Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Fountains Blaze Off and Senior Q

After 16 barbecue contests in 2008 stretching from Great Bend , KS to Shannon , IL starting in February and ending last weekend, we wrapped up the year with a fun contest in Independence , MO. It was the Fountains Blaze-Off and Senior Q held for the second year at the Fountains at Greenbriar – an independent senior living community.

We won this contest last year in its inaugural event and we returned this year hoping for a repeat. It didn’t happen for us, but we still had a pretty good time.

Jon and Clara Williams and their family run this event. Jon and Clara compete as Second Line Smokin’ Krew in KCBS contests and they are also KCBS Reps at quite a few contests around the Kansas City area. Jon is also the food service director at The Fountains. He puts this contest on as a tribute to the residents of the facility and most of the teams cooked an extra brisket for the residents to enjoy at dinner on Saturday Night.

Last year we met one of the neighbors named Eva. Steph of The Slabs wrote a real nice article about our new friend Eva that ran in the November 2007 Bullsheet (you can read it here). Our cook site was literally in her back yard both last and again this year. Eva was back again (see her picture with Steph). She watched us for nearly the whole contest out of her back door and came over for a few visits, but she declined a shot of Gentleman Jack, so Chris and I had to share with Kyle and Steph (below).

The event itself is very well run. It’s one of the rare contests that we do that is just that…it’s just a contest. There is really nothing else going on at the event except BBQ cooks cooking meat. No bands. No vendors. No expos. No carnival rides. Just cooks. Sometimes that is kind of nice.

I wish I could say that not having any of those distractions helped us cook our best and finish well. We didn’t finish as well as we would have liked and I don’t really have any complaints about that. For the most part, I think we were judged accordingly.

It was a strong field of cooks, with 28 teams competing. I think 11 or 12 of those teams have won a grand or reserve grand championship this year. We've made a lot of good friends in that group from cooking at many of the same contests together, so it was fun to cook the last one of the year with many of our BBQ friends like Squeal of Approval, D-Dons Pit Crew, The Slabs, Early Bird BBQ and many more, including a few teams that weren't cooking, but just stopped by for a visit. We were looking forward to the competition and the chance to end on a high note, but we ended up placing 14th overall.

Our one bright spot from the awards was an 8th place call in Chicken. That felt pretty good.

Chicken has been a struggle for us all year. We tried a new recipe for the first time in the Mission , KS contest a few weeks ago. We missed out on a call in the bird category that day, but it didn’t hurt us as we still won the contest. We cooked it again at the American Royal and just missed out on a ribbon in the Invitational and finished somewhere in the middle of the pack in the open. That’s still OK. I liked our chicken last weekend. I thought it was good enough for a call, but I also thought it could have been a little better. I was pleased with the award (only our second of the year), and knowing that we have some room for improvement is also encouraging.

On the other hand, I was miffed by our ribs. We cooked them the same way as we usually do. Neither Chris nor I liked the results. I thought they tasted dry, Chris thought they lacked the “pop” they usually have. Either way you go, it showed in the results.

Our brisket seemed like it could go either way. I was holding out hope that, even though I knew it wasn’t the best it could be, that we’d still get a call. No such luck. We didn’t really deserve it anyway. It’s wasn’t a bad product to in, but it was not the best we could do either. We knew that when we sampled it before turn in.

Pork was actually the category that I think Chris and I both thought we had the best chance in. I guess that’s the kiss of death as we finished 15th. Everything seemed to turn out just right for us in that category. From start to finish, it was on schedule and tasted great. The box looked good and I can say that the entry itself was every bit as good as our 5th place pork in the Royal Invitational. So that was a little disappointing.

Munchin' Hogs at the Hilton claimed the top spot and the Early Family of Early Bird BBQ landed as reserve grand champs. One of the residents at the Fountains made the grand and reserve grand trophies in a ceramics class and Rob from Munchin' Hogs and our buddy Chris from Early Bird had the opportunity pose with the young lady who made them. Rob's GC trophy was even filled with cookies!

Finishing 14th in a 28 team contest was not the way that we wanted to end the year. That said, we still had the most successful year of competition in our short run so far. We cooked more than ever before with 16 contests and we won more than ever before. I think there is a direct connection there. The more you cook, the better you get, the more you win. We’ll be back at next year. I plan to maybe work on a season recap too to post here too.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The American Royal

The Royal came and went. It was a long weekend for us and we cooked some good food. We also turned in some stuff that we didn’t think was quite up to our standards…but that was bound to happen as we’ve had a pretty good run leading up to this one.

We have traditionally gotten beat up by the judges pretty bad at the Royal in the open contest. Seems the more experience we have and the better we get, the worse we finish in Royal Open each year.

Our first year out there we had no idea what we were doing. We finished in the 190’s overall and had top 100 finishes in two categories. Since then it’s been a steady decline into the abyss, culminating with a finish in the low 300’s last year. Well, we must be back to our first year form in 2008, but we still just can’t crack the top 200 as we finished 201st.

Our brisket, which has been our best category all year, was awful. True to form, it was our best scoring product. Awesome!

