Friday, August 29, 2008

New Holland Summer Fest August 22-23 2008

…is that thing supposed to be smoking like that?

After I recovered from what is now known as, the “Bel Air Chicken Incident” I began to look forward to New Holland. Some might remember that we had our best showing ever at New Holland last year, so in some regard, we were anxious to return. New Holland boasted a 72 team field, all of the sudden, 40th place chicken wasn’t looking quite so bad. Still, I wanted to try and improve, I knew we had it in us.

The weather forecast the week before showed the Summer Fest in the direct path from the remnants of a tropical storm, showing rain for both Friday and Saturday. I had been scheduled to have the day off Friday the 22nd, but at the last minute, things at work changed and I had to work, what a bummer.

Erich and Al came through again and hauled the trailer up to Lancaster County on Friday morning to begin the site set up. I don’t think I am paying those two enough, perhaps a raise in their salaries……maybe not. Anyway, it was mighty nice of them and it was a big time saver. I took off as soon as I was finished work and arrived just in time to trim the brisket and chicken, at least they left me something to do.

The weatherman changed his forecast mid week and it looked like great weather all weekend, comfortable days and cool nights, who could ask for anything more in mid August? The meat trimming went off without a hitch and we all sat down for another super pasta meal prepared by Al, complete with red wine and fresh baked bread. Erich remarked he was glad he didn’t have to run out for wine this time.

After dinner has become one of our favorite times at a contest, it was time for the evening walk. We all grab a drink and wonder around the contest site visiting and yacking with the other contestants. Of course no stroll would be complete without a visit to Jim, the guy with the magic cherries. Enough said about that!

Eventually, we all drifted back to our site, Erich and Bobby opting to hit the cots while Al and I decided we were in the mood for a nightcap. Al mixed some concoction of which I do not know the ingredients, which was, as it turned out, not such a good idea on my part. That drink, oh yea, did I mention the watermelon drink that Steve (Team Agave & I Smell Smoke) gave me just before dinner? Toss in a few of Jims cherries, well, you can see were I am going with this. Just a little bit too much of the high octane stuff for a 50+ year old light beer drinker from Essex.

Al and I also decided to go on another road trip while enjoying our night cap. We stopped at Sled’s site around 1:00 am just as he was preparing to trim his chicken. Sled was commenting on how he hated to trim chicken. I glanced over and saw the two packs, how long could that take, 12 thighs, piece of cake. With all the trimming practice I had this winter, this was a 10 minute job. “If you’ve got some gloves and a sharp knife, I’ll trim it up for you.” These words, or some other drunken, must have been out of my extremely large head comment, spilled from my unusually big clap trap.

Whatever the case, Sled was more than happy to pass this unwanted duty off to me. What I didn’t see was the additional packs that were under the two that were visible. To this day, I have no idea how many thighs I trimmed for my friend Sled, but I think he was planning to open a KFC the next day judging from the number of thighs on hand. I didn’t think I would ever get finished. The worse part was, as I told Sled the next day, the thighs I trimmed for him looked a hell of a lot better than what we had back in our cooler. I almost went up to his site Saturday morning to see if he was using them all. I have received several e mail requests for chicken trimming at Dover, our next contest, maybe I am on to something here. A small fee perhaps?

Upon finishing with Sleds yardbird, Al and I stumbled back to our site to grab a little shuteye. Usually at a contest I have a hard time sleeping, but I gotta tell you, I slept like a rock this night, perhaps it was the cool night air, who knows, but the next thing I knew, it was after 6:00 AM and we didn’t even have our ribs on the heat yet.

I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter, when out on the lawn, there arose such a clatter. The clatter, as it turned out was my aching head. Three Tylenol and 45 minutes later and I was as good as new and off to wolf down a fine breakfast prepared by the guys at Smoken Dudes. After, of course, we stuck the ribs into the cooker.

