunately, I had to take the heat, as I was the one holding the knife.

The ribs made it to the judges with a few minutes to spare but I could tell by everyone’s reaction that we had cut it close. Pork was next, I was not happy at all with our pork butt. I felt that it was all over cooked and mushy. Mike and I did what we could, pulling what we thought to be the better stuff from both butts and assembling some selected bark sections to begin to build our box. The box was completed and Bobby took it to the table. It seemed for a minute or two that we were back on schedule.

We then broke out the brisket. We took a center slice from the ones we had cooked and debated on which was the better product. After lengthy discussion, it was decided and we began to build our brisket box. I do not know what happened to the time, but before I knew it, we were into our last 5 minutes. I finished just in time and took off across the grounds towards the judges. They could see me running and yelled to me to slow down as I had plenty of time. I dropped the box at the table with a good 45-50 seconds to spare, a little too close to being disqualified for me.

Nevertheless, we had gotten all of our meats in on time and with the exception of just a few glitches, things went off very well. We talked about our turn ins as we broke down the site, packed up the trailer and awaited the awards set for 4:00.

With only sixteen teams in the contest, the organizers decided to call the top five in each category. As we walked to the awards area, I again told the guys that they had done a great job and not to be discouraged if we did not hear our team name called. The awards are in the same order as turn-ins starting with chicken. The award for second place chicken goes to “who are those guys?” You could have knocked me over with a feather, unbelievable, I was floored, I think we all were. A call for chicken in our first contest, we were on cloud nine. I walked up to receive the trophy and floated back to the team as they stood clapping and beaming with smiles all around. Can you believe this? We were amazed.

We stood, clapped and congratulated the others on their calls and looked at each other in shock. Pork and ribs came and went without hearing our name again but it did not matter, we had a trophy for 2nd place chicken and that is all we needed. Brisket, the final category, and second place goes to “who are those guys?” Did he say us again? Flabbergasted was the only word that comes to mind. Two calls in our first contest, you would have thought we had just won a world championship.

As we walked back to the vehicles for the ride home, I think we were all in shock. We had finished 6th place in a 16 team field.When we split up, I thanked everyone for their efforts and promised to send the scoring breakdown that is given out after each contest by the judges. I would make copies and mail everyone their own.

While on the ride home I called Jo to tell her how we did, she too was amazed as was just about everyone else. I was thinking back over the events of the past 28 hours or so and realized that we had done very well for our first outing. Not a huge field of teams, but two second place calls and sixth place overall was a decent showing.

Our pork was the anchor this time and in rethinking the final stages of the prep for the pork, I made the realization that I had not sauced our entry. While some teams submit an un-sauced box, the plan for us was to sauce our pork and I had forgotten to do that part. Our pork finished 13th place out of 16. Three teams did not submit a pork box. I think that our pork box could be considered for the not so coveted DAL award for the pork category in the contest. In case you are wondering what the DAL award is, I will enlighten you, DAL equals dead-ass last. My mistake, enough said. Rest assured that I have not, to this day, heard the end of this, nor should I. Our miss-cut ribs had finished a respectable sixth, nothing wrong with that.

We had worked very well together as a team, had a few laughs, ate some good food, met new friends, gotten two calls and just had a good time all around. I could not help thinking back to what I had read on one of the BBQ forums that I visit, it is hard to believe how much time and money a person will spend to win a $4.99 trophy with a plastic pig on it, words of wisdom there. I do not know how others feel, but for us, that plastic chicken and cow were priceless.

Sunday morning as Jo and I were having breakfast at home with the boys, I got a surprise call from Steve. He wanted to know what the name of our team was because he had been reading the Forum and saw the results from Landover posted on line. I told him the name we had chosen and he congratulated us on our results.

The guys on the team could not wait for our next contest which was scheduled for August in Bel Air. Wait a minute, did you say August? That is two and a half months away, we would probably forget how to cook BBQ by then, I hope not.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Part 6- My Vision

One out of two ain't bad

Chris from Dizzy Pig gave me some great advice about a year before as I spoke with him in New Holland 2006 about starting my own team, “get a group of folks that share your vision and you won’t go wrong”, he said. As simple as this concept seems, it is not always achievable. In our case, however, I think it was. I knew I had a good group of guys, as all were my friends for many years, but in addition to the friendships, everyone was excited about the idea in general. Everyone was looking forward to the upcoming season to see what we could learn and to see what this competition cooking was all about. In short, I think I had found four friends that shared my vision. I considered myself very fortunate.