But we still had a great time and we did do pretty good in the invitational. It’s a goal to be in the American Royal Invitational every year for us and this was our second go ‘round in that dance.

We improved on our ’07 Invitational finish, ending up in 17th place this year (100 teams). We just missed calls in chicken and ribs (22nd and 20th places) but did score a nice ribbon for 5th place pork. That was a real accomplishment for us in that field of cooks…the best of the best, with every one of those teams having won a grand championship in the past year. Our brisket pulled us down, finishing 76th, but I can’t say that I disagree with that. It was not the same product we have been turning in lately. The judges got that one right.

We have already qualified for the 2009 American Royal Invitational, so we’ll be back to take another crack at it next year. But until we hear our name called for a ribbon in the American Royal Open - in any category, I think we will always feel like our list of accomplishments, however large or small, will be incomplete. In fact, as I am writing this, I decided to check the sausage results…that was the one ancillary category that we entered. The result: 59th! We’re getting closer!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Getting Ready for the Royal

Getting ready to cook a BBQ contest takes a lot of work. The more we compete, the more streamlined it becomes, but there are some things that have to be done and you just can’t cut corners with that stuff. This week it's time to get ready for the big one...The American Royal.

We probably spend 10 to 15 hours the week before a contest getting ready. That includes shopping, checking off to-do lists, packing supplies, trimming meat, double checking to-do lists and getting the cooker ready for competition.

Part of getting the cooker ready means cleaning. I clean every part of our smoker inside and out before every contest. Once I cleaned it the day after a competition, but I learned that doesn’t work very well. If I fire up again between that day and the next contest, it just gets dirty, greasy and grimey again. Probably not as dirty, greasy and grimey as it does after a full contest, but I need to have that extra clean feeling to know that the cooker is ready for the challenge ahead.

We cook ribs, pork butt and brisket in the smoker in competition. Ribs…not that messy. Pork and brisket…messy. BBQers know these are cuts loaded with fat and can lose as much as half of its raw weight when that fat renders. And it renders all over the grates, drips down onto the tuning plates and settles in the bottom of the cook chamber. After a cook, it’s black, it’s thick and it’s gross. (This picture was taken at one contest when it was still cold outside...I accidently forgot to close my drain valve under the belly of the chamber and the result was this 12" tall stalagmite of grease and fat...
YUMMY! I am glad it wasn't warm...that would have been a mess!)

As usual, we had the cooker clean and ready to go for our last contest in Mission. We did the normal routine, then went home Saturday afternoon and threw another 85 lbs of meat or so in the smoker for a catering gig we had later in the week. Four butts and five briskets went on around 6pm and came off the next morning. After cooking for a contest then turning around and loading it back up again, a huge mess was left behind in the cooker.

Yesterday I started the process of getting ready for the American Royal.

Earlier this summer we received a few sample bottles of Greased Lightning all purpose cleaner in a goody bag at a contest. I used up a couple of those little samples on various things and we’ve got a bottle in the closet at home, so I know it’s good stuff. Then, a few weeks ago, I was talking to Rod Gray from Pellet Envy. Rod is sponsored by Greased Lightning and offered me some free product. I jumped on the free stuff and today I put it to use.

My normal routine is to get as much of the solid stuff out of the cooker first, then finish with a visit to a car wash. I got rid of the big stuff with a putty knife then a wire brush, scraping the grates and tuning plates inside. During a contest or other long cook, we’re bound to collect some grease and ash in a few spots on the exterior of the cooker. The exterior only gets worse when stuff inside flies out as I’m cleaning it.

After a few long cooks then sitting and settling for a week before I got to it, that Greased Lightning did wonders on the tough, built up gunk, grease and ash. I gave it the initial once over in the drive way and scraped and scrubbed a bunch of stuff away. Then I went to the car wash.

It was early in the evening on Sunday and I noticed a group of guys standing around a pick-up in the parking lot of the hotel across the street from the wash bay. When I started to get ready to wash, I noticed them making their way over. An immediate feeling of dread overcame me. I knew a guy that was once held up at a car wash. But the closer these guys got, the less scary they seemed.

Turns out they were just a bunch of guys in town from Central Wisconsin for the NASCAR race at the Kansas Speedway. They were capping off their day with a few cold ones in the parking lot and they thought my smoker looked cool so they came over to check it out.

I filled them in on how it worked and what I used the smoker for…contests and cooking at home, etc. They were a great bunch of guys, really nice and respectful…but still having a lot of fun after watching a great race that day.

The cooker’s clean and ready for action…The next task at hand will be buying meat, garnish and supplies for the invitational and open. My job really gets in the way of my hobby sometimes.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Grand Champs: Battle of the Brisket - Mission, KS

I spent the last week leading up to the Battle of the Brisket in Mission, KS really looking forward to cooking again.

Two weeks ago Chris and I scored a reserve grand championship in Fairbury, NE. That competition kicked off a string of contests for us where we’ll cook every other weekend leading up to the American Royal and beyond. That is a pretty frequent pace for our team, but it’s our hope that we can really hit our stride and do well as we approach the big one.

