The friendly ladies at the Chamber of Commerce sent us to the "Don't Be Cruel BBQ Duel" competition. (A little nod toward Elvis here.) A collection of tents with deliciously aromatic smoke wafting around told us we were in the right spot. As we wandered around we found that we had lots to learn about this competitive hobby. The folks here today were competing for $16,000 in prize money and the chance to go to the super duper competition in Memphis in May. There were two levels of competition; the amateur level was called patio and the restaurant owners and others who make their living from cooking were the professionals. All levels of competition seemed to include drinking a lot of beer. Since the meat is slow cooked everyone had spent the night here, tending to their fires and keeping an eye on giant hunks of meat. Those with the funds slept in RV's on site, but there were also tents and sleeping bags on the grass near the smokers.
One of the patio teams was a group of young college buddies who use the competitions as an excuse to get together from the assorted southern towns where they now live and work. They bragged about their smoker; they had used their engineering education to fabricate a cooker that produces a thin smoke that works its way deeper into the meat than other types of smokers. Another group was local and had only decided to compete a week ago. They seemed to have concentrated on creature comforts, having brought a satellite dish and big screen TV to entertain them while they cooked. They had entered a number of categories, BBQing poultry, seafood, ribs, and pork butt. Surely they would win something that way. Some of the competitions were blind; teams piled their submissions into a styrofoam container and submitted it to the panel. Others involved a personal, face to face twenty minute encounter with a judge.
A professional team who concentrated on BBQing the whole pig took us under their wing and let us observe their encounter with the first judge. They had been doing this for twenty years and had a polished production. Right before the judge arrived they garnished the pig with greens, fruit and vegetables. Timing was critical. The meat needed to stay hot, but the garnishes could wilt if they were in the heat long. They had a finger bowl, linen napkins, and a palate cleansing dessert prepared on the table. As they removed and served meat bits from a number of parts of the pig's anatomy, they talked about their technique, sauce, what time they started (about 18 hours before we got there) and various approaches they had tried over the years. The judge ate with one hand and took notes with the other. Ken kept asking, "How do I get to be a judge?"
There was a venue for him to exercise his skills, Some teams had made submissions to the people's choice contest and we got ballots and five samples to try. I'm sure I tasted a winner!