As a part of my vision, I wanted to do a test cook at my house simulating contest conditions complete with turn in deadlines and a full load of contest meat at some point before our first official event. In addition, I thought it would be a good idea to set up a site as if we were at an event and do all of the prep work under contest conditions. One reason was to see how things flowed, the other was to try to make sure we would have everything we needed when we were on site. I was trying to eliminate and or reduce the bugs and or gremlins that might (would) arise at our first contest appearance. I planned to erect the easy ups, tables, the whole works, from the trailer, making a list if there were items we did not have on board, after all, when we were at a contest, we could not run into the garage to get something we had forgotten. I had cooked each of the meats separately in the preceding months. However, as of yet, I had not orchestrated a cook involving of all four meats at once as we would in a contest. Keeping in mind that in a contest, each category is due ½ hour apart, starting with chicken, ribs, pork then brisket. For each turn in, there is only a 10-minute window. I felt a trial run was a “must do” before attempting under contest conditions. The others felt the same and we picked a Saturday in early May for the test.

We picked 5:00 PM as the first turn in time on Saturday and we invited a few friends to drop by to act as the judges and help eat up the proceeds. I pulled out my notes and figured backwards from 5:00 to determine when the big meats would have to go into the cooker. Friday night I prepped all the meat in the kitchen with the help of Erich and Mike. So much for the plan to do it all outside, a busy day at work cancelled out the plan to set the site as we would at a contest. Oh well, we would do the best we could, maybe we would have time to set up a site in the morning.

At the appointed time early Saturday morning, I started the cooker and loaded the pork and brisket. As the day wore on, I checked on the meats and monitored the temperatures. When needed, the meats were wrapped and the ribs were started. Things rolled along pretty much on schedule. The only thing we did not get to was setting up the site. I had set up a few tables that I was using to cook and wrap the meats, but that was it. Site building would have to wait. As the meats finished, they were removed and placed into the cooler to be held until needed.

Al and Bobby could not make the test cook due to other commitments, so it would be Mike, Erich and I on our first run. When Erich arrived, I asked if he would be interested in prepping the boxes. He said that he would, and “the lettuceman” was born. I explained to him what Dale had shown me about the green lettuce used as a garnish in the boxes and he was off. Since this day, Erich has really taken to his job and responsibility. He went on line and looked at pictures of other teams boxes and read what information was available, all in the quest of the perfect box. His wife Sandy said one night over dinner, “why Erich, do you only aspire to be the lettuceman, when you could be so much more? You should set your sights much higher”. We have had many laughs and gotten a lot of mileage out of her question since that night, but the truth of the matter is, Erich has become very good at box preparation. He works to prep the boxes and have them ready in plenty of time before they are needed, he also assists during the box building for any last minute touch ups or alteration needed with the garnish. One third of the judges’ score is on the appearance of the product in the box, it is the first score given to the box when presented to the judges. It has been said that one eats with their eyes before their mouth, so needless to say, box presentation is very important to the overall outcome of the competition. We are very fortunate to have Erich as our “lettuceman”.

Mike, Erich and I worked to get the meats finished and into the boxes for the scheduled turn in times. I explained when I could, about what I was doing and why, as Mike and Erich have never been to a full KCBS contest turn in. We built the boxes and took pictures when we remembered and had everything in on time. After everything was in, we sampled all of our food along with our guests and everyone offered their opinions. This was very helpful to have the thoughts of other people on the foods we had prepared.

Overall, we were on time, our product was pretty good, it looked halfway decent and we had some fun, a pretty successful test run. Not bad for a first time cook of the 4 KCBS contest meats on a timed schedule, but I also thought, and there wasn’t much disagreement, we still had a long way to go. This was not a walk in the park, especially if we wanted to do well, we would definitely need some tweaking. As for the construction and layout of our site, it looks like we will be winging that one when we arrive at our first contest, I just hope we do not forget anything. Oh well, one vision out of two ain’t bad, we were batting 500 and had not even been to our first contest!