Our meats were coming off the cooker as planned, maybe even a tad early, everything sure was running smooth. Maybe a little too smooth. Just about everything was resting, it was after 9:30 and I was jacking up the heat in the cooker to get ready for our chicken cook. Everything was running itself, so I thought I would run across the street to the mens room to take care of a small matter. I told Bobby where I was going, Al went down to buy a raffle ticket and Erich was out visiting. Everything was fine, I would only be 10 or 15 minutes at most. We would assemble around 10 to get the chicken started.

I ambled across the street and had a successful visit. I returned about 15 minutes later and everything appeared to be normal as I walked towards our site, contemplating my latest attack on the waiting chicken thighs.

It was then that I learned the truth. Jo, my wife and Bobby had been the only ones in camp, Bobby’s back to the cooker as they were in deep discussion about the chefs choice entry that Jo was preparing. It was then that Jo noticed a large amount of smoke billowing from the cooker. “…is that thing supposed to be smoking like that?” Jo asked Bobby before he wheeled around and saw for his self. He moved toward the cooker, opened the door, then the smoke really rolled. They had to back out of the area to be able to see, Al retuned to the site and together he and Bobby got the fire under control and everything back to somewhat normal.

Of course, there were some shouts and jeers form nearby competitors, many inquiring as to the brand name of the tire that we were burning, and all of this happening before I returned to the site. Once I was back, it took a few minutes of convincing before I believed the true story. Fortunately for us, most of our meats had already been removed from the cooker. I thought the team handled the problem very well, despite their fearless leader being off site, preoccupied as it were. In other words, I am glad that I missed it.

The rest of the morning was fairly uneventful, the boxes came together very well and we were all happy with our product. We felt like all of our submissions were about were we wanted them to be. Even with the grease fire, we were still very satisfied. This contest included two additional non KCBS categories, sausage and a chefs choice. In total, we had 6 entries to prepare between 11:30 and 2:00 PM.

At New Holland during the awards, they call from 15th place up, which I think is very nice. The field is large, and to get the recognition of hearing your team name called is very fulfilling to anyone that cooks competitively. We sat as they called sausage, chefs choice, and chicken without a mention of our name. Ribs came and was getting down to the last, when we heard our name called for 1st place. Wow, our best call ever for ribs had been an 8th last year here, and now we were 1st, unbelievable. Looks like the ISS cooking class was a big help.

Pork came and went, no call. Brisket, we took 5th, very respectable considering the level of competition that was here. Now it was time for the overall awards, Midnite Smokers had taken 1st in brisket and pork, also getting a chicken call, so everyone figured them for Grand, but who would Reserve be? They started the call at 5th then moved up, some of the names we tossed around for Reserve had already been called, who could it be?

Honestly, we never even considered our team, I am sure no one would have predicted it, but there it was, Who are those guys? Reserve Champions, 2nd place overall. I was frozen, stuck to my chair. It wasn’t until everyone was urging me to get up that I could finally rise and head towards the announcer, after, of course, gathering the other members of the team. We walked forward together to collect our trophy, all of us absolutely astonished. Grins were all around.

The rest of the afternoon is a bit of a blurr. Many others came up and offered their congratulations, hands shakes and back slaps were a plenty. This would be another easy ride home. We had won Reserve Champion with only two stage calls, but, I guess our two other finishes, chicken at 22nd and pork at 24th were solid enough to keep us in the hunt. Jo’s submission of a peach & blueberry bread pudding with a rum butter sauce finished a disappointing 36th. I thought it was great; the judges however, had the last word.

It was very rewarding getting the kudos from the other cooks that day and later on the various forums that I visit. Reserve Grand Champion at New Holland, to say we were happy would be an understatement. The best part was the feeling that we had as a team, we had been working very hard all year and this was our best finish ever. Maybe we were improving. I think we all were surprised and at the same time satisfied with our finish. Additionally, we are all very grateful for a memory of a super weekend that will last a very long time, grease fire and all.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Bel Air BBQ Bash Aug 8-9 2008

Did anyone get a tag number on that truck?

