Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Swinetastic BBQ Festival- June 17-18, 2011

Contest Recap.......

The Frederick County Fairgrounds was the site of the central Maryland Swinetastic BBQ Festival held to benefit the American Cancer Society. This was a first year contest organized by Chris Carter of Carterque Barbeque and Grilling Company located in nearby Mount Airy Maryland. Fifty-three teams signed up to cook this first time event including some of the areas finest pit masters.

Chris and his friendly group of volunteers worked tirelessly to assure the cooks and teams had everything they needed during the two day event. Frequent trash pickups, clean restrooms, and one the scene ice deliveries were just a few of the many items were this event excelled. The continental breakfast put out on Saturday morning complete with still warm gourmet donuts from a nearby Fractured Prune Donut shop were just like icing on the cake.

Live music along with plenty of assorted vendors gave festival attendees more than enough to do both Friday evening as well as most of the day on Saturday. Friday evening was not without its surprises as a cell of heavy rain moved into the fairgrounds area around 5:00 PM dumping enormous amounts of rain accompanied by high wind and a smattering of hail. Mother Nature wasn’t finished yet as she returned around 4:00 AM Saturday morning with a vivid lightning show that was sure to make even the most seasoned storm watcher sit up and take notice.

Saturday morning threatened a bit but the positive vibes of the assembled BBQ teams supplied more than enough mojo to keep the skies dry through turn-ins and for the rest of the day. The teams went on to submit their entries to the judges and then kicked back to await the results while listing to some fine tunes by several local bands.

Friday night’s ancillary seafood category was won by a team named Drilling and Grilling from nearby Glen Rock PA. BBQ Nuts cooking out of Fairfax, Virginia took top honors in the KCBS chicken category on Saturday. Another team from Virginia, Gooney Creek BBQ grabbed the top spot in the rib event. Just Smokin Around from nearby Woodsboro, Maryland took the first place walk in pork. Arlington, Virginias cook team of Patent Pending BBQ were called to the stage to collect first place in brisket.

Grand Champion for this event was PA Midnight Smokers, Paul and Brenda Hess from Willow Street Pennsylvania. Reserve Grand champs were Mike Richter and the Chix, Swine and Bovine team out of Jessup, Maryland. Rounding out the top three overall was Deguello BBQ a second year team calling Springfield, Virginia their home.

Chris says he would like to grow the contest next year. Judging from what appears to be a warm reception from the surrounding community as well as a group of very satisfied BBQ teams, next years event is going to be one you are not going to want to miss.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

My thoughts on local health departments.....

.....and BBQ contests.

It seems like every time I look at the calendar it is the 15th of the month. The deadline for some of my monthly scribblings is the 15th and no matter when I have just sent in a submission, the next time I look at the calendar, it is the 14th or 15th. This month was no exception.

Sometimes I sit and stare at an empty screen just waiting for a random thought to pop into my head so I can begin my article or story for the month. Occasionally it is somewhat of a struggle, this month was a bit different. I needed a story, the deadline was fast approaching (of course it was) and I had nothing (of course I didn’t). The upcoming weekend had us cooking a contest, no problem; I would just knock it out my article on Sunday after the cook-off. Just what you feel like doing on the Sunday after a BBQ contest is sitting down at your work station and trying to be creative. Of course that wouldn’t have been so much of a problem if I had already selected my topic, this time, being completely honest, I had not.

While at the contest it hit me, the subject just dropped out of the sky like a huge rock, right onto my alcohol soaked brain. The contest rep was giving us their short informational pep talk during the meat inspection process.

Authors note: The upcoming bit of commentary and banter is by no means directed towards the contest reps or organizers, who by the way did a swell job of organizing and running this first time event.

“The County health department, wants to make sure that all teams are building their boxes underneath their canopies or easy-ups, you are required to wear gloves when handling any and all food products”, we were told by the contest rep. “Also, you shouldn’t be surprised if you receive a visit from a County Health Department representative to look over your site.” I had no problem with the overlying theme of the message, to use your head and practice safe food handling, which for the most part, is SOP at a BBQ contest.

The more I thought about his message, the more I realized I had my story right in front of me and didn’t know it. I had heard about more and more Health Departments poking their noses into the world of competition BBQ cooking, inspecting teams, wanting to see thermometers, requiring coolers to be placed on wood blocks up off the ground. I even heard of an instance a while back where some dolt from the HD thought it should be a requirement that all BBQ teams cover the ground of their assigned contest site with a plastic tarp while preparing their submissions for the judges.