Everything was coming together, the team assembled, our schedule selected, we were gathering the needed equipment, we had our cooker, and had even cooked a full contest load of meat. We were ready to go, well almost, what was our team name? Inquiring minds wanted to know. This would require some thought. A team name, how hard could that be?

Monday, December 24, 2007

Part 5- Spring has sprung 2007

Tall Boy joins the team

The first thing we needed was a cooker. I had pretty much decided on an upright, box type, charcoal burner. I found as I poked around for info that there are as many opinions about cookers and fuels as there are cooks. Many are very passionate about the topic to the point of accusing others of being illegal, or at the very least, “not really BBQing”.

The stick burners use mainly wood for fuel, many opting for the offset or horizontal type units. It is just my opinion, but it always seems to me that the wood burning guys are always fooling with their cookers to maintain a steady temperature. Looks like a lot of work to me but it appears that those fellows are enjoying playing with the fire.

Pellet burners or pellet poopers as they are known, use wood pellets of various flavors added to the firebox with an auger type setup. The pellets are similar to those burned in home pellet stoves. You also have folks that use ceramic cookers like the Big Green Egg. These cookers look very interesting, but to me, they would present a transportation problem to and from contests.

I have observed many spirited discussions during my time spent on BBQ forums as to the pros and cons of these and many other types of cookers. My personal thought is no matter what cooker you choose, the important thing is to learn the unit and how it cooks, with consideration given to what you as a cook want to do with the unit. I was looking for something that would hold a fire with not a lot of tending to allow for at least a couple of hours of sleep at a contest. Ease of transportation was also a factor I needed to take into account, as well as space to be able to hold all of the meat we would need to cook for a BBQ contest. A secondary consideration was the use of the cooker for some of the catering gigs that I was beginning to pick up.

I had a long running post on several BBQ forums looking for a used Backwoods Competitor. I had a few responses, but most of the time they were too far away. Once I nearly had one bought, but the seller changed his mind at the last minute. One thing I noticed during my search, folks do not part with their Backwoods cookers very often, which must tell you something.

At one point, I was considering a Caldera Del Fuego. It is made by the BB Guru guys. I called the shop and contacted Shotgun Fred Pirkle. I spoke at length with him about the Del Fuego and the Tall Boy another model made by his company. After passing on the used Del Fuego and considering the weight of the Competitor, I thought about ordering a Tall Boy. A local BBQ store, Ribinit, was a dealer for Freds products and would lend me a Tall boy for a test cook. I made the arrangements and picked up the cooker for a test drive.

After reading the manual and the information on the web site I was ready to go. I lit up the charcoal pan, tossed in the pork butt, and let the smoke roll. With a few minor adjustments, the cook went off well and I was pleased with the performance of the cooker. The best part was the weight of the cooker, the Tall Boy weighed in at 85 lbs while the Competitor was around 350 lbs. This would make a big difference in the ease that the unit moved. At this time, I still had not decided on how we were going to move the team and equipment to the contests. A 350 lb cooker would require some thought on transportation issues. With all this in mind, and the huge clock on the wall ticking towards springtime I went ahead in late January 2007 and ordered a new Caldera Tall Boy, this unit came with the BBQ Guru and the larger firebox that I wanted.

The Guru is a system designed and sold by the BBQ Guru guys that also make the Tall Boy cooker. It is a temperature control system used to maintain a consistent, steady and long burn from your fuel source. Just what the Doctor ordered. The Guru team have made their units adaptable to many makes and designs of cookers and they are becoming increasingly poplar on the BBQ circuit.

By early February, I got the call from Fred that the cooker was ready. Mike and I drove up to the BBQ Guru in Warminster PA to pick up the cooker. When we arrived, Fred and BBQ Bob Trudnak greeted us as they both spend time going over the cooker and its operation and answering any question that we had. We listened about the cookers functions and nibbled on jerky made by Fred in his Tall Boy. After purchasing several needed extras and saying our goodbyes and thanks to Fred and Bob, Mike and I were south bound with the new cooker in the back of the Tahoe, I could not wait to fire it up.