Have you ever been hit so hard that the wind gets knocked from your lungs? You struggle just to get a breath, your head spins, your heart races. Well, Saturday afternoon, around 4:45 PM, just after receiving the final score sheets for the Bel Air BBQ Bash, that’s exactly how I felt, and I wasn’t even physically hit. I felt, however, like I had been hit by a screaming Mack truck.

We were walking back to our site, the awards ceremony having just ended. We had one call to the stage for 5th place pork, we were fairly upbeat when I glanced at the over all finishing order and found we had finished 14th overall. The field at this contest was very strong and included a lot of very good teams, so we were quite happy with our overall finish.

The happiness was short lived however. While still walking, I turned to page two which contained the chicken results. Looking from the top down, as is a natural way to review such information, I was into the thirty somethings and had not found our name. My weary, over taxed, alcohol preserved, working on 2 hours sleep, pea brain was having difficulty processing this revelation. Surely, I had read over our name in my haste to read and walk at the same time, a difficult feat for me even without throwing in a marathon weekend BBQ contest. A multi task person I am not. (and don’t call me Shirley!)

I would just need to stop for a minute and take a good look. The team and I all thought our chicken box was one of our better submissions for the day. At Bel Air, they call from 8th place forward; we must have been somewhere near there, even though our name wasn’t called to the stage. Top twenty for sure, it was that good. Flavorful, bite through skin, tasty, tender, we had it all packed into that first entry of the day.

Oh, and did I mention it looked good too. We were able to get 10 thighs into our box, I think that’s gotta be a world record. In short, our chicken box had it all as they say, it was the complete package.

I moved to the side a bit to get out of the main flow of the large crowd and perused the list a little more carefully this time. Where was our name? It has to be there. It was then that it happened. Out of nowhere, bam, I was down. I believe that I lost consciousness, although maybe not completely. I had thought the road was closed to traffic.

Have you ever read accounts from those that have had near death experiences, many speak of the bright light that draws them. Some have even said they could feel the light pulling them. Well, I did not see just a plain light. What I saw was a large neon sign, the light was flashing, and I could barely see it through the thick fog that was also present, (possibly related to my Patron intake the night before.) A force felt as though I was being pulled to the light. I felt like I had to at least get a little close, I had to see what the light was saying. What was it trying to tell me? Just a little closer and the fog wouldn’t be so thick, I thought as I inched closer and closer, fighting the urge to run in the opposite direction.

As I moved closer I finally could make it out, I saw a large four and a zero, the numbers must have been over ten feet tall and were blinking wildly, like the disco lights from the Babylon Club on Route 40 back in the eighties. Maybe this is what they meant by a disco inferno. The lights were not pulling me. In fact, it was just the opposite, the closer I got, the more I wanted, or should I say, needed, to run. The light was driving me away, it was repulsing, it was making me ill, I had to get away. This must be what chemical warfare is like. The whole thing just wasn’t making any sense. I couldn’t breathe; my head was spinning and also aching. Somebody, quick, call me a Doctor.

The next thing that I knew, I was blinking my eyes and scratching my head, trying to get my bearings and remember what had happened. I was looking up from the ground, surrounded by my team members and several concerned citizens. I think a stranger asked if I was alright. I know Bobby asked me, “how’d we do in chicken?” Although I am sure he meant to say, “how you feelin?”

The score sheet was still clenched in my sweat soaked paw, I picked it up and glanced again at the chicken page, struggling to get my eyes focused, and there it was, in bold black ink,
who are those guys? 40th place chicken.

I tried without results to mouth the words to Bobby and the rest of the team, but they wouldn’t come out. My mouth was as dry as the Sahara desert, I couldn’t speak. Instead, I thrust the sheet in their direction and let them read it for themselves, as I struggled to my feet. I could see they were more concerned with our chicken score than they were of my well being. I can’t say that I blame them for that.

