Thursday, June 10, 2010

Upper Marlboro MD 6/4-6/5 Beltway BBQ Showdown

Mired in Mediocrity

Watkins Regional Park, just outside of Washington DC, was the third location for this 4th year contest and in our opinion was the best so far. The teams were situated in a parking lot that offered some nice shady spots for the teams that began arriving as early as Thursday evening. Jonathan Jones, the contest organizer has grown this event from 16 teams in 2007 to its present size of 39 entries.

Four years ago this was the first contest that we ever cooked. We were nervous in the service back in 2007, and have cooked a ton or two of BBQ since then, both good and bad. Either way, we were glad to be returning to the scene of the crime, back where it all began so to speak.

Jonathan is not sure where next years event will be held, but he promises that things will continue to grow and improve. A strong and dedicated group of Parks & Recreation employees along with a great bunch of volunteers will assist Jonathan in his quest to make the contest better each year.

The field included some new teams as well as some of the most seasoned in the Mid Atlantic region. The weather threatened at times, but the BBQ karma kept the rain away and the most the teams had to deal with was the heat, which wasn’t all that bad, reaching 95 degrees under our canopy during turn-ins. At least there was a bit of a breeze at times to make things somewhat bearable.

You’ve heard the old adage, “You’d better quit while you’re ahead.” Well, as is the case with most old sayings, there’s a whole lot of truth in them there words! As some of you know, we won our first Grand Championship last October in Harrisburg PA. Before that, we had been on a bit of a roll, at least as far as we were concerned.

Then came Dover and the rain and the wind. We were 16th out of 81 teams without a call to the stage. Oh well, we were still flying high from Harrisburg, and it was the last event for the year for us, we’ll get em in Salisbury.

Spring time came along with renewed hope and a lot of that other crap and before we knew it, it was time to fire up the cookers and head to the Eastern Shore. We heard our name called for 7th in ribs and left with a 21st place finish out of a strong 132 team field. Not bad, but certainly not impressive.

Green Lane PA was next for us, we had taken RGC there the year before so our hopes were high. A rib and brisket call did little to soften the sting of an 8th place overall finish in a 49 team event.

This week we returned to Upper Marlboro where we finished 4th last year. I thought our stuff was pretty good, (I know, that’s the kiss of death), and again, we struggled, finishing 9th against 39 teams. No calls to the stage. Believe me, I am not complaining, I just ain’t happy. It appears that the watg? squad is mired in mediocrity or stuck in a funk as it were. We are halfway through our season; we have cooked 3 and have 3 more to go, with the possibility of maybe adding one more. Anyway you look at it, our season is almost over. Somebody better step to the plate, and that somebody is me.

It looks to me like the Big Cheese, sometimes known as the Big Head, better ante up. Whatever I have been doing, I better do it better. I need a couple of dingers, and I mean homeruns. Bel Air, next on a schedule is not until August. I have plenty of time to get ready, I better not spend it frittering away in some resort in the south of France wearing nothing but a Speedo. AAARRRGGGGGG! I just got a mental image that I’d rather not repeat!

Instead of working on my tan, I need to get busy improving the taste and tenderness of my products. I need to reverse the trend and begin to get better with each outing, to struggle from the chains of averageness and to strive to soar like an eagle. You can pick any cliché that you want but the fact remains, times a wastin, and I better git to it. Hey, I wonder if that has already been said? Perhaps a new old adage will be born from our run-of the mill or middle of the road struggle, which ever you care to call it. I know for me, it’s been a fair to middling season so far, and I don’t much like it. Stay tuned, hopefully I can turn us around.

This years contest Grand Champion was 3 Eyz BBQ from Owings Mills MD, who also captured top honors in last years event. Dan Hixon, Dan McGrath and Chris Hall made up the 3 Eyz squad and took first place in both the rib and brisket category. They also won a 4th place trophy in the pork division. The contest Reserve Grand Champ was Texas Ribs and BBQ. The top spot in chicken went to Chix, Swine, and Bovine from Columbia MD with Smokey Bottom Boys from Abingdon MD bringing home the bacon and the first place iron in pork. Congrats to all that were called!!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Future of Que….

Come, lets have a might not like what you see!

In Rod Serlings voice:
You're traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That's the signpost up ahead - your next stop, the Twilight Zone!"

The year is 2020, the location is Anytown, USA, it is late June and the BBQ community is anxiously awaiting a contest scheduled to be held in the town park. Contrary to how it was way back in 2010, the number of events has begun to shrink dramatically. Many venues that once hosted contests that fielded 75-100 teams have gone away. Organizers and planners that for years had run top notch events have found it much easier to host basket weaving and kite flying contests than to deal with the myriad of issues associated with a BBQ cook-off.

This event, one of the few remaining in this mid sized northeastern State, has decided to attempt to comply with the new Government regulations and hold the contest. Despite the ever growing chance to loose money and open itself to years of frivolous litigation from everyone from the contest cooks to the townsfolk that will file suit complaining about having the sweet blue BBQ smoke permeate their airspace for the weekend. Surely they could get a jury to agree that this is harmful to someone, somewhere, can’t they?