In this instance, what if I didn’t have a canopy or an ezy-up? What then? Would the Health Department official ask me to prepare my boxes in the cab of my truck? (I’ll bet after some minion from the HD took one look at the inside of my vehicle they’d be rethinking that request.) But seriously, what if I didn’t bring a pop-up cover? Is this going to be a requirement for the future?

Of course, the supposed reasoning behind all of this madness is they are simply looking out for the general food consuming public right? WRONG!!!!!!!! JUDGES AT A BBQ CONTEST ARE NOT THE GENERAL PUBLIC, THEY ARE NOT PAYING FOR, OR PURCHASING FOOD FROM THE TEAMS. (Sorry for screaming, but this is a topic that really gets me going, so much in fact that my fingers hurt just from punching the keys while typing)

The fact of the matter is teams are actually paying an entry fee, driving long distances, getting very little sleep, spending large amounts of other monies on sauces, rubs, cooking equipment, and really working their butts off to get their products to the judges on time. We aren’t selling anything to anybody; we are spending money to pursue our passion. The judges are volunteers; they do not have to pay to sample our wares, they are there freely and are not being forced to eat our que.

How in the world can any reasonable thinking person in their right mind justify this process? Is this where we are headed? Do we need the Government to protect us from ourselves? What is next, will you have to draw a permit and subject yourself to a complete Health Department inspection just to have a few of your family and friends over for dinner? Don’t laugh, think about it. If I think about it too much it makes my head explode.

A BBQ contest is nothing more than a large scale family picnic. Some of the competitors and judges are friends, some are even family. The organizers have invited them in to eat a little BBQ. At some of the more prestigious and popular events, judges are asked to remain on waiting lists for years an years before being given a chance to judge.

Do we really need to have the Government involved in this process? My answer is a resounding no. With all of the recent talk about local and State governments being strapped for operating capital, does it really make sense to encourage more and expanded inspection processes? I have got news for you out there in BBQ land, this stuff is not going away, it is here to stay and will get nothing but worse. More and more of these local jurisdictions are going to be sticking their long and pointed noses into more and more places where they don’t belong, and of more concern to me, where they "think" they belong.

I am by no means encouraging civil unrest or asking people to cause a scene when the person with the pocket protector meat thermometer shows up at your contest site. I am, however, just suggesting that when presented with this situation you not just roll over and comply. Voice your displeasure with their interference and meddling all in the name of public safety. Ask THEM a million questions, play dumb, make them work for their money while costing them time. If just one team in 50 does this, they will think he is a nut job and probably ask him to leave. But if all 50, I say ALL 50 pit masters do it they will think it is a movement. And you know what? They’ll be absolutely right. (thanks to Arlo Guthrie)

Maybe, if it takes these inspectors 6-8 hours to work their way through a 50 team competition which then causes them to show up late at their favorite Friday night martini bar, they might think twice about picking on a few guys and gals that are doing nothing more than making a little something for their friends and family to nibble on. The next time a Heath Department employee shows up at your site to poke around before a contest, just tell em to THINK SMOKE!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Middletown BBQ Cook-off

Middletown, DE
5/20-5/21 2011

The Dutch Country Farmers market located smack dab in the center of Middletown Delaware was the site of the second annual Middletown BBQ Cook-off held May 20-21, 2011. If you were a team cooking this event for the first time, as were we, you would have a hard time believing that Mose Zook and his very enthusiastic group of volunteers hadn’t been running cook-offs for the past 10 years.

To say this was a very organized contest would be an understatement. Frequent and reasonably priced ice delivered right to you cooler, clean rest rooms, adequate power, good music, timely trash removal and a down right friendly bunch of folks putting on the event made for a very enjoyable weekend.

The weather looked a bit questionable at times Friday afternoon and evening with a few spotty showers threatening and occasionally moving through, but never enough to dampen anyone’s spirits or even their fires. Later in the evening on Friday the clouds left and made for a beautiful moonlit night watching the smoke from the 47 teams present rise and dissipate above the contest grounds.

Saturday morning began what was to be one of those Chamber of Commerce type days which is exactly what Mose and the gang had probably ordered up. Seasonal temperatures, sunshine and a light breeze made everything alright in this little corner of the First State.

