Sunday, September 30, 2012

Firelake BBQ Cookoff

(Shawnee, OK) - This was the first one -- a new competition put on by the Citizen Potawatomi Nation on their impressive grounds about halfway between the downtown areas of the neighboring Oklahoma towns of Shawnee and Tecumseh. Clearly they had hoped for it to be a much larger event that would include music, vendors and a whole bunch of cool cars. But then it rained. In the middle of a drought. And so the best laid plans went awry and a lot of hard work was for naught. But hey -- they still pulled off a fine barbecue competition and that is nothing to sneeze at.

It started out as just a single voice in the wilderness. In other words it showed up on the KCBS events page with little fanfare and a misspelled email address. A couple of phone calls and a little research yielded the email address of the organizer -- an already busy but still friendly man named Jason Boyce. He'd be the contact henceforth and was present for judging so we could all shake his hand and thank him for his hard work and for having us. We heard more as the year progressed and were then approached as we cooked in Norman in July and handed a flyer. Cool. 

He had us set up in a comfortable reunion room next to the RV camping sites that would serve as cook sites. Plenty of room for everyone to spread out. Clara and Jonathan Williams served as reps and were glad to be back in the area. They hadn't been down since serving as reps for the Tecumseh event that was on hiatus this year (but happily is back on the calendar to return next year). So judges parking was set up over by the tribal grocery store -- other side of a field and bridge over a small creek. That would have been fine on a normal day but made for an adventure in the rain. No pavement but plenty of muddy holes to step in. Since there were no cars to be shown it would have been great if we could have parked in their spots -- they were still empty when judging was finished and we left.

Food was good, by and large, for an event with just 25 teams. It would appear that it served as a warm-up event for a few very successful teams headed for the American Royal just a week away. The top three overall finishers were all headed for the invitational (and open) contests in Kansas City if we're not mistaken. Alas there were some other less experienced and less capable teams on hand too. I would swear that one of the pieces of brisket we were given was boiled. It was gray and rubbery and flavorless with some gelatinous fat clinging to the bottom. There were only four tables (24 judges for 25 teams) and at our table we heard another had gotten a box of gray chicken breasts (!) with kale and  scallions as garnish -- double no-no. Word is the reps went out to explain the DQ to the team and saw ribs boiling on the smoker. Nothing against rules in that but it seems like a waste of time, effort and money.

Oh, yeah, and don't let us forget the food poisoning. Can't trace it back -- that's impossible -- but we suspect someone wasn't practicing food safety techniques on the chicken. There were several of us at the table that ate a bunch of a few pieces of chicken because it was pretty tasty. Some had some cramping. Another had full on explosive from both ends along with fever, chills and body aches. Outstanding. Lesson learned -- just taste the chicken. Don't ever eat it all. Ever. EVVVVER. Still -- can't wait to go back next year as this is an event with the potential to be something great.


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Art of BBQ

(Tulsa) - Here is an example of how not  to run a BBQ competition -- at least from the perspective of a judge who will not go through that again.

It all starts with the application process -- two parter -- the email and then the actual "application". All of this is done but with very little initial acknowledgement. There is the waiting -- Mr. Petty told us it's the hardest part and in most cases he's right. In the case of this contest it lasts from the initial contact all the way until two weeks before the date of judging. That's when the confirmation email comes -- or doesn't.

We all know and have all implicitly agreed that organizers may organize as they see fit. It's just the lay of the land and if they choose to do it badly then we, as judges, have two choices. We can either just grin and bear it or we can decide not to attend that particular event in the future. And if enough judges are of a like mind then they will either have a high non-CBJ percentage (and ultimately fail) or they will change the way they do business. This is another unwritten yet implicit agreement in the organizer-judge relationship. We cannot complain about it -- but we can blog about it.

It was the same last year with this one even though we didn't realize it until it was almost upon us. The confirmation came last year as well with two weeks to go. Evidently they want experience in judges. They take all applications until it is upon them and then pick the most experienced judges from the lot. And it worked -- there were a lot of masters in the room and it seemed as if very few had under 15 contests. Don't think there were any under 10.