The event is still held on Friday and Saturday of the contest weekend, however, teams must report to the contest site no later than noon on Thursday. Upon arrival and registration, the teams must open their vehicles and trailers to a barrage of inspections from various departments representing the local and federal government agencies.

First, there are the folks from the local emission control division. Teams are made to pull their cookers into a portable flameproof structure and then light them up. Here a committee of environmental pointy heads in oversized lab coats and thick glasses will determine the carbon footprint likely to be left by the contest entrant. If it is determined that the expected footprint will be too large, (and I wear a size 13 wide), teams could be asked to forgo using a particular cooker or to limit the amount of meat that will be prepared. Teams may also be given the opportunity to plant trees or purchase carbon credits to help offset the alleged damage that their mere presence at this contest will likely produce. All in the name of global warming you understand.

Next to come are the good people from permits, fees and licensing. Due to the fall of the real estate market back in 2007-2010 local coffers have been a bit depleted, what with losing all of those settlement and transfer fees that are charged each time you finance or refinance a mortgage transaction. So, the quick thinking, ever resourceful bureaucrats have developed some very creative ways to raise funds on the backs of the working class taxpayers. Raising taxes and fees instead of the politicians actually reducing their staff expenses, salaries, and or expenditures, yea, that is the ticket. They have decided to assess each competing team with an environmental impact fee, (Dependent upon the size of the ole carbonic shoe), as well as a gathering permit fee, a waste creation fee, a waste disposal fee, a 2 day liquor license, a water usage fee, and a food service fee. After all, the team members are serving the judges with food, aren’t they?

Teams have been serving food to the judges since the entire concept began back in the early 80’s. I was surprised that it took local tax collectors this long to catch on. If you have food service happening, you are now clearing the way for the jackbooted Nazis in the health department to make their way into your site. Seeing as how each team is acting as its own little food service platform for each and every contest weekend, these folks have decided that it is up to them to police the great unwashed formally known as contest cooks at each and every venue. These storm troopers enter your site armed with their test strips, insta-read thermometers, water flow gauges and local regulation book and are prepared to exclude, exploit, berate, belittle, admonish, suspend, cite or arrest any violators or potential violators before the public ever arrives, all in the interest of public safety you understand.

The fire marshal has scheduled his inspection for late on Thursday afternoon. If you are lucky enough for him to be on time, you will have to provide notarized documentation of the fire retardant rating for all of your contest equipment. Cookers, tents, e-zy ups, cots, chairs, tables all must be rated to withstand a class IV fire, lest you be asked to leave the premises immediately. Oh yea, and they also want to see your fire suppression equipment, which must include a federally approved turn-out coat, fire retardant leggings and a official Fireman Bob helmet that includes a full frontal face shield. At least one member of your team MUST be qualified as a nationally rated citizen firefighter, and must present a current membership card as proof upon demand. The safety of the tax paying public is paramount you understand.

The local solicitor’s office representative is the last step in Thursday’s fun. Here the County attorney or his available lackey will have you read, initial and sign 150 pages of legal mumbo jumbo that attempts to release them and implicate you in everything from world famine to the latest skirmish in the Middle East. Oh, and did I mention the $50 per night per team camping fee that they will have to collect, in advance? Never mind that you will be sleeping in your truck, you must cough it up any-who, someone has to help pay for the local law library to keep the ever growing number of attorneys educated. Some one must be responsible for coming up with the thousands of frivolous suits that are filed on a daily basis.

Along with the sunrise on Friday morning the first visitor to your site will be probably the most important, second only possibly to the contest judges, and that is the cat from the sanitation division. Technology has really poked its head into all corners of our existence in the year 2020, we are so past hand held computers and in car navigational devices. This fellow has a small laptop with him and had no trouble getting a wireless internet connection. He asks a few semi pertinent questions, how many team members you have on site? How much beer and additional food have you brought along? He plugs it all into some high brow computer program which can calculate the estimated waste that will be produced by each human being in the site. He then translates this information into some type of an environmental impact statement. Which he then transforms into an additional fee which some folks have taken to calling the “flush tax”, why? I don’t know. I will leave that contemplation for greater minds than mine.

The nice lady from the solid waste and recycling division is the last person that you will be visited by on Friday morning prior to having your meats inspected by the contest reps, sort of like the ghost of Christmas yet to come. She presents you with a small spiral notebook containing no less that 75 pages of printed material regarding the rules, regulations, expectations and impact fees that you need to know about before moving forward. Some of it is pretty standard stuff, you know, you must wet down, sift and prepare for reuse any unburned chunks of fuel lumps.

It should be noted that in the year 2020, charcoal, as we know it today, can no longer be manufactured and or sold in the US. Environmentalists concerned about the plight of the North American Beaver had the import and manufacturing of charcoal and charcoal related products stopped in the year 2015. Fuel lumps are a man made fuel source product that is produced by a newly formed government agency that was formally known as the waste water treatment division…..I don’t want to know any more.