Throughout the winter and into early spring I was making lists and checking them twice. Trying to gather up what I thought I would need to enter a competition. I had an enclosed trailer that we were using to haul goose decoys around in, that would work as a cook trailer. Things were coming together. All the while, I was cooking whenever I could on the new Tall Boy. I was getting a pretty long and consistent burn, although, I still had to fiddle with it at times.

As spring approached, I looked over the event list and tried to figure what contests we would enter for the upcoming season. A new contest in Landover Maryland in May looked like a great starter contest for our team. The location was close, about an hours drive, this would give us a good chance for a shake down run. The Bel Air BBQ Bash was a local contest, about 15 minutes from base, so we would try and enter here. New Holland was a lot of fun, but hard to get in, we applied, and were put on the waiting list. I had read many good things about the contest at Dover Delaware, this would be in October and be a good way to end our first season of competition. The season was set, we would cook four contests and see what happens, if nothing else, we would get together 4 times over the summer and have a little fun! I could not wait.

In early spring, Mike and I traveled up to Meadow Creek BBQ in New Holland to attend the KCBS judging class. We wanted to see what exactly the judges were looking for when they taste our food and we hoped to learn some of the contest rules. The folks at Meadow Creek did a great job with the class and the KCBS reps explained the process in detail. When we left, both Mike and I were certified KCBS judges. We both said that we would like to judge a contest at some time in the future.

Steve and his Dad were cooking in the contest in Salisbury Maryland in April and he said I could tag along. He also offered to let me cook the chefs’ choice contest on Friday night. The weekend for the contest arrived and I loaded my truck with all the necessities and headed to Salisbury. At least this time I knew what to expect and planned accordingly, sleeping bag, pillow, Ibuprofen, etc. I planned to cook BBQ shrimp for the Friday night contest and would use the turn in box provided. Steve let me go to the cooks meeting in his place and pick up the boxes.

As the chefs’ choice turn in time approached, I could see some of the other teams carrying platters and fancy plates towards the judges tent, wow, my 24 BBQed shrimp in a bed of lettuce was in serious trouble. Team IQUE was the winner with a submission of crab cake and bacon wrapped filet mignon on a huge serving platter, mark that down as another lesson learned.

I helped Steve with the regular prep work and wondered around talking to the other teams. Dave was there whom I had not seen since Bel Air. He was cooking with his regular team IQUE, and it was nice seeing him again. Steve and I stopped by the Lunchmeat site. He introduced me around and they offered us some of their taco type dip they had prepared in a cast iron pan, I believe it was called “dam dip”. Whatever it was called, that stuff was really good. They were nice enough to share with me the basics they had used to prepare the dish and I made a mental note to give that one a try in the future.

The weather was great this weekend, which was a real change of pace, as many of the contestants from years past told stories of how hard it had rained for the past two years. This year it was very sunny and warm during the day, short sleeve weather, although it did get a little chilly during the night, but after all, it was only April.

Team Agave got two calls on Saturday and Steve insisted that I go with Dale to except the brisket trophy. This would be my first “walk” at a regular KCBS contest and even though I was just the pot washer, I gotta tell you it was really cool. Hearing the teams name called and walking up to except recognition from the contest organizers and also the genuine congratulations from the other cooks, wow, as it was once said in a beer commercial I think, “It don’t get no better than this.” Hmmmmm, well maybe it could, if I could get a call for something I cooked at one of these contests, now that would be doing something!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Part 4 - The making of the team

Steve e-mailed me when he returned from Vegas to get my address, he was sending the plaque to me for 5th place sausage, which I thought was great. I gotta tell you, I really got some mileage from that plaque. I displayed it obnoxiously prominent in the kitchen and was sure to wave it in front of anyone’s nose that stood still for any more than 30 seconds in the area. As Christmas approached, Jo insisted that I transfer it to my office, which I did, where it remains today. I am sure she was glad to have it gone from the kitchen, although I would still give anyone that would listen a full blow-by-blow account of the contest anytime I was asked, which would include a trip to my office to see “the hardware”.