A recent and unexpected cancellation of the August contest slated for Dover Downs, the only other State Championship contest in Delaware, gave this contest a bit more excitement knowing the winner of this event was almost sure to be a qualifier in some of the late season Championship events.

Pigheaded BBQ, a team based right in Middletown DE was the winner in the chicken category. The first place rib trophy was awarded to Black Cat BBQ. Gypsy & the Biker took top honors in pork, while Wilbur’s revenge walked for first place brisket. Black Cat BBQ from Severna Park MD was called to the stage for the Grand Championship walk, making them consecutive winners of this event which they also GC’ed in last year. Contest reserve Grand Champ was Washington DC based Pork Barrel BBQ.

If you are looking for a well run contest held on the scenic Delmarva peninsula you need to put this one on your list for next year. The Farmers Market is open the entire weekend and you haven’t lived until you have had a moon pie and a homemade vanilla ice-cream milkshake just after turn-ins, talk about a sugar rush!

Monday, June 6, 2011

A good question.......................

What happens when it rains at a contest?

The very short answer here is, you get wet. What I mean is, as B. T. Barnum was alleged to have said, “the show must go on!”. If you have been around competition BBQ cooking for any time at all, you will quickly become aware that weather, and its changing nature, WILL come into play at some time in your contests cooking life.

The first and most important way to deal with the weather is to be prepared. Watch the weather forecast prior to the event, not that weatherpersons are all that accurate, (sorry to offend weather-type personnel, but it is the only job I know where you can be wrong most of the time and never have to offer an explanation and still get to keep your job). I suggest investing in one of those portable weather band radios with the alarm feature, especially when you have humid summer skies and the chance of thunderstorms. Many times severe weather is preceded by warnings broadcast on weather frequencies, this is good information to have.

If the man calls for high winds, make sure you have everything tied down and secure. If the rain is expected to arrive overnight, be sure you have everything away and under cover before you decide to bunk down for the night. Nothing is worse than being awakened by a fast moving down pour and remembering your truck windows are open and you have left your $100 instant read thermometer out on a table to get wet. Use your head and prepare.

Weather consideration should also come into play when setting up your cook site. Be sure you don’t have extension cords lying in areas that may collect water. Also, depending on the amount of rain in the forecast, you might want to avoid low lying areas when selecting your site, if you are given a choice, think ahead and choose wisely.

Set your canopies and cookers in an area that offers protection from the elements if you can. Knowing which way the wind will blow is very valuable information when it comes to site selection and set up. This is particularly true if you have a cooker that is affected by weather. High winds and cool temperatures can play havoc with your cooking temps so it is best to set up as efficiently as possible. You might consider a blanket or cover for your cooker, just be sure to use a product that is made for such use and not a blanket off your bed that has a chance to burst into flames after 3 hours on top of your unit.

Be sure you have proper clothing, including footwear. If heavy rains are predicted, be sure to pack raingear, boots, and dry socks. It is also a good idea to bring along a few extra changes of clothes in the unlikely event the cloths you are wearing get wet. Of course anyone that knows me and my well know relationship with the ever-present Mr. Murphy of Murphy’s Law fame, if things can get wet, they will get wet, and this INCLUDES socks.

Rain, wind, sun, hail, even snow, the contest will go on. The guy that is the best prepared to handle what ever Mom Nature tosses out, is the team that will do the best. Be prepared, use your head and plan ahead. It goes without saying you will never be able to control the weather, but you can make a few adjustments and preliminary moves to try and reduce the control the weather has on your and your contest cooking experience. The most important tip, is to always be safe.

The Sounds of Que

What is that I hear?

The sounds of a BBQ contest can range from quiet to very noisy. Much of the sound is dependent upon which part of the day it is. I almost think at times, if I were blindfolded or were listening to the recorded sounds from a contest, I could tell you what time it was just by listening to the sound being created.

Friday morning the begins somewhat quietly, a few teams may have arrived on site the day before but for the most part, the contest grounds are empty with the exception of the contest staff. Teams begin arriving just after daybreak and are directed to their areas by volunteers many times using golf carts and verbal direction. You’ll hear sounds of teams setting up camp, metal poles clanking together, stakes being driven, cookers being unloaded, set into place, some even lit.

