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!