Cooking a contest and having 125 people in for dinner the night before
The Bel Air Bash is where it all began back in 2004 when we cooked the tailgater challenge. We had never competed on the professional side and looked forward to doing so this year. As I said before, this was our hometown contest, so that made it a little more special. I have a habit of running off at the mouth on occasions, as many who know me will attest to, and this time it was no different. It seemed everywhere I went, when the topic of the Bel Air cook off came up, I would say, be sure to stop in and see us Friday night. The only problem this created was that many folks were looking forward to stopping in. Oh well, what is the big deal, having a few friends drop by on Friday for a beer or a bite to eat, how much trouble could it be? I could not help thinking about the immortal words of George Costanza, “not that there’s anything wrong with that”.
While contemplating what we were going to prepare for Friday evening I started to try and get a rough count of how many folks MIGHT be stopping by. This task became too intimidating and I just gave up, it looked to be a lot. I had better be sure and trim up all of the contest meat at home on Thursday, as Friday night could get a little hectic. You are allowed to trim your meat ahead of time, you just can not apply any seasonings or sauces until after the meat is inspected. I decided to do a couple of pork butts ahead of time and then pull them for BBQ sandwiches on Friday. Sweet corn was running good and we could do a few dozen ears. Along with a couple of store bought sides and we were in business. We could always lay in a couple more cases of beer. No big deal.
When Mike stopped over on Thursday evening to help with the trimming he was asking how many people would be at our site. I thought at this time it was best to dummy up and do another pork butt just in case. I think by the time that he left, he had a good idea that there might more than a few stopping by to visit on Friday evening, but he didn’t get that from me!
Friday morning around 9:00 Mike and I loaded up and took off for the 15 minute drive to the town of Bel Air. I figured we would be arriving early and would have no trouble getting into our spot. When we arrived at the contest site, the place was just about full. Most everyone was already in place and it seemed we were almost late. It was a good thing that Mike was there to back in the trailer. It was a very tight fit and would have taken me two weeks to get it into position. How about that, we lived the closest and were the last to arrive, go figure. My son Sam and his girlfriend Megan helped us set up the site. After everything was set, Mike and I returned home to get a shower as it was very humid which is typical for August in Maryland.
On my way back to Bel Air I stopped for some more beer and last minute items including the garnish we would need for the turn-in boxes. As the afternoon wore on the guys on the team dribbled in one by one. Al stopped on the way and picked up the banner which we unveiled as soon as he arrived, we all thought that it looked great. As the afternoon progressed, we prepped the meat for cooking and retuned it to the cooler while also readying things for our visitors.
It was not long before people started to stop by. I have to say, the evening went very smoothly with the help of the team members. Everyone chipped in which made it easy for everyone as no one person was over worked. At some point late in the afternoon, I heard a strange voice while I was trimming the beef ribs, “hey you bum!” I looked up to see my friend Steve Farin. Earlier in the week, I had spoken to Steve, as he did not enter the contest this year and he said he did not think he would make it down from his home near Boston. He decided at the last minute to come and cook with his friend Jack McDavid of Jacks Down Home BBQ. It was great seeing Steve and he said he would stop by later for a nightcap.
Later in the night, after the big meats went on, we finally had a minute to sit around and relax. We tried to estimate the number of people that had stopped in and the number just keep growing, let us just say that it was “a lot”. We sat at the table, had some laughs, then walked around to the sites visiting with the other teams. We stopped in and saw the Dizzy Pig gang. Chris let us have a seat in his Dads rocking chair to take in some good vibes, we will take all the good vibes that we can get.
Our neighbors Jim and Mark of Pequea Pullers offered us some of their legendary soaked cherries, they could be considered habit forming, (the cherries that is). We had just met these two that morning and found them to be super friendly. Having just met them at 9:30 AM, by evening, it was as if we had known them for years, a very frequent occurrence on the BBQ trail we would discover. One thing about these two guys, every time I looked over at them, they were either sitting in their chairs watching the world go by, or the chairs were empty and they would be out visiting, with there ever-present jar of cherries. They really have this game figured out. Compared to them, we appear to be rushed and always behind, with not much time to sit and watch, but we were getting better.
We also stopped and spoke with Bill from Just Smoken Around. They had been at the Landover contest and won the Grand Championship, but we never got to meet them in person. We stopped in, introduced ourselves and spent some time talking Que with Bill and the boys. Another real nice bunch.
