Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Life before Que

…am I obsessed?

I just finished up my 4th year on the competition BBQ circuit with my own team. If you add in a season or three where I cooked a few amateur events and helped an existing team, pretty soon I realize I been fooling around this game for about 7 years. Still what I would consider somewhat of a rookie compared to many guys on the circuit, what I’ve noticed is BBQ and outdoor cooking is taking more and more of my time.

This year my team cooked in 6 contests. If you add in a weekend cooking class, 3 additional contests attended as a spectator, a Que trade show weekend, 2 judging events, a couple of catering gigs, numerous practice cooks, and before you know it there is not much time for anything else, which is exactly my point here.

When I first toyed with the idea of starting my own competition team I was still busy, or so it seemed, but I did have some free time. My lawn, while not the neighborhood showplace was at least, fed, watered, cut and trimmed. I maintained a large perennial garden at home, spent a lot of time hunting and fishing, kept my truck washed, and occasionally had time to clean the garage. Alright, I am exaggerating about the garage part, but you get my point.

It seems today, if I am not cooking, grilling or smoking, then I am at home, surfing the net looking, reading and writing about some type of outdoor cooking. I lay in bed at night thinking and scheming of ways and methods to try and improve my product. While taking my afternoon walk, I think about my equipment list and what I need to replenish before our next event. Do I need another cooker? Should I practice this weekend? What will we do for the chefs’ choice in Salisbury next spring? And on and on and on.

This is not to mention the list I have put together for products I would like to design and develop to make things easier for folks involved in competition BBQ cooking. I have a list started; I just need a couple of weeks and a few thousand dollars to finish the designing and to build a few demos to test. I am sure I’ll find the time to get to this during the offseason this winter. Yea, right.

Last night, as I returned from my walk I glanced into what, just a few short years ago, was a very fine collection of the genus Hosta. Instead of a collection that any gardener would be proud to display, I see a collection of plants that need some attention, surrounded by weeds that have been neglected and are now thriving. The entire area is quickly becoming inundated with the latest seasonal tree dropping, leaves. I continue towards the house, past my dirty truck and into my garage. The 2 car garage, which up until about 4 years ago used to actually contain a car once in a while, is now cluttered with a collection of coolers, foil pans, large pots and lids, smokers, bags of charcoal, a pig roaster, folding tables and chairs, EZ-Ups, well you get the picture.

I was thinking the other day that I should seek professional help, but decided against the idea, fearing what the councilor might say. Maybe I just need to take a time management class. I saw in the catalog that several are offered at our local Community College as non-credit adult evening classes. Maybe I am not obsessed; I just need to prioritize a bit better. I am sure I can find some time to tend to a few of the duties and tasks that have fallen victim to my addiction to Que.

Besides, if I could find a few hours a weekend, I could work on developing that new brisket and pork procedure that I read about last weekend on the internet. As for all those leaves that I see falling onto my formally well maintained lawn and garden, maybe I can get one of the neighborhood kids to rake them for me, you know, free me up for something more pressing, more important, like practicing my chicken!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Keystone BBQ Contest -Harrisburg PA- Oct 1 & 2 2010

Oooooh that smell, can’t you smell that smell?

We cooked the Keystone Classic BBQ Contest at the farm complex located in Harrisburg PA this past weekend October 1 & 2, 2010. For those that do not know, this contest was the site of our first (and only), Grand Championship trophy last year. We were defending champs. It was our time to shine, to rise above the fray and really show what we were made of….either that or we could lay an egg, stink the joint up, the choice was ours, or more specifically, mine. As they say in radio, and now, the rest of the story.

The weekend before our last scheduled contest in Harrisburg I spent the day going over the trailer, checking and rechecking, making sure all necessary gear was on board and in place. The only thing I had forgotten to do was to look at the list we keep at each contest itemizing everything we need to get before our next outing. As I glanced at the list the Wednesday before leaving for Harrisburg, I noticed I had forgotten to order more rub for our brisket. No biggie I thought, I am sure I would have enough to do the job this weekend. If that is the only Gremlin involved issue that I am going to have, this weekend coming is going to be a cake walk.

Thursday afternoon and I am humming along at work wrapping up loose ends and finishing projects as I am preparing to take Friday off for the contest. Things are going very smoothly, no problems, no issues, until late afternoon when my phone rings. Bobby stopped on his way home from work to pick up our briskets and was told due to the storm, the delivery truck never arrived. They would be in sometime late Friday afternoon, the trouble was, we’d be in Harrisburg by then. Hmmmmmm…….

Oh, did I forget to mention the storm? A huge tropic weather system was streaming up out of the south and pounding the area with very heavy rain and strong winds, which in my area translates into power outages. Some areas received over 5 inches of rain, but the weather folks said it would clear the area by Friday morning, lets hope they would be right, for once. So Thursday afternoon, between power failures, I was on the horn trying to track down a source for a couple of briskets to cook at the contest.

We cook what is known as a full brisket or packer cut, a chunk of brisket meat containing both the flat and the point cut. The problem is, when you call around and ask for the cut, many folks don’t have a clue what you are talking about. They will tell you they do carry them, when you drive to their location, you find they only have the flat cut, which is typically sold in most stores. Some “meat” guys don’t even know the difference.

