Friday, December 27, 2019

Golden Tangy and Sweet — South Carolina Style

Traveling in search of excellent barbecue give you a chance to experience different traditions and savor new flavors. When you stop for BBQ in South Carolina, be prepared to appreciate how a mustard sauce can add a tangy and tart flavor that matches well with the sweet taste of pork barbecue. At Melvin’s Barbecue on James Island in the Charleston area, I enjoyed a mustard sauce that has been celebrated since the 1930s.

Mustard Sauce

A mustard sauce is very prominent in the state’s Midlands region — specifically a belt from Columbia to Charleston — where German immigrants settled in the 18th century and brought their common use of mustard. At Melvin’s, the barbecue’s deep golden color and sharp mustard flavor tell you that the condiment is indispensable in preparing chopped pork that is slowly cooked 24 hours on live-oak coals.

The wood pile outside the entrance tells you that the meat has a smoky flavor.

Melvin Bessinger (a surname that has roots in Bessingen, a town near Hanover, Germany), whose name the restaurant carries, learned to make his family’s golden sauce — now marketed as Melvin’s Original Golden Secret Sauce — when he was 10 years old and he watched his father Joseph (1892-1949) prepare it. Success as a pitmaster led him to open a restaurant in 1939 that served only mustard-sauced barbecue.

Three generations of family traditions are packed in each bottle of Melvin's Original Golden Secret Sauce.

First Family of Mustard-Based Barbecue

After service in World War II, Melvin (1923-2012) joined his five other brothers working for their father in the restaurant business in Holly Hill, S.C., before each left to start his own BBQ business in South Carolina’s lowcounty. Melvin moved to the Charleston area where he worked with brothers J.D. and Thomas in a series of BBQ restaurants. Then in 1978 he ventured on his own and opened Melvin’s (not affiliated with any restaurant owned by other Bessinger family members), which now has two locations. When Melvin was 86 in 2009, his son David took over the business.

The signature chopped pork is moist, tender, lightly smoked, and flavored with Melvin's proprietary mustard sauce. This plate includes two sides (slaw and mac 'n' cheese) and cornbread.

The Bessingers are South Carolina’s first family of mustard-based barbecue. The South Carolina Barbeque Association considers the Bessingers to be the most prominent among the families with German heritage who sell mustard-based sauces and mustard-based barbecue. (The family is not without problems. According to The New York Times, Melvin’s late brother Maurice was widely known for his racist views, which became nationally prominent in a case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Melvin publicly disavowed his brother’s political and social views and quit speaking to him.)

Extra sauces are available on a counter in case more is desired.

100-Mile Barbecue

Concerning Melvin’s barbecue, the association endorses it as “100-mile BBQ,” or barbecue so good it’s worth driving 100 miles for, and the hash is “100-mile hash,” too. The recipe for hash — served over rice — is somewhat daunting. (It includes pig hearts, livers and kidneys, jowls, brisket, hams, beef shoulders, a hog’s head, and vegetables such as celery, carrots, corn and potatoes, all layered with black pepper and salt in a huge stainless steel pot.)

Melvin's ribs (on a plate with fries and mac 'n' cheese) have a crunchy crust but are tender inside.

Not limited to pork, Melvin’s also offers brisket, burnt ends, pulled chicken and smoked turkey. All regular plates come with two sides and cornbread. In addition to meat plates, Melvin’s also serves a hash and rice plate.

Ribs (this serving with sweet potato souffle and bread) are as popular as chopped pork.

Having more than a dozen Southern sides often causes a delay at the ordering line while customers contemplate the choices. I had to try the country hash with rice as well as the fresh collard greens. (Smoked ham hocks are Melvin's secret for flavoring the collards.) Other members of my family chose sweet potato souffle, homemade mac & cheese, baked beans and baby butter beans — all were good.

After the food has been served, getting everyone to smile for a picture can be challenging.

Four Sauces

A barbecue fan can actually find that mustard, indispensable for the Bessingers, is just one of four sauces that South Carolina BBQ houses may offer. The others are vinegar and pepper (the most popular style along the coast), light tomato (basically vinegar and pepper with ketchup added for sweetness that is popular in the upper middle and northeast regions), and heavy tomato (sometimes called tomato and sugar sauce that is popular in western and northwestern areas).

Melvin’s is a destination for travelers as much as locals. Its recognition by Travel + Leisure, Southern Living, Food Network, National Geographic, Eater and other foodie publications and groups has extended its renown across the country. When you visit, plan to encounter golden barbecue with a tangy and tart flavor.