With that reserve grand champ finish in Nebraska we were off to a good start, but Chris and I both felt that we could have performed better and there was plenty of room for improvement. We took good step toward being where we want to be last weekend in Mission as we finished on top of the heap at a 57 team contest – by far our biggest win.

It was more than four years ago when I got the mail one afternoon and opened up the city newsletter that’s sent to every household in town. I saw one little article about a small, unsanctioned contest being held at the Sylvester Powel Community Center, which stood less than three blocks from my front door. It was the perfect first foray in competition barbecue for me and my little smoker. My neighbor, Chris, showed up and gave me hand and we scored a 4th place ribbon in brisket that weekend…the rest is history.

Fast forward a few years later…last year the city decided to hold another contest at the same location and this time it was sanctioned by KCBS. We jumped right in and even ended up in the same spot we had that first time out. We lucked out and finished in the reserve grand champion slot and we could not have been happier! That is, until we finished in first place!

I can’t say enough about the Mission Arts & Eats Festival and Battle of the Brisket contest. I am really very proud to call this my (adopted) hometown contest. I think the coolest part about the contest was the attention they gave to recycling. There were receptacles every where you turned for cans and plastic bottles. They even sponsored a contest with-in the contest, offering $50 to the team who turned in the most recycled materials (by weight) at the end of the weekend. I wish more contests would do this. We end up throwing away so many plastic bottles and aluminum cans, just because we have nothing else to do with it.

Because the contest is so close to home and my office, I ran down and set up our spot over the lunch hour. I worked almost a full day and got back down to the contest in time to get ready for our guests on Friday night. We had a nice crowd and much food was consumed and many beers drank. It was a lot of fun.

Unlike a few of our most recent contests, Chris and I stayed pretty much on track as far as our timeline went. Trimming, injecting, marinating and seasoning all happened right on time. The evening weather was perfect, allowing our cooker to perform just as we expect and all of our categories went on and came off the smoker on time.

We both had that uneasy feeling as mid-morning came and went...nothing had gone wrong. We've had that feeling before. If nothing goes wrong during the contest, then it must mean it's gonna happen at the awards.

Our chicken was OK. We are trying to achieve a few things with that entry and I thought we did them all - just not as well as we could. Ribs were not quite there in my opinion. The presentation was lacking a little. Pork came out pretty good and our brisket was also good. Overall I thought we had a decent chance at getting some calls.

We collected awards in three of four categories at the awards ceremony. We just can’t seem to nail down our chicken. Our last chicken call came back on May 3rd in Lansing, KS. It’s been a pretty dry spell since then, but I think we’re improving. We did score a fourth in ribs, third in brisket and second in pork and it all added up to a Grand Championship on this weekend!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Little Blue BBQ - Fairbury, NE

This is just the type of competition I like. It’s a small contest in a small town. The prize money is pretty small too, but we’ve never been into chasing the big scores anyway, so that hasn’t ever mattered much to us. It’s just a nice place with a nice feel and we’ve always done well there.

Back in 2006, Dodge County Smokers scored a Grand Championship here and last year we finished fourth. We were really looking forward to the trip up this year and we were primed for strong finish.

Last year we recruited my brother-in-law, Eric, to cook chicken and ribs as a separate team, just in case the contest needed him to reach the 25 team “qualifier” mark. Eric chose the name Czechland Smokers, a tribute to his polka-dancing, beer-drinking, kolache-eating heritage.

Eric was back this year with his Bohemian buddy, Doug, set up right next to us - and this year they went all in, cooking in all four categories. Last year he did pretty good, scoring Top 10 finishes with both of his entries. This year Chris and I brought the meat, rubs and sauce for him and he supplied a couple of modest smokers along with some seasonings of his own. We put a plan together for cooking his brisket, pork, ribs and chicken and Czechland Smokers were off and cooking!

Set up on the other side of our tent was Pork Me Purple …that’s our buddy Jerrod and his dad, Bill. Last month Jerrod was looking for one last contest to cook for the year and I threw out the possibility of him coming up to this one. It worked out with his schedule and we were happy to have him along side of us. We even co-hosted a good sized Friday night feed complete with some awesome rib eye steaks and really good smoked sausage from Jerrod. We cooked a pretty damn good pork loin and we had loads of great sides too. It was a great meal and a very fun evening.

The cooking part of the weekend went pretty smooth. I had a few time & temp mistakes, but nothing that we haven’t run into before. It got COLD too! We had all of the sidewalls up on the tents and we keep it above 65, but it was chilly every time we’d step outside.

When it came time to box our entries, Chris and I each took turns running over to Eric and Doug’s tent to give them an idea of how to arrange their meat in the box. I have to say that from what I saw, they did an excellent job on their presentations.

I felt pretty good about our brisket entry. I thought pork and chicken were OK and our ribs just didn’t have the pop we are used to getting out of them…although they were still good. But what we think about the product doesn’t make any difference. It’s all about the judges’ scores.

The top six in each category were recognized at the awards, and we did OK with a 2nd place brisket and 3rd place pork. I was hoping for a chicken and a rib call as well, but it wasn’t going to happen for us this day. I may have been more excited to hear Czechland Smokers’ name for 2nd place pork. What was that? They beat us?! I have to say we were pretty proud of those guys. They worked hard and I hope they had fun.

