I’ve always enjoyed reading history books. And I especially enjoy history books that tell stories from the battlefield. So, before I move to more cooking instruction, I want to tell my own battlefield story.
LOCATION: ST. LOUIS RIVER RUB, (just outside of Busch Stadium III, downtown St. Louis, MO.)
For those of you that don’t compete in KCBS bbq competitions, let me walk you through a battle that lasts about 24 hours minimum.
TIME: Friday, October 6, 2011. Noonish.
It’s check in time. This is when the teams arrive for the competition. Imagine a concrete camping trip, and you’ll get the picture. Quite a few competitions take place out in a nice campground or country setting, but sometimes the concrete jungle can be the backdrop for a barbecue battle. So, you pitch your tent, park your camper, and set up your cookers. After that, you check in with an official who will inspect the meat you will be using in the competition. So, you show them each meat: Chicken, Ribs, Pork, and Brisket. Your meat can be trimmed, but can’t be otherwise altered. No marinading or precooking of any kind until the meat is inspected.
TIME: Friday, October 6, 2011. 6pm.
This is when the fires start blazing and the smell of hickory (check out barbecuewood.com if you need some good smoking wood) smoke fills the air. Now, on this night a little something special was going on. A lot of cooking veterans have really elaborate rigs. They’ve got all the bells and whistles including satellite dishes. And so people are starting to gather together and watch baseball, because the St. Louis Cardinals are playing the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLDS. So, here we are sitting outside Busch stadium and the Cards are up in Philly facing Doc Halladay in the 5th and final game of the series. All the cooks are too busy watching Chris Carpenter throw a complete game shutout to keep an eye on their fire, and that’s never good. But the Cardinal victory was worth a little spike in the old fire.
COMPETITION: Who are you going to battle against?
BBQ is full of fun, amiable people. They’re really good folks for the most part. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to kick your ass. It costs some money to compete, and guys want to do well. It’s war. Let’s face it. So, Friday night you start to find out what level of competitors have come to the event. This competition’s purse was $28,000. That’s a big prize, and big prizes mean big time teams. This was some of the stiffest competitions we’ve come across since we competed at Memphis in May.
As I walked around the competition, I ran into some heavy hitters with national rankings:
MunchinHogs@The Hilton – 1st overall in the country, 8th nationally in chicken, 15th in pork
Pellet Envy – 16th overall, 3rd brisket, 9th ribs
The Smoking Hills – 17th overall, 4th brisket, 13th chicken
and others including Johnny Trigg from Smokin’ Triggers which you’ve probably seen on BBQ Pitmasters on TLC
Translation . . . Powerhouses.
TIME: Friday, October 6, 2011, Midnight.
Okay, meat’s prepped, fire’s leveled out and holding steady. Big meats (pork and brisket)are on the smoker. Now, it’s time to do one of three things, 1) Drink beer 2)Prep turn in boxes (which is a time-consuming deal, so you’re better to do it the night before) 3) Drink Whiskey. Generally, we do all three. You have one goal from this point until it’s time to put your ribs on: KYHS. Keep Your Heat Steady. Sleep when you can, drink what you want, but keep that fire on the mark. Control your temperature and you can control your cook time.
TIME: Saturday, October 7, 2011. 5 a.m.
Rib time. Okay. You’ve gotta decide what time your ribs go on. Spares or baby backs. This is your window. I’ve met guys that cook ‘em longer than me, and I’ve met guys that cook ‘em shorter than me. But turn in is 12:30 p.m. so find your pocket.
TIME: Saturday, October 7, 2011. 9:30am.
Chicken time. Chicken can take anywhere from 1 to nearly 3 hours to smoke. Chicken drives everyone mad, so how you cook it is up to you, but just know that if you’re not ready to start cooking chicken around this time, then you could really screw up the first turn in.
TIME: Saturday, October 7, 2011. 11:30
Turn in time. Okay, here’s how it works. You’ve got four turn in boxes. By now they should all be dressed for turn in. A turn in box consists of a nice layer of fresh greens to place your finished meat in. Fresh parsley is the standard. Now, Chicken must arrive at the judging tent by Noon. So, know where the tent is and how long it takes to get there. Ribs are second and must arrive by 12:30 pm. Next is Pork and it must arrive at the tent by 1 pm. Finally, brisket turn in happens at 1:30pm. So, place your perfectly cooked barbecue in your perfect turn in box and take it at the perfect time to the judges tent.
Once you’ve turned in all your categories, you can take a long sigh of relief that the madness is over and sit back and wait for judging to be announced. Unfortunately, you’ve got lots of cleaning and packing up yet to do, so, don’t get too comfortable. When people tell you that BBQ competitions aren’t easy, they’re not joking. From Friday night to Saturday evening you pretty much work non-stop, but you have a lot of fun too.
TIME: Saturday, October 7, 2011. 3-4 pm.
Time to announce the winners. Grab your team and head over to the stage, or tent, or wherever they will be announcing your fate. At the St. Louis River Rub we had some fun, but we didn’t get in the money. There were 59 teams and our highest finishes were in ribs and brisket where we finished 17th in both. A good finish considering the level of the competition and that our same scores would have grabbed us a top ten finish in most competitions.
But you live and learn, and the whole thing just keeps you addicted to the hole darn thing. So, I hope this gives you an idea of what its like to cook in big time BBQ competition. I hope to see you at an upcoming event. Come to the BBQ Sauce Works tent, we’ll see if we can’t give you the lay of the land and find you a cold beer.