The astute observer will begin to notice a few pleasant smells being generated as early arrivals toss on assorted items to be served for lunch or perhaps involved in the ancillary contests set for Friday night. Conversations overheard will be greetings and other pleasantries as folks see their old friends and meet new acquaintances, introductions are made to neighbors, much laughter will be heard. Contest reps move about inspecting meats and providing information as to ice deliveries, cooks meeting times and any other pertinent information that will be needed by the arriving pit masters.

As the day progresses spectators arrive and begin to walk about asking questions and making observations. Maybe the event is in conjunction with a carnival, rides are tested and begin to operate, and perhaps a band begins to play offering attendees some evening entertainment. The evening wears on and things build to a pitch around 8:00 or 9:00 PM when things begin to settle and the cooking part of the contest begins in earnest.

Weed burners can be heard lighting off fires around the grounds, the band has packed up for the night and the only music that can be heard are the assorted tunes drifting out from the individual cook sites. Even this entertainment begins to wane as the appointed quiet hour draws near team member drift about, most of the public has departed for the evening, laughter a good times sounds waft form several sites that seem to have become gathering spots for some of the cooks as they swap lies and attempt to steal a few secrets.

Listen closely and you can hear the contest drifting off to sleep, muted conversation and the occasional crackling fire rule the sound waves for most of the overnight, that is if you are lucky and aren’t next to a bunch of loud and obnoxious drunks, in which case, I recommend a set of earplugs.

Morning comes very early at a BBQ contest. The day begins for power cookers around 3:00 to 4:00 AM, occasionally, the sound of a weed burner will be heard bringing cold and silent cookers to life. As day breaks, smoke rolls in earnest as the giant awakens. Banging doors from nearby spot-a-pots and tearing sheets of aluminum foil signal that morning has broken.

As morning progresses, some familiar sounds and smells of breakfast being cooked in some sites rules the airwaves. Teams huddle together for strategy sessions and make preparations for impending turn-ins. More foil is torn, cooker doors can be heard being slammed, orders are shouted, the occasional cuss word can even be heard. The cacophony builds to a crescendo around 1:30 PM when the last box is submitted. If you listen closely, you’ll hear the definite sound of a sigh of relieve coming from are the cooks and team members. The noise softens for a bit as folks busy themselves with beginning clean up, wetting their whistles, and running to the can.

It is now when the fun begins, cooks, in anticipation of the results begin laying down the excuses. “My chicken was dry, the pork was over cooked, my brisket OK, but my ribs, the best we have ever cooked.” You will here this over and over around the site as pit masters are asked, “how was your food?” This conversation is soon drowned out by the sounds of teardown. Trucks being loaded, trailers hitched, the shuffling to awards.

The awards ceremony brings more announcements, maybe even a band, eventually the sounds that everyone has come to hear yet only a few will get to experience, the contest calls accompanied by applause. If you are lucky, you’ll hear your team called and take the walk. If nothing else, you will hear it called when they hand out the score sheets, although, that doesn’t really count now does it?

Congratulations, back slaps and high fives are mixed with folks saying goodbye, trucks starting and the grounds beginning to empty. All except that one guy over in the corner, sitting on an empty 5 gallon bucket turned upside down. He is staring blankly at a few pieces of stapled white paper, a score sheet perhaps. As you drift past the fellow you can almost feel his pain, maybe you have walked a mile or so in his shoes at some time in the past. You avoid eye contact, much like a beggar on the street as you hustle by, anxious to get into your vehicle and away from the man on the bucket. As you passed, you heard him muttering to no one in particular, “ ……….what happened? can it be?.....”. As you sit in your truck, you take a quick glace at the overall score sheet and there is the man on the bucket, securely in DAL, you almost want to get out and pat him on the back, tell him everything will be alright. But you do not, some things are better left unsaid.

As you depart the contest grounds, your home for the past 36 hours, you realize that it is only a mere stroke of a pencil that separates you and the man on the bucket. It could be you or anyone else that his signed up. In fact, it has to be someone, someone must be last, it is inevitable. It is the way of the world. If only……………….HONKKKKK!!!!!!!!.... Suddenly, you are jarred back to reality, as the last sound you’ll hear at this contest is the loud horn blaring from the vehicle behind you as the driver pleads with you to get the heck out of the way and quit daydreaming! Travel safe.