Pork Me Purple also came up big with huge 1st place chicken call and when it was all said and done, Jerrod snagged the very cool Grand Championship trophy!

Chris and I didn’t do so bad ourselves, earning a Reserve Grand Championship, but the surprise of the day may have been the 3rd place overall finishers…

At the conclusion of the awards, we all took our place in line to get the results and scores on paper. Chris grabbed ours and Eric took his. We all walked back to our seats and Eric flipped open the overall scoring page and started looking for their name, reading from the bottom of the 25 team list and going up. As he was reading closer and closer to the top of the page he said “I think they forgot about us…”

That’s when Doug looked over his shoulder and pointed near the top of the page. I’ll be damned if those guys didn’t take 3rd place! And they finished just three points behind us too! Eric seemed pretty stunned.

That strong 3rd place showing meant we all finished the contest in the order we were lined up. I guess it was a “Winner’s Row” of sorts, with Jerrod set up to on our west side and Eric and Doug on the east side. 1st, 2nd and 3rd. Pretty cool!

Monday, August 18, 2008

BBQ on the River - Excelsior Springs, MO

A few years ago this was one of our first KCBS sanctioned contests. It was also the first time we cooked on our current smoker…The first (and only) Dodge County Smoker to roll off the assembly line. My Dad pulled it down from Nebraska and we never even had the chance to practice on it. It probably didn’t matter much. We would have sucked on that or any other cooker back then.

But I digest…

It’s always fun to go back to Excelsior Springs. It’s a contest that is well supported by the community and they have a strong contingent of area teams every year from the Clay and Ray County area, which I always think is cool.

The competition is tough too.

Any number of the 68 teams in attendance could have won this contest and the field was stacked with names who have visited the stage to accept grand championships numerous times.

We were once again set up next to our good ‘ole pals, The Slabs.com. Steph, Kyle and Val are always a blast to hang with and talk to. I even got some gratis baby-sitting services out of Valerie when she took Jackson for a walk on Friday evening, allowing me a couple of free moments to finish setting up our camp, as we arrived after 5pm. Chris was even later than I was in getting there, but we had no problem in setting up and getting our meat prepped on time.

Dinner was a treat as we participated in a Friday night pot luck with more than a dozen other teams up at the Boys Night Out camp. Everyone brought Mexican food and it was great! Chris made some killer Spanish rice and there was all sorts of other good stuff to choose from on the buffet line as well.

After dinner it was back to HQ to finish up prep work and get our big cuts on the cooker. The rest of the night was pretty uneventful and the weather was cool, maybe even a little chilly – but we’ll take it over the hot days and nights we’re used to when cooking in the middle of August. The rain also stayed away and weather-wise, it turned out to be just a perfect weekend.

Saturday brought another great day with the sun shining and temps in the 70’s. We started the morning off right with a world class breakfast back the Boys Night Out camp. Bacon, eggs, biscuits & gravy and more. It was all fantastic.

After breakfast we got down to business, getting boxes ready and sticking to our rigid competition plan. Turn-ins came and went and we were happy, but not ecstatic about our food. We packed up pretty quick and had about an hour to kill before the awards at 4:00, so we kicked back and stayed cool in the shade of the buildings on Broadway Street in downtown Excelsior Springs.

The awards kicked off and we saw a steady stream of solid teams making their way up to the stage to claim their awards. Unfortunately for us, we weren’t one of them. After not hearing our name through 3 categories, I had pretty much accepted that we were going to be in for a disappointment when we got a look at the score sheet.

I was blown away when I heard our name for first place brisket. Turns out we also took 5th place overall in the contest, and a not-so-great performance turned out to be pretty good. We improved on our chicken (which we have been consistently tweaking from week to week) and ended up just out of the top ten in ribs and pork with an 11th and 14th place respectively.

We were able to come home with a little money in our pocket and we’ll be getting ready for our next run up to Fairbury, NE for the Little Blue BBQ contest the first weekend in September.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Road Trip: Kreuz Market - Lockhart, TX

Last weekend I traveled to Texas with my wife & son and her folks to see some family. We drove to Houston, then San Antonio and back to KC. We did all kinds of family stuff on our trip and even watched Finding Nemo in the car two dozen times (and that is not an exaggeration).

I made it a point to put Lockhart, Texas on our agenda and we were able to veer off Interstate 10 for a cool side trip that included a pretty damn good lunch on the way to San Antone.

A few years ago I caught a television program that profiled Kreuz Market. You can read the history of the place here. But there is a little more to the story…In 1999 the owner of the market passed away and left the business to his son, but he left the building to his daughter. They failed to work out an agreement and Kreuz Market moved to a new building. A new BBQ joint called Smitty’s sprung up in the original building, where Kreuz started in 1900.

Even though Smitty’s is housed in the old building, I wanted to try Kreuz. From all I’ve read, heard and seen, it’s the best in Texas.

We arrived at about 12:30pm on Saturday afternoon and the parking lot was full. The building is huge, and less than 10 years old – but it looks and feels like it has been there much longer.