During the 2006 holiday season as my friends and family became glassy eyed while listening to my sausage cooking escapades for the twentieth time, there were a few that not only didn’t glass over, but that actually appeared interested. At times, bringing the subject up and asking if they could go down and “take a look” at the plaque. Especially as I thought out loud that I would like to start my own team, there actually seemed to be some interest. I was pleasantly surprised that there were others that would be interested, I might be able to pull this off I thought.

My friend Bobby, the superintendent of the recently completed kitchen project, was very interested. He asked many questions and was excited at the idea. Bobby is always very busy with his regular job, his family and other side jobs that he is working on, but said that he would like to get involved. Just recently, Bobby had ventured into the kitchen and began to try his hand at cooking various dishes, other than cooking on the grill. He really enjoyed when he came to our house, jumping in and getting involved with the food preparation, he was enjoying his move from the grill to the kitchen and was looking to learn more.

Erich, my friend and neighbor had listened to all of my stories and tales many times over, always laughing as if he had never heard them before. He also had been by to visit us for the two years that we cooked at the tailgater challenge. We walked around together, looking at the cookers and talking to the cooks. One thing is for sure, Erich shared my passion for drinking beer and eating BBQ. Anytime I made anything on the grill or the smoker, Erich would always volunteer to test out the grub. A decent grill cook, Erich was also eager to learn about the low and slow method of cooking BBQ.

Mike and I had cooked together at both of the tailgaters at Bel Air and he is very skilled around the stove and the grill. An accomplished home chef, he was a natural to be a team member. A skilled outdoorsman, he is very helpful with his knife skills and knowledge of meat trimming and preparation. Mike and I spent a lot of time together discussing various cooking techniques. I bounced many thoughts and ideas about the teams’ formation off Mike, which always resulted in spirited discussion. Some would say that any time Mike and I are in a discussion that it is spirited, but I would say they would be exaggerating, well, maybe not, that is what makes it fun.

Al and I have been friends for around 30 years. It hardly seems that long, when I think back of all the great dinners that Jo and I have enjoyed with him and his wife Arlene, better known as “Pete”. Other than my Mother, I would say that Al and Pete had the most influence on me as far as my interest in cooking. Many summer afternoons were spent around the grill at their home as we cooked everything from london broil to chicken wings to Canada goose. Over the years, Al has also developed into a fine home chef, while a traditional southern Sunday dinner cooked by Pete surely cannot be beat. When asked, Al did not hesitate, he wanted in and the team was complete, after all, it would be a good reason to get together a couple of times through out the summer and drink a few beers.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Part 3 New Holland Summer Fest 2006

1st time

I was counting the days until the Summer Fest. While checking the web site I noticed a BBQ class offered By Smoken Dudes BBQ at the New Holland location on Thursday just before the Summer Fest. My friend Al and I signed up and drove to New Holland early Thursday morning. The e-mail conformation said not to eat breakfast and they were not kidding. The guys at Smoken Dudes put on a great class that included an awful lot of good BBQ to eat. They demonstrated cooking methods for brisket, pork butts, chicken, ribs, prime rib and even a whole hog. The best part was the students could sample everything that was cooked for the class, we didn’t have to buy breakfast, lunch or dinner that day! Meadow Creek BBQ was moving their display cookers onto the fair grounds and you could just feel the excitement building for the weekend cook off.

Friday morning came and I hit the office early trying to clean up loose ends with intentions of taking a half a day off. By 11:00 I couldn’t take it any more and I jumped into my truck for the 1 ½ hour ride to New Holland Pennsylvania. I grabbed a change of clothes and my shaving kit and headed north but not without a stop for a bottle of agave juice.

Steve was already there. He was cooking with his Father Dale under the name of Team Agave. The year before, Steve and Dale won the Grand Champion at New Holland so this year they were the ones to beat. I had no idea what to bring or what to expect as I wandered around the fair grounds looking for Team Agaves site. I eventually located Steves rig and knocked on the door. I was greeted with a big grin and a quick handshake then told, “hand me that brisket…no…not the butt…the brisket…that’s it.” Sort of reminded me of when we ran out of gas on a boat out in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, when the Captain in the assisting boat was preparing to tow us in, he tossed the line, “tie it to the pointy end” he said. From then on, it was non-stop. It began with instruction, followed by hands on training. I could not believe how much meat we were preparing. While we worked to trim and prep the meat, other cooks and team members would stop in to say hello. There was a lot of talk about recent contests, who finished where, who did what to their chicken ( that doesn’t sound right does it?) and some good-natured ribbing, but overall, everyone I met was very friendly……. and this was a competition?