I finally got a guy on the phone from a nearby Wallmart that sounded like he knew what I was talking about. He told me they had “a few briskets left”, but couldn’t hold them until the morning, (when I would be driving right past that store). So, after work, I jumped in the truck and took the 45 minute drive one way to Shrewsberry PA to check out the Wallmart briskets. Several downed trees along the way made for a bit of a longer journey, but the trip wasn’t too bad. Sure enough, they had a few in the case; two looked like they would work, I snatched them up and paid the bill, then returned home to finish readying for the contest. Take that you smelly little bugger, (the Gremlin that is).

The trip up to Harrisburg on Friday was uneventful, the rain had quit and the sun was beginning to make an appearance. Arthur wasn’t coming to the contest this week, Jo was coming up on Saturday morning, Bobby had to work a half a day on Friday, so it was Erich and I to set the site and get things started. There were two ancillary categories Friday night, burger and Lebanon bologna; we were planning to do both. Erich would do the burger while I prepared the bologna.

For a bit of a different twist, at least for contests that we have cooked, they gave the ancillary awards out on Friday night. I thought this was a good idea. We heard our name called for 10th place bologna for my submission of a chicken cordon bleu with a back fin crabmeat cream sauce. Erich’s burger was 24th. Overall, we were pretty happy. The night was cool, a light breeze, smoke in the air, it was good, at least for now.

We wondered around, had some laughs, tipped a few beers, loaded our cookers, and then turned in for the night. Not a Gremlin in sight. I was actually sleeping really well when I heard a voice. I suppose you are expecting me to tell you how the voice was telling me how good we would do in the contest or some other words of wisdom. The voice, however was saying, “George, your cooker is on fire!” Was I dreaming? I sprang from my chair to see what was the matter. I wasn’t dreaming, as I glanced outside, I saw flames leaping from the open door on the WSM, which apparently had fallen off as I slept. I could see smoke rolling into the night sky as my buddy Red Todd replaced the door on the cooker which quickly extinguished the flames. A huge thanks to my observant neighbor and Red for waking me up and putting out the fire, thanks guys. The pork butt that had been in the cooker was at temperature and was transferred to the cambro to await turn-in time, a mere 9 hours later. Oh well, might as well get a little more sleep while I can…….. They’re back.

Bobby and I get up at 6:00 to get the ribs ready for the cooker. As part of our morning routine, we check all of the big meats to see where they are in the cooking process and when they will be ready to be wrapped. A check of our number 1 brisket found it ready, not ready to be wrapped, but ready as in done, finished, ready for the rest. Which at this time would only be about 7 hours, oh joy, it just keeps on getting better.

I can’t figure it out. We did everything the same as we had always done, what is going on? Gremlins at work for sure. The short cooks for chicken and ribs would be uneventful for sure, how much worse can it get? Note to self: Never ask “how much worse can it get?” again. I have been cooking my chicken the same at every contest for the past 2 years and have cooked a piece or two for practice. I haven’t overcooked my yardbird since Dover 2007, that is, until yesterday in Harrisburg. At 11:00, my chicken was at temperature; don’t ask me how or why, because I surely don’t know. What I can tell you is holding chicken for 1 hour until it is time to turn it in doesn’t have the same effect as holding a butt or a brisket. Result, 37th place in chicken, oh boy, repeat champs, I think not. Farkin Gremlins.

Our final results were 37th in chicken, 10th in ribs, 35th in pork, 20th in brisket, good enough for 25 overall out of 45 teams. Less than mediocare is what I would call it, and that would be being nice. In short we stunk up the joint, big time.

After I returned home from this contest and spent a few hours contemplating its outcome, I cobbled up a forum post regarding a possible aroma drifting through the air at the Farm Complex. Upon further reflection and soul searching I realized what it was that I smelled. It wasn’t the aftermath and droppings from nearby livestock, it was the distinct odor wafting from my trailer as a result of my less than dismal contest performance, which, in it of itself, smelled like gremlin S**T.

The only bright spot of the day was our ribs, we received a call to the stage for 10th place in this category. Bobby has taken this category and ran with it. He has trimmed, prepped and cooked the ribs for the last 2 years for the WATG? squad, and done a great job. Many times this year, the ribs have been our only call to the stage. Thanks Robert. While I am on the soapbox for this season ending post, I would like to take a minute to thank all of my teammates, Arthur, Erich, Bobby and Jo. They help me immensely at each event, prepping, setting up, cooking, tearing down and cleaning up. At times, they have to put up with my moods, grouchiness and occasional short fuse. They even have to tolerate me bickering with my teammate/wife, which most times is as a result of the aforementioned grouchiness on my part. I couldn’t do it without them and I know it wouldn’t be near as much fun, so for that I say thanks to my teammates/friends, you are the best. We might not have walked a lot this season, but we sure laughed a lot, good times and memories for sure.

This year we competed in six events and overall didn’t do too bad. I would like to do more contests, but with a few catering gigs, a family vacation, and an occasional “off” weekend the cooking season slides by pretty quickly these days. I have dubbed this season, “the year of the ribbon” as we have won only ribbons, medals and certificates, nary a trophy to be had. I will continue to work to improve my process and concentration and look forward to next year getting back into the smoke with my teammates and all of my BBQ friends, all in the quest for the all illusive plastic pig, gremlins be damned!!