We walked in and took our place in a line that stretched from the back of the building nearly to the entrance. While in line, we were able to look at the menu. It was pretty straight forward…brisket, shoulder clod and big pork chops along with ribs and sausage all sold by the pound.

At the end of the line were a set of double doors that opened up into a large room with 4 big brick pits heated by open fires, burning 100% Texas post oak. I should also mention that outside of the building, sat the largest collection of cut and stacked wood that I have ever seen. No gas pits here. A smokey haze lingered inside the building and out from the fires.

In front of the pits were two counters, each staffed by cashier, a pit man/meat slicer and scale operator. It must have been at least 110° inside that room…it was hotter than the temp outside and that was measuring 98 when we got there. I placed my order for brisket and sausage and watched the pit man lift up the heavy iron doors on the pit to get the sausage, then stab a whole brisket which he brought over to his cutting station, slicing off just the right amount. The scale operator threw it all on a few pieces of butcher paper and cashier rang it up.

We carried our lunch out of the pit room and into the dining hall where drinks and a limited number of sides (German potato salad, some peppers and ice cream...not much else) are sold separately. Two notable things you won't find anywhere in the building are forks and BBQ sauce. The reasoning...you don't need a fork to eat this food and you don't sauce to hide any mistakes. Fair enough.

The brisket was good. I thought it might be dry, as it was being held in a pit which I thought might cause it to continue to cook. But it was juicy and full of flavor. They do not season their briskets with a traditional rub, but rather a salt & pepper blend only...more salt than pepper. The brisket was very salty...but not too salty. But still much saltier than you'd find around KC. The highlight of the meal for me was the jalapeño cheese sausage. Man, that was good! We also got some regular sausage, which was just OK. Tasted like mediocre bratwurst.

Overall, the lunch was delicious and the atmosphere was awesome. It was well worth the side trip and definitely tops the list of the coolest places I have sat down to have a meal. I am working on a page to post more pictures of Kreuz Market. Until I get that done, here are just a few more.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Laurie Hillbilly BBQ

A week or so ago Chris and I decided to make a quick run down to the backwoods of Laurie, MO for the Laurie Hillbilly BBQ Contest. It was a last minute decision…I got a hold of the contest organizer, found out they still had room for a few more teams and we made our plan and left town around 3:00 pm on Friday.

Early in the week we enlisted an old BBQ friend of ours to be a part of the team. Richard Sterling is from the Laurie area, but he most recently called Nebraska home - living not far from my home town up there. He had quite a bit of success cooking contests around Nebraska and Iowa a few years ago. Rich has since relocated back to Missouri and sold his cooker. Actually it was Chris who bought his H&S Trailer Smoker a few months ago.

Our plan was to have Rich cook chicken and run boxes. We’d cook our regular ribs, pork and brisket and see what turns out.

We pulled in to the cook site a little after 6:00 pm and quickly set up camp. We had a pretty good spot, not too far from turn-ins and right under a shade tree. Not that it mattered if we were under a tree or not – it was 90+ degrees most of the weekend and the air was humid and thicker than molasses.

We cooked our four categories with little incident and got everything turned in on time with Rich’s help. We packed up quickly and cooled down (temporarily) by rinsing off in a cold shower and throwing on a change of clothes. By the time the awards rolled around I was just as hot as before.

We were sweating at the awards (literally) as we didn’t get a call until we hit 4th in the last category of brisket. When we don’t get a top 10 call in a category after the end of a long contest, my immediate thought (and hope) is “well, maybe we finished 11th.”

That was almost the case here. We ended up 13th in ribs and 11th in pork. Three of our four turn-ins faired pretty well with some solid scores. But the judges beat us up pretty bad on our chicken. As we tasted it in preparation for turn-in, I think we all thought we had a chance, but it wasn’t going to happen for us this day.

Out of 76 teams, we finished 18th and enjoyed sharing in the success of many friends including The Slabs, Early Bird BBQ, Smoke on Wheels and Pork Pullin’ Plowboys, all of which celebrated top category and overall finishes.

I will say that I did miss having my little buddy at the contest with us. This is the second contest in a row that my 18 month-old son Jackson was not there to share some time with us. Jack is my little good luck charm and when he wasn't able to go to Shannon, IL with us last month, at least Chris and I had our wives there. I have found that it's just a lot more fun to have our family with us when we're cooking.

Next up is a contest that we have done for four years. We'll be smokin' on the street in downtown Excelsior Springs, MO. If you're there, be sure to stop by and say hey!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Illinois State BBQ Championship:
A Pretty Good Weekend (Part Four)

This is the fourth and last in a series of posts from our trip to the Butt to Butt Invitational and the Illinois State BBQ Championship. For part one, click here, for part two, click here and for part three, click here...or just scroll down to the posts below.

Chris and I were feeling good about our third place finish in the Butt to Butt Invitational. Third place was pretty solid in that field of cooks…I felt like if we could turn in the same pork in the contest the following day, that we’d be in good shape come awards time Saturday afternoon.