As evening approached and we were finishing with the meat prep, teams from nearby sites stopped in to invite us to come over and have a bite to eat or a cold drink. Dale had brought some steamer clams from home and he cooked then up with some melted butter, they were great. Folks stopped by and we went visiting, it was just like a big party, this looked like it was going to be fun.

I met many people my first evening on the BBQ circuit. Chris and the Dizzy Pig gang invited us in for a bowl of their “nad” soup. They had the blues playing and the smoke rollin, talk about mojo. I don’t know what was in the soup, but it sure was good. Brett Brown from Free Range BBQ was nearby and cooking alone this weekend, now that is an iron man. I was also introduced to Rich Decker from Lost Nation Smoke Company and his rendition of a clonesickle. (Note to self, stay away from anything presented in a block of ice on an August night in New Holland)

After a few more trips around the fairgrounds punctuated with a couple of nips on the clonesickle, we loaded the meat into the cooker and I went (staggered) off to grab a few hours sleep. (another note to self: bring sleeping bag and pillow to facilitate getting a few hours sleep)
(a third note to self: Attempting to sleep in a Chevy Tahoe without a pillow or blanket on a hot August night after consuming steamer clams and bourbon whiskey from a block of ice does not necessarily make for a restful night…add Rolaids, Tums and Ibuprofen to the must have list) Steve said he would be up early to put the ribs on, I think my reply was, “if I am not there, start without me.”

Saturday morning came and despite the fog in my head, I rolled back to the site and met Dale and Steve for breakfast. I had missed the ribs going into the cooker. The folks from Smoken Dudes put out a good feed, nothing fancy, but very tasty. A few eggs, a cup of coffee and a couple more Ibuprofen and I was as good as new….yea right! Oh, by the way, Steve wants to know if I would be interested in cooking the sausage entry. Sure, I will cook it, do we have a grill? No grill, no problem, Steve calls his friend Jack McDavid of Jacks Down Home BBQ, and presto, I got a grill. A black Weber kettle, now this I could cook on. I was about to cook in my first official KCBS BBQ contest and I was not even nervous.

Sausage was due first, at 11:30, before chicken, I lit an indirect fire and tossed them on. I tried not to burn them or cause them to split. When they were done, I tossed em in a bath with beer and some other goodies and slid em into the smoker until turn-in time. Dale made me up a box and Steve helped me build the box. At the appointed time, I walked the box up to the table. A smiling woman took the box after I sat it down, that was painless.

Back to the site as Steve was getting ready with his chicken turn in and it was off to the races until brisket went in at 1:30. Even though Steve was basically cooking by himself, Dale prepped and ran the boxes, and I did what I was told, he was, in my opinion, very calm and organized. He would ask for an opinion, call for a look-see, or have us taste a product, he moved around like a well-oiled machine. No pressure, no worry, amazing. He even had time to speak to a group of folks that stopped by the site from his hometown, wow, how does he do that?

After the brisket went in it was time to clean up as Steve and Jack McDavid were leaving New Holland after the last turn in for a two day drive out to Las Vegas to film a BBQ contest on the VERSUS network. When we were packed up, Steve and Jack hit the road, Dale asked if I was staying for the awards. Jo had just called and said she picked up some fresh swordfish from the market, when would I be home. After my meeting with the clonesickle and the sleep that I didn’t get in the Hotel Tahoe, I thought it would make sense to go ahead and get on the road. After all, I was really beat. Dale would stay and collect any accolades for Team Agave.

Cell phone service at my home is spotty at best. While sitting at the kitchen island, dining on blackened swordfish and drinking a glass of Merlot, 6:00 PM Saturday evening, my cell phone tells me I have a new message. That’s funny, it never even rang, typical for the service around here, where’s that guy with the black framed glasses when you need him. I dial in to retrieve my message and work through the menu, finally getting to the new one, its scratchy, sounds like the caller is also in a bad cell. I can make out Steve’s voice, as he is somewhere in western Pennsylvania, I can tell he’s excited, Team Agave took the Grand Championship for the second year in a row!!! And to top it off, we got a call for 5th place sausage out of 72 teams! I can’t believe it, amazing.