The rest of her spiel has to do with what you are expected to do with the waste your team will produce during the contest weekend. ALL contest waste MUST be separated for recycling and proper disposal. Aluminum cans, glass bottles, and paper are dealt with in the old fashioned way of collection and submission for recycling. The only difference in the future will be instead of being paid for your waste, you will have to PAY to have it accepted, budget shortfalls you know.

Meat scraps will be collected, bagged, and refrigerated before being collected late on Saturday afternoon; fees will be assessed based on the weight of the waste submitted for disposal. Gray water/grease collection and separation is the responsibility of each team. Teams are encouraged to filter, boil and reuse waste water once the grease has been removed. Remember- each team will only be allowed 35 gallons of fresh water based on the entry fee. Any amount over the allowable amount will be billed on a per gallon basis. Grease collection fees will be also based on amount submitted upon departure, however, teams are encouraged to take solidified grease waste back to their homes to be used as bird food or axel lubricant.

Any and all vegetable leftovers or trimmings must be composted on site by the attending team. All teams must have on their site a portable composting drum as well as a compost collection bagging system and sealer. Of course, the above described composting system must be displaying all up to date permits and proof of fee payment stickers. Teams are responsible for their own compost removal from the contest site.

The last and certainly not least inspector to stagger, I mean stroll into your site on Friday is the Liquor Board representative. This guy is supposed to check your documentation needed for transporting beer or alcoholic beverages across County lines. The only good thing here is we see that beer is STILL allowed at most BBQ contests in the year 2020. This guy asked to see our beer, could barely count, took one out and said something about a test sample before wandering away with our bottle in hand. Someone thought they heard him say, “heres mud in your eye” as he strolled away.

The awards ceremony on Saturday afternoon has also changed from what it once was. In the early years of BBQ contests, you had winners in each category as well as a reserve and a grand champ for each event. After several very high profile lawsuits filed by teams that felt they had been wronged by the judging process, contest organizers have decided to do away with any category or overall recognition.

Also contributing to this “progressive” way of thinking is the proliferation of the thought process that has grown from our little leagues, school systems and recreation programs where in there are no winners and losers. In consideration of the former non-winners “feelings” the sanctioning bodies have decided that there will be nothing but winners at the contest awards ceremonies. Therefore, each participating team, regardless of their finish, will be called to the stage, in random order of course, to collect the exact same trophy as everyone else. After all, we have to be fair don’t we?

I guess now would be a good time to remind you that this story is purely fictional and for your entertainment purposes only. I do not want BBQ pit masters and enthusiasts to run screaming into the night much the way many of the public did back in 1938 when the “War of the Worlds” was broadcast on radio.

While the majority of this story is manufactured way back in the recesses of my not so large mind, it does emit a shred of truth. A few of the points I have made have or are preparing to happen. Last fall while cooking a contest in Dover DE we encountered a bit of foul weather. Moderate to heavy rain along with gusty winds and temperatures in the mid 40’s made for an unpleasant and chilly afternoon. Our team had erected a 10x20 foot canopy that included 4 walls. Inside, we had a small propane heater running in a feeble attempt to take the chill off while we prepped our meat on Friday afternoon.

The temporary structure that we had constructed served to keep most of the rain and wind away; it was hardly what one would consider as “air tight” or “waterproof”. At some point that afternoon we were visited by a young fellow that said he was with the local Fire Department. We invited him into our humble abode as we assumed he was there to inspect our fire extinguisher. He glanced around and then told us we would have to either turn off the space heater or open both ends of our non air tight structure to allow for more air to flow through. (Oh, and did I mention we had all of the roof vents open on the structure?) After 10 minutes of discussion as to the properties and movement of air, gasses and wind speeds, I realized I would have had better luck arguing with the piece of pork I was trimming. We opted to turn off the space heater as opposed to opening both ends of our cover and creating a wind tunnel similar to the ones used to test high speed race cars. All in the interest of preventing carbon monoxide collection, for our own good, you understand.

While speaking with several other cooks at a contest several weeks ago, I heard of a recent battle a hopeful contest organizer in Virginia was having with their local Heath Department. It seems the HD wanted to make each competing team apply as food service vendors. They would be required to operate under the same standards as folks that were vending the event to the public which included meat refrigeration; (coolers were not allowable), sanitary inspections, vender licensing fees, the whole nine yards. After several months of back and forth negotiations, the organizer felt as though he was fighting a loosing battle and has tossed in the towel. Who is the winner here? You decide.

In case you have been living in a cave for the past 5 years, today’s buzz word is “Green”. I have news for you; it won’t be long before someone sets their sites on the hundreds of BBQ teams and contests held through this great Country of ours from February to December each year.

As for the future of Que, I feel we are here for the long haul. I do, however think that at times, folks in decision making positions have gone a little over the top when it comes to protecting us from ourselves. I encourage everyone to keep their eyes and ears open. Pay attention; let your voices be heard, keep stoking the fires and making the smoke rise. We are the future of Que, and I for one don’t want to see it end, it is a great American tradition, think about it.