Thursday, October 29, 2009

Diamond State BBQ Championship

Ain’t this suppose to be fun?
What’s with Mother Nature, doesn’t she like to Que?

The first two years we competed on the BBQ trail we cooked in a total of 11 contests. Out of those events, with the exception of a brief shower at Dover in 2007 during the tornado, we were operating in dry conditions. We had a lot of fun. This year was quite different.

April found us in Salisbury, no rain, but we had a huge wind gust come out of nowhere Friday afternoon and destroy a bunch of equipment including our brand new 10X20 canopy. In May we cooked in Green Lane PA, heavy rain the week before the event made the contest grounds a sponge, no rain fell while we were there, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

June we signed up for an event to be held in a horse arena in Upper Marlboro MD. Again heavy rain preceding the contest day played heck with the set up conditions. Late Friday night we received torrential rain for about 1.5 hours, making for some interesting waterways and ponds around the entire contest area.

Our next contest was Bel Air in August, nearly perfect conditions, that was fun. Then came New Holland, the party was over. It rained all day Friday and on and off during Saturday morning and afternoon, the skies clearing just before awards. Most of the gear was put away wet and had to be dried after returning home, a royal pain.

Harrisburg PA was in early October, showers Friday evening and overnight caused a few minor adjustments, but overall, most of the equipment was dry before being packed. Dover DE was next on the list and up to be our last event for 2009. Looking at the forecast the week before the event would have one questioning ones sanity. Jo, my wife, even went as far as suggesting that we scratch, stay home and stay dry. “Never”, I think was my reply, besides, the weatherman is usually wrong in my book. What does he know?

To say it rained at Dover this year would be an understatement. It rained, it blew, then it rained some more. Couple the rain and wind with temps in the mid 40’s and you’ve got yourself some miserable conditions. Oh and did I mention the wind, steady at 10-15, gusts 25 to maybe 30, everything had to be tied down. At times, I felt the entire operation was going to lift off and sail into space, fortunately for us, it did not.

My point here is, this was not fun. We set up in the rain, cooked in the rain, slept in the rain, walked to the bathrooms in the rain, tore down in the rain, well, you get the picture. It even rained Sunday and Monday following the contest. The first dry day was Tuesday where things could be spread out to dry.

Now, don’t get me wrong. We made the best of the circumstances, but to say that this was an enjoyable weekend would be like saying it is fun to stand around in the same damp clothes for 2 days, fun, it ain’t. My question is, when would a forecast be dismal enough to say, “we aren’t going, we’re going to sit this one out”. I guess I will answer my own question, never. We like to cook too much, we enjoy the camaraderie, the friendship, the competition, if we are signed up for an event, we are going, no matter what. Some might say we have more heart than brains, and you know, I think that some would be right. Nevertheless, 81 teams braved the elements and cooked their hearts out in the rain at Dover this year and we were proud to be one of the field. The field, by the way, contained some of the premier teams from all around the Country, some from as far away as Texas and California.

The who are those guys? team finished the year with a 16th place overall finish at the Diamond State BBQ contest, nothing to scream about, but somewhat respectable considering the competition. And even though it took a week or so to dry out all of our equipment, we are all looking forward to next April when the BBQ season begins around these parts with the Pork in the Park contest at Winterhaven Park, Salisbury MD. Let’s just hope that it is a sunny weekend!

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Turn-in Window

10 minutes seems like forever…or does it?

If you think back to when you were in high school and the clock on the wall said there were10 minutes until dismissal, sometimes it almost seemed like time was going backwards. At the very least, it certainly seemed like time was standing still. In a KCBS BBQ contest you have a window of 10 minutes, 600 seconds, in which to submit your entry to the judges. To the non contestant, I am sure this seems like plenty of time. Most times it is, sometimes it’s just not enough.

The importance of time is stressed to the BBQ teams from the moment you decide to enter a contest. Most events require entry forms be submitted by a deadline date. When the information packet is sent to the head cooks, they are told what time to arrive on site, the times for the cooks meeting, when meat will be inspected, when turn-ins begin, even when you are allowed to leave for home. While at the cooks meeting, the contest reps again go over turn-in times, when they begin, how long they are open, when they end. Also present at the meeting is the official contest clock. The time is shown to all present in case anyone would like to synchronize their watches. Although in today’s world of cell phones and atomic clocks, synchronizing wrist watches is just about a thing of the past.