Upon reflection, I had had a great time and met some great folks. Other than my self-inflicted overindulgence, I had a great weekend. This really looks like something I would like to get involved with. I wonder if I can find a couple of interested people and start our own team.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Part 2 Lurking, learning, burning and planning

It was not long before I was a regular lurker on the BBQ Forum. Reading the posts and contest results became a daily routine, just like reading the morning paper. I searched the archives, clicked on links and googled for all things BBQ. All the while trying to get a consistent cook with my offset, without having to sit there and watch it every minute. When I had the time to spend sitting with the cooker, I could hold a steady temperature, but leave it alone for and hour or so and you never knew what you would find upon your return. There had to be a better way.

My wife Jo and I had been taking cooking classes together for the past several years and really enjoyed the time together and learning different cooking methods. Our instructor Tom and his wife Carol have become good friends as they open their kitchen up once a month to us students for what is always a great meal.

The one problem that developed because of our increased interest in cooking was we found that our kitchen was too small. (Just a friendly word of caution to those thinking of increasing your cooking knowledge and or skills.) So, in the spring of 2005 we decided to remove a bearing wall and expand our kitchen, more than doubling its size. With the hard work of many of our great friends, (thanks Bobby, Art and Jack), we installed our dream kitchen.

The new floor plan included seating for six around an island complete with a new gas cook top. The room became our kitchen/family room. As was always the case, when family and friends came over, everyone always hung out in the kitchen, only now there was plenty of room and they could watch all of the action. We located a new Weber Genesis gas grill just outside the side kitchen door and ran a gas line from the main LP source to eliminate the need to replace grill bottles. The new grill is not far away so the cook can stay in the conversation and does not get lost behind the grill. I am not sure if the guests appreciate this fact as much as I do!

I communicated regularly my new friend Steve and he asked me several times to come and hang out with him at various BBQ contests. I had mentioned to Steve earlier that if he ever needed a pot washer or runner at any contest to let me know. Teenage sons in the final years of High School along with the ongoing kitchen project just would not let it happen. I continued to read The Forum and work on my BBQ skills. Some results were good, while others, well, let’s just say, not so good.

As the Tailgate Challenge approached in August 2005, Mike and I again signed up. I had been working on my ribs in the offset and was not happy with the result. I felt I could get a better rib cook with the Weber kettle. When the day of the Bash arrived, we hauled the kettle down to Bel Air. It was what seemed like 110 degrees that day and cooking on an asphalt parking lot made it seem even hotter. We were much more pleased with our product that day and came in 5th place. We did not get a ribbon, but it was nice getting the “Call”. We had a lot of friends and family stop by again which made for a good time. Steve and Dave again cooked as Team Agave and after we cleaned up, we stopped over for a visit. It was good seeing our friends again but the heat of the long day and a planned full day on Saturday with the ongoing construction project caused us to call it an early night.

An e-mail a few days later from Steve invited me to New Holland for the Summer Fest 2005. The new cabinets were on the schedule to be installed that day and I had to stay home. Not that I have the ability to install kitchen cabinets, but somebody has to hand the skilled workers the unpacked cabinets, fetch beers and cook lunch, and that somebody was me. BBQ contests would have to wait.

By October 2005 the kitchen project was wrapping up and it was time to break it in. Christmas was our first big meal and things worked very well, Jo and I could not have been happier. In February 2006, we hosted a dinner for all of our friends that helped with the kitchen project including Sheila from Lowes that did the layout design. Our guests dined on fillet mignon and seared tuna and a good time was had by all.

The annual family vacation for 2006 was set, deposit sent, house reserved, plans in place. When is the Bel Air bash this year, THE SAME TIME AS OUR ALREADY SCHEDULED VACATION!!!! How did that happen?? I sure would like to blame it on Jo. Perhaps the BBQ schedule was not consulted before vacation plans were made. Surely, she should have looked, ah, maybe not, perhaps she’s not into this cook off thing like I am. You can bet that will never happen again if I can help it.