Melvin's is popular throughout the day until closing time.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Another Polar Pig BBQ Cookoff In Concord, NC

Trophies for Polar Pig are creatively designed.

The final contest for many barbecue cooking teams and judges is the Polar Pig BBQ Cookoff, held initially in Mount Pleasant, NC, in 2016 and continuing in Concord, NC, for the past three years. I’ve been fortunate to participate in each year as a judge.

Two Contests

This year the event offered teams the opportunity to compete in two contests as it did last year. The 2018 contest used a double-entry format, which permits teams to turn in entries simultaneously for both contests that are held concurrently. However, this year the two contests (renamed as duels) were held on successive days.

Judges relax in a large room of the Cabarrus Arena and Events Center before their meeting begins.

Each duel awards prizes and points, which appeals to teams trying to increase their point total as a year of competition is ending. Each contest is sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society and qualifies teams for invitational championships such as the Jack Daniel’s World Championship and American Royal World Series of Barbecue.

Competition teams set up in the midway of the Cabarrus Arena and Events Center.

Popular Format

The duel format is a popular way to finish the competition year for cooking teams, which came from 15 states (one more than last year), and compete in prize money that amounted to $5,350 for Duel A and another $5,350 for Duel B. I judged on only Saturday (Duel A) when 47 teams competed. On the next day, 33 teams competed in Duel B. With the large number of teams competing in Duel A, eight tables of judges were needed, and they came from as far away as Texas.

Uncle Pig's Barbecue Pit won first place in the chicken category (with a perfect score) and third place overall in the cookoff.

Held in the Cabarrus (County) Arena and Events Center, Polar Pig continues to improve each year. Although the warm temperatures in November don’t always match the image of a polar pig, the contest is always enjoyable because so many top teams participate.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Back in Summerville, SC

Cooking teams set up at campsites on the shore of Shrine Lake in Summerville, SC.  Smokin' Gringos (foreground) won third place in ribs and brisket.
The difference between the last contest sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society that I attended to the current one couldn’t be greater. My last KCBS contest was the American Royal, the world’s largest barbecue cookoff. Now I’m in Summerville, SC, for the Brew & Que on Shrine Lake, which is one of the smallest contests that I participate in.

The turn-in area is quiet before the judging activities begin.

This year 15 cooking teams again participated (compared to 468 at the open contest of the Royal). Although Brew & Que limits the number of teams that can compete, quite a few judges always apply each year. The close proximity of Summerville to Charleston (with its sight-seeing attractions) probably influences a lot of them to register. At the table where I judged, they were from Florida, Iowa, and Georgia.

Trophies are ready for the awards ceremony.

At Brew & Que, which is organized by the Dorchester Shrine Club as a fundraiser to support Shriner Hospitals for Children, the teams competed for $4,000 in prize money. Again cooking teams were very competitive and included two teams — Smoke Central BBQ and Muttley Crew BBQ — that had competed at the Royal.

Muttley Crew BBQ, which competed in the American Royal, came in second in pork at Brew & Que.

Although small in scope, Brew & Que is an excellent contest for teams to end the competition year. Because it's also a popular choice for judges, the cookoff will continue to be a favorite for everyone.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Whole Hog Cookoff Makes a Festival Popular in Rolesville, NC

Whole hog barbecue
The winning pig was cooked by pitmaster Kevin Peterson, a past state champion.

Rolesville, NC, is a small town of only 6,074 residents in northeastern Wake County and is known for being a quiet but rapidly growing suburb of Raleigh, the state capital. In mid-September, it is also the scene a very competitive whole hog cookoff sanctioned by the North Carolina Pork Council.

Whole Hog Cookoff

Rolesville BBQ and Bands Festival

Sponsored by the Rolesville Chamber of Commerce, the Rolesville BBQ and Bands Festival is part of the Whole Hog Barbecue Series conducted by the Pork Council. The festival occurs only a few days before the state championship is held in Raleigh to determine the Whole Hog Barbecue Champion, who has been crowned annually since the first championship was held in 1985.

Whole hog barbecue
Second place went to Kevin Wooten, who has already been a finalist in three contests this year.