At most contests, the reps will stop around at each site on Saturday morning with the official contest clock in tow; again, so that the teams can make sure they know exactly what time will be used to determine the all important ‘turn-in’ window. The point of all this, everyone knows what time it is on Saturday morning at a BBQ contest. Now, if I can digress, knowing what time it is and completing a multitude of tasks within a certain timeframe are not the same.

It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen, teams receive a DQ for a late turn-in. A person on the outside looking in might say “how can that be?”…those on the inside know, “oh, it be”. While at a contest, I am constantly amazed how fast time moves. Early Saturday morning it seems like you have forever to get things done, things are relaxed, folks are shuffling about. Perhaps, many are suffering from a little bit too much merry making the night before, maybe some are just not morning people, I believe most think things are completely under control. For me, it is up early to get the ribs on, check the big meats, maybe grab some breakfast. Before I know it, its time to get the chicken started.

Now, I think I need to mention here, due to my own madness, my chicken cook has expanded into a 2.5 hour process. This procedure has severely limited me on any and all relaxation that might be available on Saturday morning at a contest. No matter how hard I try, it seems that as the magic time of 11:55 approaches, I am always behind were I should be. Being behind is not a good thing. I hustle, bustle, poke and prod all in an attempt to get the chicken into the box at a decent time. What is the optimum time you ask? I try to shoot for 12:00 on the nose. For whatever reason, it seems I always enter into the backside, (the last 5 minutes), of the window. Depending on how far our site is located from the judges’ tent, the backside of the window is not a good place to be. However, it seems I am always stuck in the backside, of the turn-in window that is!

Once we enter into the backside of the chicken window, it seems like we can never get out. We will be rushed and behind all day. I look up at the clock and know we have 25 minutes to get the rib box ready, more than enough time. I have a minute or two to relax, yea right. The next time I glace at the clock, it is 12:20 and my ribs are still spread about the cutting board. I look again after applying the finishing touches to the ribs and again we are right there in the backside, once again. Only this time, we’re stuck a little deeper.

The pork box for me is one of the most time consuming that we have and I can’t explain why. We don’t do all that well in pork; it just takes me a long time to prepare a mediocre pork box. Having to rush the box as a result of our presence in the backside surely doesn’t help. At this point I have stopped even looking at the clock and am relying on my teammates shouting out the time remaining until the lid must be closed. Our team runner usually whispers gently to me when I am in the backside of the backside for the pork turn-in. If you believe that one, I have a bridge to sell you.

Our brisket box usually assembles fairly quickly. Most of our time here is spent trying to determine which slices we will submit. Some times, the choice is made for us as a result of the contest submission being the best of the worse. Other times, we actually have to decide which we like better, and that is a good thing. The other time wasting issue I have found during the brisket portion of the contest is trying to find someone to help me taste and sample the cuts. Usually by now, no one on the team wants to put a piece of BBQ’ed meat into their mouths, no matter how small. Eventually, we get it done and the box goes in, hopefully on time.

For us, if we get behind early, we stay behind. If our 1st box goes in on time, we usually stay on schedule, with emphasis on the word usually. At a contest, every once in a while, you’ll hear that a team was DQ’ed for a late submission. In other words, getting stuck deep in the backside. You can see how it can happen, just don’t let it happen to you. Whatever you do, take whatever measures are available to avoid being late, after all, you’ve got 600 seconds!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Keystone BBQ Classic, Oct 2-3 2009, Harrisburg PA

A shocker……….

While on the way home from New Holland, sitting on a butt-doughnut, nursing a sore rear from the spanking that we just received, I got a call from teammate Bobby. He was traveling home with Al and they had a conversation about what they felt was our dismal showing at the Summer Fest. They had an idea, why don’t we sign up for the contest in early October just up in Harrisburg PA. See if we could turn things around a bit, blow the stink off so to speak.

Keep in mind; these are two guys that have made rumblings about next season cutting back on the number of contests we are currently cooking. Was I hearing them correctly, they wanted to sign up for an addition event, one that wasn’t already on the schedule. “But that is only two weeks before Dover,” I said, as I have heard complainants in the past about the short time between Bel Air and New Holland. “We know, see if you can get us in” was the reply, talk about a shocker.

A search around the net, a few emails and before I knew it I was inking a check and sending it off to Harrisburg PA. Erich was already committed to a family obligation and would have to miss the show but it looked like everyone else was in. This first weekend in October was a busy one for BBQ teams, The Royal in Kansas City and a contest down in Front Royal Virginia would be pulling the teams in different directions.