The judging venue
Last year it was at ONEOK Field but apparently the custodians of that facility didn't want the event back. It was moved to a bar in the Blue Dome District -- which apparently decided it the last minute that it didn't want to be involved either. It was moved across the street into a vacant building at 1st and Elgin across from McNellie's. Cool building. The fellow said it was for sale but he didn't say how much. It's probably a lot.

Judges parking was set aside -- it said so right in the emailed info packet. Didn't say anything about how that cat was going to charge us 5 dollars. Yeah, it's just 5 dollars. But after spending $75 in gas for the round trip it seems like free parking is a reasonable expectation. Doesn't it? 

They guy who charged us to park is in that truck
Karen and Ralph are always game and willing to roll with the punches. Today would be no different and they did an outstanding job. We're told there is some turnover with regards to reps at this contest and it doesn't surprise us. It'll be interesting to see how long even-tempered and affable folks like the Williamses stick with Art of BBQ.

The food -- it was mostly pretty good. Above average even. Tulsa is not a difficult place to get to and so it draws cooks many of whom are already living nearby.

Ultimately it was a positive experience because of the fellow judges and the good food and the cool reps. Not gonna do it again though. They can have their Art of BBQ. We're gonna find a different place to judge that weekend.


Sunday, September 2, 2012

Bedford Blues & BBQ Festival

(Bedford, TX) - There was a time back when we were denizens of the FW-D Metroplex that we would attend the Bedford Blues Fest. They held it south of the busy Airport Freeway on a big patch of lawn by the hospital. Admission was free and the lineups were impressive if not always strictly blues. Attendees were as likely to be treated to a set from landmark Texas Americana acts like Joe Ely as we were sock-knocking sets by legends like Buddy Guy.


At some point while we weren't paying attention they added the barbecue component -- and in the process turned a great festival in an otherwise beautiful but largely nondescript Fort Worth suburb -- into something legendary. Bedford is mostly just lumped in as "one of the mid-cities" or as "part of the H-E-B" or more specifically considered the more affluent big-brother of those three that also include Hurst and Euless. They are all good towns but this Labor Day event has got to be the envy of the three which are so often overlooked as Arlington's big attractions (Six Flags over Texas, Jerryworld, The Ballpark) steal the spotlight shining on Tarrant County's other city.

The festival is clearly a priority for the chamber and other civic boosters in Bedford. This is evident in the way the event is run. No detail is overlooked and to the outside observer it always seems to go off without a hitch. If only they could make Labor Day in Texas a little cooler.

This is not an issue for the barbecue judges. We park close and have been situated the past two years in the "old" library. Old is the term they use as the city has evidently built a new library that must be one of the finer facilities in Texas. Because we can think of dozens of communities, including our own, that would jump through flaming hoops to get our library up to the level of Bedford's "old" library.


Now a few words about the folks who handle the judging. If there is anyone out there who organizes a competition or is thinking about it and wants to learn how to run a successful show -- look no further. At no point in the process -- from signup to day of -- that prospective judges don't know exactly where they stand and are not treated like a truly valuable part of the process. It is really almost difficult to believe. The disparity between this event and others is so mindbogglingly vast.

To that end we would like to take this opportunity to call out by name Bedford's Wendy Hartnett and her team as well as the always-great reps Karen and Ralph Williams (the curmudgeonly Mike Lake stepped up to help rep at the last minute this year when the teams topped 50). All of you make this the best run event on the circuit -- at least that we've encountered so far. Cheers to all of you.

If only the food had lived up to the rest of it. Indeed. We'd heard that the BBQ Pitmasters  television show was producing the Texas episode for the upcoming season at Bedford on the Saturday before the main competition on Sunday. Between that and the indubitably high quality of the food in '11 we figured we were in for some fine eating. Imagine our surprise when most of it was just not that good. There were some real bright spots (could these have been entries from the celeb cooks like Canada's Diva Q?) but the barbecue this year in Bedford was overwhelmingly underwhelming. Some of it was actually just plain ol' not very good. 

This was very surprising at a competition of this stature -- one big enough to draw the attention of and serve as a venue for a national television show. We left thinking to ourselves that if we deign to cook again it will probably be there. The prize money is good and if the competition remains at that level it won't be to hard to get calls.