We knew that we would need all the help we could get with the group of teams at this event. With over 60 teams competing, including five teams that finished in the KCBS top ten along with several past Jack Daniels Invitational Champions, this was some of the stiffest competition we’ll face all year.

I did think we had a small advantage over several other teams in the contest because we were able to get in, get set up and do a full cooking session a day ahead of time. It allowed us the opportunity to get everything ready to cook on much more relaxed timeline. The downside is that doing back-to-back contests is a grind. Tending a stick-burning cooker, dealing with the storms and not sleeping in your own bed can take it out of you. We were feeling the effects of it all on Saturday Morning.

We got all of our meat in the cooker with out incident. We were a little behind on our Friday night timeline due to some of the excitement that we experienced earlier in the evening, but it all evened out and we got back on track with out a problem. I was starting to worry a little bit about our briskets. They seemed to be cooking pretty fast and one was even pegging a temp of 200+ at 8:00am . That is a little hotter than we want it…and it’s a few hours earlier than we want it to get there. We pulled the brisket and threw in our warming box to hold until turn in at 1:30pm.

Ealier in the week we had caught wind that a special gathering of cooks were taking part in a special mid-morning shot of Jack Daniels. Now, this is nothing new...we have many times shared a shot of Gentleman Jack with our fellow competitors. But it seems the fellas heading this effort up were trying to break a record...and I believe they did. We were part of 59 contestants who held their shot glasses high as the Right Reverend Randy Twyford of the team Ulcer Acres gave a 9:22am toast to a hastily assembled but charasmatic congregation. This was the first time we had been a part of one of "The Rev's" toasts, and it was a treat. He puts some real thought in to his toast...err, sermons. We had a blast...how could you not, drinking whiskey at 9:30 in the morning.

Following that bit of nonsense, it was back to cooking BBQ. Chicken, ribs and pork all finished up just fine and I think we were pretty happy with our final product. I felt like we could have had a bit better turnout in chicken and brisket, but ribs and pork were good. I felt that we had our best chance for a call with our pork. After cooking that category two times the day before, it seemed like we had it dialed in.

We had a long trip ahead of us, so we packed up camp pretty fast following the final turn-in. It was a huge help to have Jenny and Jammie there. They have seen Chris and I pack up enough times to know what to touch and what to leave alone. They also tackled the dishes and washed them all. It’s always a good feeling to know that you don’t have anything to clean up when you get home.

We set up our chairs to watch the awards along with the rest of the cook teams, which started right on time at 4:00 . It’s always a welcome experience when the awards are on time at a BBQ Contest…But I wouldn’t expect anything less when it comes to this event. Everything seemed to run flawlessly (except for the rain).

When contest organizer Mike Lake announced at the beginning of the awards ceremony that they would call the top ten in each category, but only the top two overall, I have to admit that I was a little disappointed. I thought we cooked some pretty good stuff and that we had a decent chance at the top ten overall.

Our first call was for ribs. We have been lucky this year in that category and we were again stoked to hear our name called for 6th place. Pork was next and we were disappointed not to hear our name called. I thought we had some good stuff there. I also thought that we would be going home with a lone 6th place ribbon.

Instead, we were extremely excited to hear our name called for 2nd place brisket. As it turns out, we actually tied Rod Gray of Pellet Envy for 1st, but Rod won the tie-breaker and that was just fine with us. Brisket was a tough one for us last year. We’ve had some help with it this year and it’s coming around.

Next up, the Land of Lincoln Award was given out, as it is every year at this contest, to the highest scoring team from the state of Illinois. That award went to Joey Mac’s Smoke Stax - and it wouldn’t be the last time he’d be called up (the suspense is killing you, isn’t it?).

When the time rolled around to call Reserve Grand Champion and Grand Champion, we were really surprised to hear our name called out for the reserve slot! We didn’t know how the other categories shook out yet, but it seemed like there were a few other names who had more calls and higher placings than we did too.

We jumped up and strolled to the front, excited for the great finish. I would have been happy with the rib and brisket calls, but to have snagged Reserve Grand in that field just made our weekend! It makes the 8 hour ride home a lot easier to take too.

Joey Mac bested the entire field with a solid performance and he and his crew took home the Grand Champion’s plaque. As I mentioned before, they are an Illinois team – so I’m sure this win is extra special for them, with this contest probably being the most well-known event in the state.

We ended up leaving Shannon on a high! Jammie and Jenny had made reservations for us to stay the night in the Quad Cities, but we passed up those reservations as we made good time getting out of the contest early. We ended up staying the night about 100 miles east of Des Moines, which made for a pretty easy drive home the next day.

All in all, a pretty good weekend.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Illinois State BBQ Championship:
Butt to Butt X Invitational (Part Three)

This is part three in a series of posts from our trip to the Butt to Butt Invitational and the Illinois State BBQ Championship. For part one, click here, for part two, click here...or just scroll down to the posts below.

Following the storms, lightning strikes and fires, it was time for the Butt to Butt Invitational awards. Now these are not your normal awards. They are conducted at the cooks meeting for the regular KCBS contest, which was held at 8:00pm on Friday night. This meant most, if not all, of the cooks competing in the 63 team contest were present...and it seemed like even more people were there.

