Thursday, July 17, 2008

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 cafĂ© 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!

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