I stumbled back to our site, struggling to understand, to grasp, to comprehend. The crowd seemed surreal, I could hear faint voices from off in the distance, “you idiot you”, “what the hell did he do?”, “I wonder if he even KNOWS how to cook a piece of thigh meat?”, “**** that chicken”, were just a few of the comments that I can recall. I am sure there were more. The fellows just weren’t happy.

The 3 or 4 regular readers of this blog, (at least I hope I have a reader or two), will recall that I have spent a lot of time this past winter working on my chicken method. Some have even considered it a chicken obsession. I would have thought that, at the very least, I had a small understanding of the procedure. Now I think not. I have hit the wall. Maybe, striking the wall was what knocked the wind from my lungs, causing Saturdays episode. At the very least, it certainly knocked the wind from my sail. I feel dead in the water. I don’t know where to turn. I feel like I am spinning wheels. I suppose its back to the drawing board, again.

After a hot shower and a good nights sleep and it was time for the contest debriefing. The only thing I could say without question was the weather this past weekend was great, it could not have been better.

I looked our chicken score over, all 7’s and 6’s, with the exception of Judge #5 who gave us 3-9’s, the highest score possible. That Judge must have been one of the 150 people that passed through our site Friday evening. Either that or he was drunk. One or the other, or maybe both.

All 6’s & 7’s, nothing “wrong” with the chicken. Average. Just nothing right about it, no “wow” factor. The same chicken we finished 8th with two weeks ago in Stevensville. The only variable was the quality of the chicken we received from our supplier.

While for the most part, we have been very happy with the quality of the meat they have been giving us all season, this week was different. The thighs were all very small, and looked somewhat thin. I thought perhaps they gave us thigh meat from Cornish hens instead of chicken, but who knows.

But alas, they are not to blame, for it was I that trimmed, prepared and cooked the chicken. And we all know you have to play the cards that you are dealt. A good cook should be able to overcome adversity and still produce some decent product, and in this case, I failed.

Failure might be a bit strong here, but I will certainly try and do better. We have New Holland in two weeks and there will be over 70 teams cooking there, no time for a relapse.

The rest of our entries were fairly solid considering the field, 5th place pork, 15th ribs, and 19th brisket. Pork, which had been our anchor last year, seems to be improving.

The over all winner was the team from BBQ Guru. Congratulations to Bob, Fred and the rest of the gang for their first Grand Championship. Back in March, there was a post on one of the forums asking who would be a first time Champion this season. My prediction was the Guru gang, I am very glad for them. Also kudos to Stoddard and Brown for winning reserve, those guys are so hot, the rest of the circuit better watch out in Kansas City and Lynchburg.

I know, I know, there will be a draw for S&B to get to the Jack. I will tell you this, at the Guru/ISS class last month there was a drawing for a new Digi Que. And the winner was, Brett Brown, the Brown in Stoddard and Brown. Talk about hot, I told Brett he should go out and buy a few lottery tickets. On fire is an understatement, somebody call the fire department.

With the exception of our feathered friend we were very happy with our scores. The team again worked well together as they are becoming more familiar with the routine and are moving ahead making the operation run better at each outing. If only the head cook could pick things up a notch or two we might be able to improve our scores. We’ll see.

As I said before, we have New Holland in two weeks. This is always a favorite of mine. I like the area and the organizers do a great job of running the show. The only down side is, it is held in the end of August, summer is disappearing quickly, where did it go? Seems like only a week or two ago we were heading down to Salisbury. Time flies when you’re having fun is what they say. This time I think “they” are right.

That’s all for this weeks edition from the WATG? blog, be sure to look in next week when the topic of discussion will be, how to feed and entertain 150 of your closest family and friends in a 20 x 20 foot site while trying to compete in a BBQ contest or next year why don’t I just fill my shoes with hot coals and walk around instead? Stay tuned.