Mike Lake went through the basic rules of the contest, but most everyone was there to see who would win the Butt to Butt competition. Mike called each of the Butt to Butt teams to the front of the tent and introduced them. One by one we would walk to the front. And one by one we would be asked to sit down again.

It's a process of elimination, resulting with the winner as the only contestant left standing. But instead of starting at last place and working his way up to the winner, Mike starts at second to last. Meaning at the end there are two people standing up...one is the winner and the other finished last.

I had been warned by several people what was about to happen. Most of the former Butt to Butt contestants I had spoken to said we should just hope to finish 4th or 5th and avoid the nerve-racking feeling of standing in front of the assembled crowd.

As Mike began reading the names of the teams I was a wreck. I could hear Rod from Pellet Envy and Chris talking. Both were wishing (loud enough that I could hear) to be the next team called to sit down. We were still standing as they called 6th place...then 5th place...then 4th...just as I thought "maybe we won this thing," I heard our name and happily took our seat, very proud of a 3rd place finish among the countries best cooks!

Rod got his wish too and was the next team called to sit down, in 2nd place. Mike Flach of the team Weekend Smokers wound up with a great upset win over a very strong field that included past grand champions of the American Royal, The Jack Daniels World Invitational and top finishers in the Kansas City BBQ Society's annual year end rankings. Congrats to Mike.

Illinois State BBQ Championship:
Field of Terror! (Part Two)

This is part two in a series of posts from our trip to the Butt to Butt Invitational and the Illinois State BBQ Championship. For part one, click here...or just scroll down to the post below this one.

Every July, the baseball and softball fields of Shannon become the setting for the Illinois State BBQ Champions. Smokers, tents and RV’s dot the infields and outfields and the backdrop of the park surrounded by corn fields has earned this contest the nickname “BBQ’s Field of Dreams.”

After we were done devouring the steaks at Mike & Teresa’s house on Thursday night, we enjoyed a few more drinks but noticed the skies turning dark again and thought it best to get back to camp and ready ourselves for a storm. Being just a few blocks from the park, we hit the street and walked back, getting there just in time to put up the rest of the sidewalls on our tent and pull everything inside so it wouldn’t get wet. Then the sky let loose dumping buckets of rain on us, leaving ankle deep water in and around our site.
As it rained down, water started to collect in the corners of our tent. This is pretty common and we normally just get up every so often and push up the corner of the canopy were the water has collected, dumping the rain water down onto the ground.
Chris, Jenny, Jammie and I were all relaxing, staying relatively dry when I noticed one of the corners filling up pretty rapidly. I got up slowly (as always, being careful not to spill my Budweiser) and walked over the corner of the tent. Just as I was reaching up to push the rain water off the sagging canopy, we heard and felt a huge clap of thunder that literally shook the ground, accompanied immediately by a bolt of lightning that lit up the whole park. It felt entirely too close - like that strike was going to go right through my out stretched arm. I jumped back and maybe even screamed a little…If I had hair on my head, it would have been standing straight up.

It wasn’t until a few hours later, after talking with some other cooks who happened to have seen the strike hit, that we learned the lightning did in fact hit just a few hundred feet away from our camp site, in the corn field directly to the east. Surprisingly, this would not be the scariest moment of the contest (more on that later).

After the storms died down and Jammie and Jenny left for the night and Chris and I began the process of prepping our meat for the Invitational Butt to Butt contest. We caught a few hours of sleep before firing up the cooker and throwing the meat on, then napped for another couple of hours before daylight hit and spent the rest of the day babysitting the cooker then prepping and turning in our pork boxes.

It was pretty enjoyable day – sun shining, pretty dry and teams arriving for the KCBS sanctioned contest. It felt like we should have been doing more, but I really liked the no-stress feeling of letting those butts sit in the smoke and not having to worry about any other category.

This was the tenth year for the Butt to Butt contest, so in addition to the teams competing for the Butt to Butt X title, several of the past Butt to Butt winners were invited to take part in a second contest where they would compete in a Tournament of Champions. Our turn in for Butt to Butt X was at 3pm, followed two hours later by a second turn in at 5pm for the Tournament of Champions. We all turned in a second entry, just in case we won the first contest, but only the winner of the first contest would be included in the judging for the second. We wouldn’t find out until 8pm if our second entry was judged or not.

After the turn in at 5:00, we had a few hours to run out to Jammie and Jenny’s cabin where Chris and I were able to shower, change clothes and freshen up. We turned on the TV in the cabin and caught the weather report to see if any more storms were headed our way. As is usually the case in the Midwest around this time of year, you can’t predict the storms…50/50 chance they say. What you can predict is the heat. On the color-coded scale displayed by weather man during this local newscast, we were well into the red “oppressive” zone, with highs in the 90’s and humidity off the charts. Sticky.

Then we drove back to town and had a quick bite to eat at a café on Main Street. On our way back to the park we saw one of the Butt to Butt Tournament of Champion contenders, Mean Dean’s BBQ, walking uptown – several blocks from the contest.

We didn’t think much about seeing Dean away from the contest, until we went walking by his cooker in the park.