Al and I met early Friday morning then drove north to Harrisburg. The contest was being held in conjunction with a livestock show that had been going on all week. The organizers had us set up on the front lawn of the huge farm complex. Level sights, free ice and clean indoor toilets made this set-up one of the best of the year. Twenty-two teams had signed up to cook in this second year contest. This was the first year the event was sanctioned by KCBS and it had been designated as a State Championship, meaning that the winner would qualify for consideration for entry to next years Royal and Jack Daniels invitational in Lynchburg.

Friday’s weather threatened all day but never rained. We had a few showers after dark, nothing too long or heavy, not bad at all. By midnight, the showers had quit and the nearly full moon was struggling to make an appearance. The cookers were lit; the meat was loaded, so far without a hitch.

Saturday morning broke with a beautiful sunrise, the rain was gone and it seem like all was well. Little did we know, the now famous BBQ gremlins had sent a squad into town during the night while we slept. I had figured that we may not see them this weekend with so many other contests going on, I thought they’d be spread too thin and not have the manpower, or the interest to cover a second year event in the capitol city of Pennsylvania. Boy, was I wrong.

As I reported earlier, Lettuceman Erich was unable to join us this weekend. Jo jumped in and did a fine job preparing the boxes, so that wasn’t the problem. The problem was, we were a man down. I have said in the past how well the team was working together and I meant it. Everyone has settled in and knows what has to be done and when. Very few directions, instruction, or requests have to be made or given. Stuff just gets done. When you remove a wheel from the cart, the cart still moves forward, it just wobbles a bit.

Let’s just leave it at that, our cart was wobbling with the absence of lettuceman Erich. Several times during the morning’s activities, Jo commented that I needed to lighten up, relax, get some mojo working. Our usually good mojo apparently was on vacation with Erich and his family just north of us in the Poconos. It just seemed like we couldn’t get anything right. We struggled, I cussed, the morning moved on. Its amazing how what seems like a very small issue can be turned into a mountain when accentuated by a short tempered fat guy swearing and tossing things about, most times un-necessarily.

One of the lighter moments of the morning even got a chuckle from Mr Doom and Gloom, yours truly. I have been sporting a new look the last three contests, a straw hat. The headgear has been worn at both Bel Air and New Holland without a lot of comment. (very unusual) All of the sudden this weekend, I was receiving sharp barbs and insults in reference to my new skyzoo, of which; I was becoming very fond of. I removed my hat when taking off my apron to make a dash to the rest room during the mornings prep work and wouldn’t you know it, when I returned, I couldn’t locate my new friend. I got busy with other things and figured I had misplaced the hat and it would turn up later. After a long and unfruitful search, I finally spotted my straw hat clipped to the upper support bar of the canopy, out of reach without a ladder, pretty funny. Of course, no one in the site had any idea how it got there, amazing. Maybe the work of the gremlins.

Turn-ins complete, the trailer packed, we sauntered over for the 4:00 awards ceremony which began on time. I ranked our boxes after submission, ribs, brisket, pork, then chicken. The judges were pretty close. We first received a call for 5th place for our submission of chili made from a 4.5 # hunk of Bologna given to each team by the contest sponsor. Chicken, I didn’t think we’d have a chance, 5th place. Next was ribs, 2nd place, pork (usually our anchor) 2nd place, brisket 3rd place. Bobby was standing next to me and looked over, he leaned in to say something, my head was swimming, I uttered something like “don’t count your chickens”, (notice the inevitable reference to my fine feathered friend). Reserve Champion goes to Flying Porkers, who were last years winner. Grand Champion honors go to”who are those guys?” wow, to say I was happy would be an understatement. We let out a war hoot and went as a group to collect our trophy. Pretty cool. A shocker for sure. Gremlins be dammed.

This was our third year as a team. During our short time on the competition trail we have gotten a few calls and even gotten close to a grand a couple of times. Actually collecting a grand championship trophy was a first for our team and truly an amazing experience. I couldn’t have done it without my teammates, Al, Bobby, Erich and Jo, and for that I say thanks. Icing on the cake was my Mother and Father were there at the awards to see us get the win. Mom told me before the awards that she had a good feeling, I guess she was right. The only thing that could have made it any better would have been if Erich could have been there. Today is Thursday, 5 days since our walk, and the first day that my feet have even been close to the ground, a shocker for sure, one I am sure we won’t soon forget.