(Norman, OK) - There comes a time in every judge's career, if that judge wishes to be a Master Certified Barbecue Judge, that he or she must actually compete. Most judges scout out a team and approach them with caution and ask if they can help out at an upcoming contest. Cooks -- being generally kind and friendly sorts -- will more often than not say yes. Even if it is to just get somebody to lug wood and stay up to monitor thermometer readings.
We are at the halfway point on our journey to Master status and we figured it was as good a time as any to get the cooking requirement out of the way. But we thought -- why cook with another team when we have all the equipment we need to compete on our own? Unable to find a good answer to that question we decided to go for it. Not only to compete -- but to compete against a huge field in Norman and against some of the top teams in the nation. Not some small contest where finishing in the money was mostly a matter of odds -- but with half a hundred other teams including the current Top Ranked Team in the USA: Butcher BBQ out of Chandler, OK. It was a decision we would never question (okay -- maybe just briefly) as we went off in pursuit of our first (and last) Grand Championship.
This is probably a good time to mention the weather. If you've ever looked at the KCBS events page for states like Oklahoma you've probably noticed a conspicuous dearth of events between November and March. Winter, right? The "off season" in the world of barbecue (whether we agree with it or not). You've also noticed, no doubt, that ain't nothing happening between early June and September. That is on account of the ubiquitous 100° temperatures commonly experienced in the region this time of year. But they got lucky in Norman because the high on Friday was only in the upper 90s. Saturday was a balmy 104 but it was a pleasant Friday night anyway -- after the sun went down.
|The sun sets over the Cleveland County Fairgrounds in Norman, Oklahoma|
We know all of this because cooks that don't have the fancy auto-cookers (like us) stay up all night monitoring temperature. First thing we did after seeing the kids off following the Champions of Tomorrow competition was kick the tires and light the fires to get up to temp for the brisket we'd throw on at 10 p.m. Having recently eaten the barbecue equivalent of manna at Franklin BBQ in Austin -- and having read everything we could find about the guy and his technique -- we had visions of serving the judges some brisket like that. We figured something even close would be money in the bank and was reasonably confident we could reproduce and as chief cook went in pretty confident the other fellows would share that vision.
With a local cover band belting out Skynyrd and Petty tunes we went to work trimming the fat on that brisket. Wanted to get that cap down to where there was just enough to render into the meat but not so much as to ruin the eating experience. The man says he uses half salt and half pepper over post oak and so did we. It went on farthest from the heat in our big, competition-grade horizontal offset rig. Yep -- just the one. Hey. We're cooking to get our requirement in. If we win anything it's gravy. All we need is one to get enough meat to feed judges and this is a damned fine looking brisket from the local meat cutter.
A few hours later we'd follow that with, count 'em, FIVE pork butts. Two of our own and three from the organizers for their Sponsor's Choice contest. This was to be a people's choice type event but due to oppressive and ridiculous local ordinances the folks participating had to be referred to as Sponsors. This is because the teams cooking for them don't have vendor's licenses and those are required in order to serve BBQ to the public in exchange for money. Not money that we'd keep but that would go to the Food Bank to help feed the truly hungry. Which is why we volunteered -- we really like that charity no matter what city it is in. But I digress. The rub for the butts was a super secret rub that I'm going to share with you right here. If you go to the Dollar Tree you'll see a small plastic container of something called Memphis Barbecue Rub. That's the secret. It's a dollar. And it is outstanding.
|Let the person who hasn't rubbed their pork at 3 a.m. cast the first stone|
Once all that was on the big smoker we had time to kick back and, since it was now quiet time, talk amongst ourselves in lowered voices over some cold PBR. We were situated next to a buddy who splits his time about 50/50 between cooking and judging. He tried to climb up in his air-conditioned rig and get a nap but eventually came out admitting he couldn't sleep because we were outside having a good time pulling an all-nighter. So we talked 'cue and we talked sports and we talked weather and we talked some more 'cue. As oh-five-hundred approached we began to pre-hydrate, first with coffee as a pick-us-up and then with water and gatorade. It was time to get the Smokenator hot for the ribs and as the sun came up and the rooster crowed it was evident today would be a hot one.
|The sun also rises -- over the smoker and the portapots|
Ribs were on by 6. Didn't know there were three slabs in the pack but there were. After membrane removal nobody felt like turning those spares into St. Louis cut -- so we didn't. In hindsight that was probably the biggest mistake of the whole experience. More on that further down the page.
Chicken went into a roasting pan of Parkay and bacon fat at 10 a.m. and 24 thighs that needed three hours of Thursday Night Processing -- not gonna happen. We've had drumsticks hit our judge's plate before and we liked them just fine. After a practice run the week before we felt we could at least score some solid 8s and 9s in chicken with that method on the drums.
