Monday, May 14, 2012

Some thoughts on the dirty bird…


 The world of a KCBS competition cook revolves around the four main meats. Sure, at times there are a few ancillary categories which we cook, but for the most part, we spend a good deal of our awake or at least semi-conscious hours thinking about what we can do to improve or get an edge when it comes to the main four. Chicken, ribs, pork and brisket, it’s just what we do.

As many of you are already painfully aware, I spend an inordinate amount of time pondering the why’s and wherefores regarding my feathered friend, the yard-bird. I have a previously self-admitted problem for which I have sought professional help. I spend more time contemplating and practicing my chicken attack than on the rest of the other three meats combined. At a contest, my chicken prep is the most time consuming. When asked to pontificate, chicken is my topic of choice. While cooking our last contest, out of 114 teams my prized and time consuming poultry submission finished a stellar 102nd. Help me, I have fallen and I can’t get up.

 For me, as well as many other competition pitmasters, chicken is a dirty word. In my humble opinion, one of the main reasons consistency in this category is so elusive, is it is next to impossible to look at a piece of chicken and be able to determine how it will cook. Most cooks can look at a brisket, a pork butt or a rack of ribs and judging by the fat color, content, and a few other things can determine if it will be a decent final product. Chicken….not so much, you look at a piece of chicken on a cutting board, it just lays there like a slug, it says nothing to you. Let’s face it, when buying chicken; most times it is a crap shoot. A pack of 10 thighs, could have theoretically have come from 10 different birds, all having slightly different characteristics regarding their meat, especially once they have been cooked. From the same pack, I have gotten thighs that are so large they must have come from some type of pterodactyl and some so small they look as though they were from a sparrow, nonsensical. I have even prepared two breasts from the same pack for my wife and I for dinner, one has been tender, the other tuff, they looked identical. Flummoxed I tell you.

 Even when you taste your chicken on contest morning, if you pick up a thigh and take a bite, how can you be sure those 6 thighs going in the box are going to eat like your tester, you can’t, hope is your only chance. I have even considered trying all my cooked thighs with a small bite, then putting the 6 best tasting specimens into the box, bite mark and all. I checked, there is no rule against putting a half-eaten piece of chicken into the box, as long as there is enough for 6 right? Of course, I am exaggerating here, but you get the point.

 I know some will say I need to use steroid free, organic or free range chicken for my contest cooks, they are of higher quality, tastier, and they are supposed to have a better pedigree. Believe me, I have tried them all. I once drove 100 miles one way to buy chicken from a guy who claimed his birds dinned only on the finest grains, lived in climate controlled condos all with free internet access and a swimming pool, listened to symphony music and were forbidden from watching Jerry Springer, Judge Judy and all other daytime TV gems. Additionally, these birds were read to every night before bedtime, and I am talking Moby Dick, Tom Sawyer, Little Woman, the classics. These were some highbrow and sophisticated birds, definitely higher quality, from different strata, maybe I could taste a slight difference, but the judges surely did not.

 The proof for my hypothesis is in the chicken pudding so to speak. Look at the contest results week to week. This week’s first place chicken walker could be a mid-packer next week, or even worse. Certainly, this can and does occur occasionally in the other three meats, but it is my contention in chicken, it happens more often. It would be my guess, if a team wins chicken today, when they cook it tomorrow, they are pretty much going to do the same things, but again, I do not have any studies to back me up, it is pure conjecture. Hot chicken methods come and go, much to the dismay and frustration of a many a competition cook. There is just no consistency. If you are asking me who is to blame, I say blame the chicken, the damned chicken, at least that is what my therapist says I should do.