We did arrive home mid afternoon on the day of the Bash. Jo and I drove down to Bel Air in time for the awards. The Dizzy Pig gang won as Grand Champion and a mental note was made to check the BBQ dates before making vacation plans in the future.

Wait a minute, things are looking up, Steve is heading to New Holland August 25th to attempt to repeat as the Grand Champion and he needs a dish washer, hmmmmmm I think I can make that!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Part 1 the begining

Who are those guys?
We are a new BBQ team from Street, Maryland. We have just finished our rookie year. Hopefully, this blog will give a little insight to starting a BBQ team, competing in the start up season, and cooking/competing in the seasons to come.

Summer of 2004
I had the application for the “Tailgater challenge” at the Bel Air BBQ Bash all filled out with the check written, in an envelope, sitting on my desk. I just could not bring my self to mail it.

I had been to the Bash in Bel Air the year before and walked around looking at all the different cookers and talking to many of the contestants. I even found myself riding through town the following Saturday just to get a whiff!

Pretty intimidating to me. Months before I had bought my first smoker, a $200 offset from BBQ Galore. I had produced some decent stuff with the offset and my Weber kettle, folks liked my Que, but a contest, I don’t know about that. Talking it over with my friend Mike and to heck with it, we would enter and see what happens. What is the worst thing that could happen; we would sit around for a Friday afternoon and drink a few beers, that ain’t all bad. We cooked up some pulled pork, got a couple of dozen ears of sweet corn and some cold beer and invited a few friends to stop by and see us.

Mike and I arrived at the appointed time and unloaded the truck. We went to the cooks meeting and were given our rack of ribs to cook. We fired up the offset and were in business. At least we thought. They also gave us a turn in box and told us that we could garnish our ribs, garnish, we did not have any of that with us, what could we use? what was legal?, and we thought this would be easy.

Not to worry, the fellow next to us, Ron Loveland (Ribinit), was very helpful. He filled us in and a few cell phone calls later we had it covered. Cooker going, sitting back having a beer in the middle of town on a Friday afternoon in August, this sure beat working! It wasn’t long when we had a visit by two very friendly guys Steve Farrin and Dave Frary. They introduced themselves, asked some questions, made a couple of suggestions and invited us to stop by and see them at their site later on. They were cooking as Team Agave over on the “other” side, where the big boys were.

Our ribs were cooked and we made up our box, looking back, I wish we had taken a picture. I think there were 12 teams, we got a “call” for 6th place and even got a ribbon! Many friends stopped by and had some grub, overall, we had a ball. I would say this was the beginning, I was hooked but didn’t know it yet.

After we cleaned up, we walked over to see Steve and Dave. They were very friendly and showed us around their set up, answered many questions and even offered a shot of the magic agave juice to the new guys. We wandered around after a lot of the crowd left and spoke to many of the other cooks, all very willing to show you around and talk BBQ. This sure looked like fun. But the thought of cooking 4 categories, and one of them was brisket, all done on a rigid time schedule, I am not too sure about that. And brisket, never cooked one of those before. Before we left, Steve asked me to stop by on Saturday to taste their que, hmmmm, Saturday, I had nothing else to do.

Saturday early afternoon found my wife Jo and I walking through the smoke and excitement of turn in time. You could feel the excitement, but not much to see as a spectator, not like watching a NASCAR race or a football game, just not much for the spectator to see. Until we got to Team Agaves site. Steve and Dave were in the middle of their turn ins. They made us welcome and we stayed out of the way and just watched. Now, this was exciting. The best thing was that Steve gave us samples, especially the brisket, how did he get that so tender. Jo and I stayed after turn in and helped Steve and Dave clean up and pack up and they gave us a couple of zip locks full of meat to take home, not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Around 3:00 (before awards) Jo and I hit the road but not before exchanging e mail addresses with our new friends. Steve suggested that I visit the BBQ Forum and said I could get a lot of good information there. He also gave me a container of Blues Hog Rub and suggested I give it a try on my next rib cook. We wished the team luck and went home with our carry out bags and a new found appreciation of competition cooking.

Wednesday afternoon and the local paper is delivered, Steve and Dave are on the front page, Team Agave wins the Bel Air bash! How about that! I think I will check out that BBQ Forum and see what this is all about.