First up at 11 was the Sponsor's Choice turn in. We pulled one of the butts and it was butter. It pulled so beautifully and had gorgeous bark. Tasted just great. Second butt -- not as easy but still great. Third but wouldn't pull -- wouldn't even cut very easily. It was tasty as could be and cooked to the perfect temperature but basically just rubber. Uh-oh. We needed to turn in three pans with a butt in each pan for this. One of our own butts had to take one for the team. Pulled it and submitted all three to the Sponsor's tent and only 5 minutes late (not like they were going to DQ us -- it was their meat -- mostly). Now we were down to a single pork butt so it was gonna have to be good. We pulled it and wrapped it in foil and towels and put it in one of those hot bags which then went into the cooler next to the identically wrapped brisket.
Also finding itself in the "not gonna happen" category was tweezing parsley. First of all we hate that shi...stuff. At least we hate it in competition barbecue boxes. We use it for cooking at home but when it sticks to the meat it pisses us off. Sometimes we don't get it all off and it affects the taste of the meat -- negatively. We went with regular old green leaf lettuce and it served us fine. Turn in times were coming hot and heavy and there was no time to screw around with vegetation.
Here's what they looked like:
We figured our weakest category was ribs. We hit them with some of Johnny Trigg's secret rub (Weber rub complemented with cayenne and brown sugar) and there was too much pepper. They were pretty spicy and I've seen judges get angry over that. We liked 'em but figured they wouldn't fare well. The chicken was tasty and just fine. Solid 8s at worst, we figured. The brisket was much closer to Franklin's than we had dared hope -- the burnt ends were smoky black on the outside and juicy on the inside and melted in the mouth. Just like his! But the pork -- oh, lordy the pork. Some of the best we've ever tasted. Right up there with Whole Hog (can't believe I'm saying it but there it is). Couldn't believe we just did that. Gonna win pork!
Turn in is over -- now it's time to tear down and a buddy that was in the Sponsor's tent comes by. He says our strategy on the pork (that will remain a secret) worked -- our jar was full of tickets. Didn't say if he meant fuller than the others or anything but we took it as a good sign.
We didn't win pork. We didn't win brisket. We didn't win chicken or ribs. We didn't finish in the money in a single category. In fact it was so brutal that we actually managed a 4 (bad) in taste from one judge on the brisket! We've never awarded or seen awarded a 4. Wow. Comment cards are rare -- we managed to get them from half of the judges in one category. They really hated our brisket and now we know why cooks don't like judges. That was good brisket. Well the burnt ends were -- perhaps we should have sampled one of those slices. Doh!
Oddly it was the ribs where we shined. Yep. They loved 'em. 16th out of 48 teams. Scored higher than Butcher, Lotta Bull and both of the teams from the BBQ Pitmasters TV show. Suppose if we'd have cut them down to SLC ribs we'd have been in the money -- maybe Top 3.
Scores? Got 'em. Check these out:
Chicken J1-889 J2-777 J3-887 J4-877 J5-767 J6-877 45/48
Ribs J1-887 J2-898 J3-977 J4-998 J5-999 J6-877 16/48
Pork J1-888 J2-778 J3-788 J4-877 J5-877 J6-888 41/48
Brisket J1-747 J2-666 J3-786 J4-666 J5-776 J6-787 48/48
Three comment cards on the brisket including Judge 1 who said the 4 was because it tasted burnt. Judges 3 and 5 both said it was tough although 3 did like the smoky flavor. Thanks you for the comment cards, judges. Really. It's your job to call it how you see it and we wouldn't have it any other way -- even if we don't necessarily agree. 3 and 5 went above and beyond to leave cards and it is sincerely appreciated. Which leads me to judges 2 and 4 -- both scored us 6,6,6 -- I would think that merits a card. On that note I'd be curious as to what was on the mind of Chicken Judge 5 for the 6 in flavor but what can ya do?
Overall those scores, when balanced and tallied, are good for a total score of 601.7146 -- or 41st out of 48 teams. So ya ready for the kicker? Here's the kicker. We won the Sponsor's Choice (pork). By a lot. Nobody was even close. The judges didn't like our pork much at all but The People -- they loved it.
SPONSOR'S CHOICE 1. MEAT DON'T FAIL US NOW - 287 2. STEELE FAMILY BBQ - 165 3. BUTT FIRST BBQ - 146 4. SUMMER'S TIME BBQ - 125 5. Q'S YOUR DADDY 111 6. HABITUAL SMOKERS - 107 7. DISCO BALLS - 84 8. PEARL SNAP'S BBQ - 72 9. SIZZLIN BONES - 57
So there it is. We will consider it a successful outing based on four criteria:
- We got our cooking requirement in while cooking for ourselves -- the only goal we had to achieve
- We scored higher than 4 prominent teams in ribs -- including the reigning #1 team in the nation
- We KILLED in the people's choice contest
- We had a great time doing it -- absolutely a blast
|Hardware, yes -- check, no because it goes to the very worthy Food Bank which is cool.|
We haven't been bitten by the bug. It was fun but not as much fun as judging. So we will be back out there on the highways and byways soon. Looks like Texas on Labor Day Weekend. See you out there.