BBQ: Consistency in heat of things

Published 4:36 pm Friday, June 10, 2011

Eddie Smith of barbecue cook team Fast Eddie's prepares some pork. (photo by Samantha Hurst)

BBQ festival today, tomorrow
When the barbecue teams in Hog Heaven at Harmon Field get things fired up Friday they’ll have the temperatures on their cookers up around 200 degrees, but the perspiration you see won’t be from heat off the cookers, it’ll likely be from the heat of competition.
Remember, the Blue Ridge Barbecue Festival isn’t amateur hour in the barbecue world. We’re talking about the North Carolina State Barbecue Championship and a Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) sanctioned event.
Festival founder Jim Tabb should know. When he helped the chamber of commerce initiate the event, he was traveling the country judging renowned competitions.
“What this thing is good for is Polk County – the entire community benefits from this thing,” Tabb said. “We’re on the map with this contest. You can go out to California and start talking to people about barbecue and they know about Tryon.”
Tabb said the competition increases in difficulty year after year with more people throwing their recipes into play and technology intensifying everyone’s efforts.
The old adage of low and slow still counts more than any injected sauce or high-tech cooking equipment, Tabb said.
“You can’t hurry up barbecue – it’s low and slow as they say,” he said. “One of the problems people have is they don’t have the patience to stay with it.”
To cook a whole hog you’ve really got to have patience. Such a feat takes 18-20 hours of slow cooking, Tabb said.
Teams aiming to capture the Grand Championship Competition title can’t just excel at brisket or whole hog, they must compete and do well in all four categories – chicken, pork ribs, pork (or whole hog) and beef brisket.
The grand champion team wins $2,500, an invitation to the Kansas City Invitational and eligibility for the Jack Daniels Invitational drawing.
The reserve grand champion wins $1,000, third place wins $400, fourth place $200, fifth place $150 and sixth through 10th place all go home with $50.
Involved since day one of the festival, competition chairman Carl Wharton has seen time and time again what it takes to capture this competition.
He’s helped with organizing the event and cooked in it himself.
“It will take a team that really has its act together to win this whole thing. It’s a very difficult competition,” Wharton said.
There will be some team that will get on a roll and they will get a call in two, three or maybe four categories, Wharton said.
“That consistency is what it takes. They can’t bomb out in the brisket for example… they want to stay above the top 20 in all categories,” he said.
Wharton said he expects local teams to win first, second or third in every category.
“There is a tremendous number of local cooks within a 100-150 miles of Tryon… and these local teams are so good,” Wharton said.
BS Pitmeisters out of Boiling Springs, S.C., has won the event three times, Wharton said.
But the ones that come from outside the area love the foothills of Western North Carolina as a backdrop for this festival and do well, too.
“You’ve got the top 90 teams in the world here,” said Shane Blackwell, owner of Mountain View Barbecue in Columbus. “Some of these guys do this week in and week out.”
Blackwell has placed as high as 10th with his brisket recipe in past competitions. He said the trick to winning this competition involves “a whole lot of luck” and consistency.
“Luck is one thing because you can get on a table full of judges where some of them love your stuff and two of them just don’t,” Blackwell said. “A lot of stars have to line up. You’ve got to have a good, consistent product – let your fire get low for half an hour is all it takes to mess up your meat.”
Blackwell said many teams will cook six racks of ribs to get six center cuts – so the judges are tasting the best of the best. Tabb said this is where starting with a good meat – the best meat you can get your hands on, in fact – really comes into play.
In terms of actual cooking techniques, the rub is the true secret in Blackwell’s mind. People will inject various things but he said if you don’t have a good rub that complements your meat “you ain’t got nothin.’”
For these teams, this competition is all about the bragging rights; the ability to say, “I won Tryon.”
Tabb said his daughter, Lee Ann Whippen, her sister and his two granddaughters are among those seeking all the glory of “winning Tryon.” They will be competing this weekend as the all-female cook team the Woodchicks. And they aim to win in any and every category they can, Tabb said, including the potato salad competition.
Optional categories also include efforts to win the Governor’s Trophy (North Carolina teams only), the whole hog competition, the “anything but” competition that calls for teams to cook up anything and everything not covered by the four main categories and a dessert competition.
Individual category winners also take home a bit of cash, with the first place team nabbing $1,000.
Blackwell said the competition is a lot of fun for the cookers and an educational experience.
“I’ve learned so much over the years just by going around and picking the other guys’ brains,” he said.
He even talked about a year when he didn’t have enough green leaf lettuce for his plates. He started asking around and his next door neighbor said, ‘Ahh, I can’t give you none ’cause that will get you disqualified.’ All the while the man was beside him washing and trimming lettuce to hand right to Blackwell.
He said all the competitors might rib each other throughout the long day and night of cooking but they all show up more than willing to rush to someone’s aid when it counts.

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