Being in the top three of a contest is important because it qualifies a pitmaster to compete in the state championship. The top three finishers in Rolesville are:
  1. Kevin Peterson, the 2017 state champion and a top-three finalist already this year (in Kenansville, Fair Bluff, Knightdale, Selma, and Raleigh)
  2. Kevin Wooten, also a top-three finalist this year in Burlington, Burgaw, and Raleigh 
  3. D.J. Stox, another top-three finalist this year in Goldsboro, Fair Bluff, and Smithfield 
Whole hog barbecue
A.J. Stox won third place in the whole hog cookoff.

Because I had also been a judge earlier this year in Burlington, Goldsboro, and Knightdale, I wasn’t surprised that these three pitmasters were successful in the Rolesville contest. Neither were the other judges—Charlie Martin, Tim Croom, and Paul Derrick.

Whole hog cooking teams
Cooking teams set up along the perimeter of the festival grounds.

Festival Activities

After the judging was completed, the barbecue was chopped for sale to the public. Advance tickets for plates—at only $5 each—typically guarantee that the BBQ is sold out before the festival ends. On the day of the festival, plates with two sides and a drink are sold for $10 each or $15 for two. Although the festival continued until 5 p.m., the barbecue sold out around 2:30 p.m., so advance purchases were indeed important.

Festival grounds
Festival grounds begin to show activity as vendors arrive early on Saturday morning.

Food, vendors, children activities, music and other activities also make the trip to the festival worthwhile after all the whole hog judging has been completed. Although the main contest of the festival is the whole hog competition, the event also included a separate competition for cooking chicken and ribs. What is impressive about the festival is that it is entirely conducted by volunteers. Several local community organizations also help to sponsor the event.

Festival stage
The festival stage is quiet until the first group—the Jimi King Trio—begins at 11:15 a.m.

The Rolesville cookoff was the 24th competition (on 14 weekends) so far this year sanctioned by the N.C. Pork Council. That’s a lot of cookoffs to determine the best of the best, and the cooking teams and judges keep a busy schedule when the series is underway.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

The Biggest Cookoff of All

American Royal World Series of Barbecue
The tunnel entrance to the infield proclaims, "World's Largest Barbecue."
Would you drive halfway across the country to judge at a barbecue contest? Perhaps you would for the American Royal World Series of Barbecue, which has been held annually since 1980 and bills itself as “the world’s largest barbecue and Kansas City’s biggest party.”

American Royal World Series of Barbecue at Kansas Speedway
Cooking teams set up in the infield of the speedway.

Many cooking teams drive that far, so it’s only reasonable that judges would make the trip too. What began modestly with 10 cooking teams has far surpassed the greatest expectations of the initial organizers. Now held in the infield of Kansas Speedway, the contest attracts more than 450 cooking teams and needs more judges than any other contest to conduct the competition.

Finding one of the 458 cooking teams is difficult without using the festival map.

The four-day event marks the end of summer with live music, food vendors, a car show, a vendor fair, and kid activities in addition to two very competitive cookoffs on consecutive days. Teams from ten countries compete for the largest prize fund on the BBQ circuit. The 135 teams in the invitational cookoff competed for $37,965 in prizes. On the next day, the open contest offered an additional $68,425 for the 468 teams competing in it. In addition to the four categories—chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket—judged in a competition sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society, the open contest had two more meat categories: smoked turkey and sausage.

American Royal World Series of Barbecue at Kansas Speedway
Judges check in for their table assignments.

Mudville BBQ
Mudville BBQ won the
invitational contest.
To be eligible for the invitational contest, a team has to win a grand championship in a qualifying event. (An alternate cannot represent a grand champion.) Teams that compete in the invitational also compete in the open contest. The winner of the invitational was Mudville BBQ of Stockton, California, that begin competing in 2015. Rio Valley Meat BBQ of Weslaco, Texas, was grand champion of the open contest.

The judges assembled in Garage D in the infield of the speedway. I’d never seen so many slender judges at a BBQ contest. Of course, with so many judges, a few had to be slender. Of the 450+ judges (77 tables of 7 each were needed), I recognized only three familiar faces—two from Virginia and one from North Carolina.

American Royal World Series of Barbecue at Kansas Speedway
Such a large contest required a lot of advance planning.

Most judges seemed to be from the Midwest (although the cooking teams came from across the country). I was surprised by how many “local” judges were at the table where I was seated—more than half were from the Kansas City area as was my table captain, age 82, who was certified in the second training class of judges decades ago when KCBS was first organized. Being from North Carolina made me a “novelty,” and a few judges from other tables even came over to ask me where I lived.

Judges settle into their assigned seats in Garage D before their meeting begins.