It was not long before the ole eyes were getting heavy and it was time to bed down for the night. Al and Erich set up their cots and Bobby opted to attempt to sleep on a lounge chair. We had a weak cool front come through just around sundown and the air was cool for August, Bobby did not bring along any blankets and I do not think he will make that mistake again. I had an extra in the Hotel Tahoe that I let him use, but I think he was a little chilly all night long. I had set up my cot in the trailer near the cooker and tried to get some sleep. A great mystery still exists to this day as to where Mike bunked down for the night. He will swear that he slept in his truck over in the event parking lot, but rumor has it that he slid home and racked out in his bed. Who could blame him, it was not necessary for everyone to have a lousy nights sleep, was it? Mikes story is he slept in his truck and hes sticking to it.
One thing I noticed at this contest was the proliferation of the BBQ Guru. There were a lot more teams (50) at this event than at the first one we did at Landover (16). It seemed like everyone has a Guru. While lying in the trailer attempting to get some sleep, I must have gotten up five times during the night because I heard a Guru alarm going off. When I looked at our cooker, I would find that it was always someone else’s alarm and not ours. Our Tall Boy was just chugging along.
I jokingly complained to Shotgun Fred, the maker of the Guru, the next day, too many teams were using his product and all of the alarm noise was confusing. I made a suggestion; you know all of the annoying ring tones that they have included on cell phones, why not include different ring tones on the Gurus. That way, each team would select a different tone to be able to tell them apart. Somehow, I do not think he is moving on it. I can see it now, just what we need, our alarm singing “Strangers in the Night” or better yet “Smoke gets in your Eyes” in the middle of an all night cook, hmmmmm maybe in a couple of years he will get back to me about my suggestion, but then again, maybe not. I do not think I will be holding my breath even though I think it is a good idea.
Around daybeak, I got up to get the ribs on. Bobby was also up and made a note to his self to purchase a cot and sleeping bag before the next event. The lounge chair and borrowed blanket did not make the grade as far as he was concerned. The rest of the morning was uneventful until Mike drifted in and the inquisition began. We had many laughs and even involved Mike’s wife Linda when she arrived later in the morning.
We were cooking the add on category of beef ribs at this contest. A local supplier, Deer Creek Beef, donated the racks to the teams that wanted to enter this category. They would be an additional item and not count towards the regular KCBS contest. I had planned to cook the beef ribs and weeks before had bought several racks to cook at home in an attempt to make something eatable out of them. I find beef ribs to be a little too fatty and not very meaty for my liking. Nevertheless, I had a plan for how to prepare them and that was what we would do.
Chicken was first, as usual, and things ran along smoothly until it came time for the ribs to be cut. Wouldn’t you know it, I cut the first rack wrong AGAIN. You would think I would learn, but noooooo, at least this time I caught it before I screwed up the whole bunch. After ribs, the pork again was a little over cooked for me, but we did the best with what we had. The brisket seemed OK and the beef ribs also came out good, a little better than I had thought they would. The hardest thing was getting six of those dinosaur bones into a turn-in box. It took a little creativity, but we got them in and they didn’t look too bad.
We broke down the site with the help of our guests and wondered down to the stage for the awards. Bobby had to hit the road early due to a previous commitment and asked that we call him if we had any good news. There were 50 teams here and the organizers decided to call from eighth place up. They called the beef ribs category first and we heard our name called for third place. I walked up to receive the trophy from the Harford County Executive David Craig. Unfortunately, for us, it was the last time that I would shake hands with Mr. Craig on that August afternoon, as we did not get any more calls to the stage. We were very happy with our beef ribs call as the field here included many top-flight teams from around the country.
The day got a little brighter after we received the complete scoring breakdown. We had finished 20th place overall out of 50 teams, 25th place chicken, 35th place ribs, 18th place pork, and best of all 10th place brisket. Our overall score was a very solid showing considering the size and depth of the field that was present. We had also received some good news five days before the Bel Air Bash, a team had dropped out of New Holland and we would get the spot. The contest was in two weeks. I guess that was good news; there would be 72 teams at New Holland, which included many of the big names that were here at Bel Air and then some. Oh well, go big or go home, isn’t that what “they” say……. Do me a favor, if you ever find out who “they” are, let me know, I have a few things I would like to go over with them.