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 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 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 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!

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.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Whole Hog for the Fourth

This 4th of July, Chris decided to cook a whole hog for the party he hosted at his place. It was a great time and everyone enjoyed some damn fine BBQ.

Chris picked up this 82lb pig at Steve's Meat Market in De Soto, Kansas. This was the third hog that we've cooked (Chris did the work cooking this one) - the first two being at the BBQlossal contest in Des Moines in June and our practice pig getting for that event a few weeks before. Both of those were much smaller projects in the 45-50lb range.

I came over around 5:30 in the morning and togehter we seasoned and injected the hog, then put him on Chris's 48" H&S Smoker, which he already had heated up with smoke rolling for a while by the time I got there. We loaded the pig for a long cook and I took off, leaving Chris to tend the fire and get ready for the party.

I returned home to start a cooking session of my own...

Earlier in the week I got a call to provide some food for another party on the fourth. The menu included sliced brisket & burnt ends, chicken thighs, legs and whole leg quarters, beans and cheesy corn. I got home and got started on the brisket and later threw on the chicken, corn and beans. We wrapped up around 4pm and my Dad (in town visiting for the holiday) helped me deliver the food to the party around 4:30.

We then made our way out to Chris' place just in time to pull the hog out of the cooker. We capped off the day with some pretty good BBQ, beer and some fireworks. These guys didn't even head inside to eat any of the other food - they just picked the remaining meat off of the cooked carcass.

Next week we are finally back on the competition trail. We'll be heading to Shannon, IL for the Illinois State BBQ Championship and the Butt to Butt Invational. We are really looking forward to it and should be a great time!