I think Chris and I both saw it at about the same time along with a few other people including Todd of Pork Pullin’ Plowboys and contest rep Mike Lake. We all converged on a pretty dangerous situation within moments of each other and found a big fire raging on the back of Dean’s trailer. It was a huge pile of charcoal burning near the back of his cooker and making matters potentially worse, the fire was burning right next to two large propane tanks. Remember that “scariest moment” I mentioned before? Well, this was it.

Chris and Todd sprang into action right away, trying to get the tanks out of there while Mike tried to put out the fire with extinguishers. I ran to get more extinguishers including ours along with those from several other teams. Some folks threw bags of ice on the hot coals to contain it and we were then able to knock the source of the fire off the trailer and onto the grass and the tanks were removed.

When all was safe again we found out that a basket of charcoal lit off, possibly by a leftover stray ember or maybe even just the heat of the basket it was sitting in. However it happened, it took a long time to light and resulted in lighting another four bags of charcoal on fire that happened to be sitting nearby.

It was quite a site. We didn’t know whether to try and put out the fire or run away. When all was said and done, we went though several gallons of water, a few bags of ice and 10 or 12 fire extinguishers. Best news of all was that there were no injuries were reported, no damage to Dean’s cooker and only slight damage to his trailer.
Later in the weekend the storms would return. Friday night/Saturday morning around 3:00am I had just woke up to start helping Chris do the initial prep work on our boxes. We were pulling parsley for garnish when a huge gust of wind hit our tent. The sidewall bulged in and knocked our pan of garnish to the ground. Chris and I both jumped up and held on as tight as we could to the tent, to keep it from flying away. As we were holding on, we heard a crash and knew exactly what it was. It was the unmistakable sound of a tent toppling over at BBQ contest.

We peeked outside and just two spots down from us, saw the wreckage. Tent legs in the air, tables on their sides and supplies on the ground. Chris ran out into the storm to try and help the Chi-Town Smokers clean up and get things restabilized, but there was no saving their tents. After a few minutes in the pelting rain, he ran back inside and we held on again as a few more gusts hit the tent. The wind eventually died down, but the rain continued for a while longer.

We had an early morning visit from our contest neighbor, the aforementioned Todd of Pork Pullin’ Plowboys. As we were talking we agreed a new name was order for the park. With the lightning strikes, buckets of rain and gusts of wind – not to mention raging fires and that “oppressive” heat thrown in for good measure…This year the park would not be known as “BBQ’s Field of Dreams,” but instead a Field of Terror!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Illinois State BBQ Championship:
Shannon, IL (Part One)

Our trip to Shannon, Illinois for the Butt to Butt X Invitational and the Illinois State BBQ Championship was an actioned packed weekend. It’s taken a few days to get my thoughts together, but here is the first in a series of posts that I’ll make about the trip.

This was a trip that I had been looking forward to for over a year…Ever since we qualified for the Butt to Butt Invitational by scoring a first place pork call at the Great American BBQ contest in May, 2007. Since that day I’ve been mapping out routes to Shannon, Illinois (pop. 900) and we’ve been trying to perfect our pork recipe.

Our original plans including renting an RV so both Chris and I could bring our families. After much consideration, common sense prevailed and we ended up leaving the kids with family, but taking our wives. We found a nice cabin at a little resort not far from Shannon for Jammie and Jenny while Chris and I camped out at the cook site Thursday and Friday Night.

The drive up to Shannon wasn’t hard. Maybe a little long (about 450 miles)…but not hard. We arrived around 3:30 in the afternoon and quickly set up. We ran into a few storms on the way up and one had just hit the grounds before we got there. The ground was wet, but not (yet) muddy.
We started to unload our gear, with the sky still dark and cloudy to the east, but the sun shining in the west. After we got situated, we took the short drive out to the cabins to check in, then came back to town.
Thursday night we enjoyed a fantastic dinner at the home of Mike & Teresa Lake. Mike puts this contest on and really does a great job. Hosting a ribeye steak dinner for the Butt to Butt cooks complete with all the trimmings at his home is the perfect example showing why this competition is so special.

We had just gotten back to the park and made sure our camp was secure, then set out for a nice evening walk to Mike & Teresa’s place. We weren’t even out of the park yet when Johhny Trigg pulled along side of us with Rod Gray of Pellet Envy riding shotgun. Johnny offered us a ride in the back of his pickup up to dinner. A ride from the only two-time Jack Daniel’s World Invitational Champ? How could we resist? That may be as close as we ever get to Lynchburg, Tennessee. We put the tailgate down and rode and rode the “Old School vs. High Tech Express” up the street just in time for the dinner bell.

This was truly a gathering of BBQ legends…all sitting around modest tables in a two-car garage enjoying steak and potatoes. And those steaks were incredible! They tasted great and nearly covered our whole plate. I was looking forward to eating Jammie’s leftovers…but she ate the whole thing! (Side note: my favorite cut to grill at home is a ribeye…she has yet to eat a whole steak of mine).

Nights like this are something that can only happen in a small town in the Midwest and it’s an evening that I’ll never forget.