The American Royal Association, the organizer, is a nonprofit organization that supports agricultural education programs and provides competition opportunities and scholarships. It began in 1899 as the National Hereford Show, the first nationwide show for purebred cattle. Not surprising, about 55,000 attended that event, which was held in the agricultural hub of the Midwest, the Kansas City Stockyards. That effort expanded to include horse shows and rodeos, and then the first barbecue contest, which now is American Royal’s largest annual fundraiser, was held in 1980, five years before KCBS itself was formed.

Kansas City Barbeque Society
The turn-in area is quiet before the teams bring their first entries. 
Seeing so many teams in head-to-head competition was incredible. The winners and top finishers clearly go home with great satisfaction and confirmation of their cooking skills. Judging at this event also gives me bragging rights with other judges who haven’t attended. The American Royal is the place to be in September.

American Royal World Series of Barbecue at Kansas Speedway
The crew of a Southwest Airlines flight takes a picture of the competition at the speedway as they approach the Kansas City airport. Via KCBS Twitter account.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Another Cookoff in Asheboro, NC

In 2014, leaders and planners of Asheboro, NC, which has 25,000 residents, organized the inaugural Pigs and Pedals BBQ Cookoff, and the first event surpassed their highest expectations. Now in its sixth year, the contest has annually set records as it brings visitors to the city’s historic downtown district.

Mayor David Smith of Asheboro welcomes judges to the city.

I was fortunate to have been selected in its inaugural year of being sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society, and I have judged in Asheboro at this contest on more occasions than any other cookoff. The only time that I couldn’t attend is 2015. Each year the event seems to grow with more activities and larger crowds.

Judges are sworn in before judging activities begin.

Located in the heart of North Carolina, Asheboro is an easy drive for many judges and teams. For me, it’s a short drive from home. The cookoff is one of my favorites not because it’s so close but because the organizers treat the judges so generously with door prizes and gift bags. Literally every judge takes home a prize. In fact, half of the judges’ meeting is taken up by giving out gifts during the door-prize drawing.

I won the cooler bag that every judge wants.

Contagious Q, the defending champion, set up early and was only a few steps away from the turn-in table. This year four other teams scored higher overall than it did, but it did win third place in the ribs category. The new defending champion now is Smoke Central BBQ, who also won the pork category.

Contagious Q set up early and hoped to repeat as grand champion.

The two-day signature event of the local chamber of commerce, area visitors bureau, and the city continues to impress. This year 40 teams vied for a share of the $12,000 in prize money. Most of the teams set up around Bicentennial Park, but several were located farther away and had about a five-minute walk to the turn-in area.

Cooking teams set up around Bicentennial Park in the historic downtown district.

During the weekend, other barbecue competitions include a people’s choice contest and a kids’ que (a contest for ages 6 to 15). In addition to an antique car show on the downtown streets, a food and beer garden with entertainment is very popular. Several food, craft, and merchandise vendors also offer something of interest for almost everyone.

The car show, limited to 200 vehicles, continues to grow in popularity.

Pigs and Pedals will continue to be a popular event each August for the public, judges, and cooking teams. Being located in the heart of North Carolina helps to make it well-attended, but more important is how well the competition is organized. It’s a superior cookoff.

Children ages 6 to 15 compete in the kids' que contest.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Wise to Be in Wise Again

The Inn at Wise, a stately three-story hotel built in 1910 that is on the National Register of Historic Places, is the perfect center for a barbecue cookoff. Judging in Wise, Virginia, was a great experience again as it was last year because Chillin’ and Grillin’ in the Glades is such a well-organized KCBS-sanctioned contest.

The Inn at Wise is the center for all barbecue activities in July.

Having been in Wise last year, I knew the contest and its arrangements. Music is a big part of the event with entertainers on both days, but judges have to miss performances in the middle of the day when judging occurs. In addition, because judging is “blind” and judging activities extend for several hours, judges miss seeing other street scenes, including the final steps by cooking teams as they prepare their entries.

Wolf's Revenge, a popular team that placed third in the pork category, hands out Scotch eggs (although judges aren't influenced by the kind welcome because judging is "blind"—which team prepares an entry is not known).

Old Virginia Smoke gives samples of burnt ends.
This year I was fortunate to see two special activities. When I arrived, Wolf’s Revenge, one of the top cooking teams, was outside the inn to give Scotch eggs—hard-boiled eggs wrapped in baked sausage—to judges as they entered. In addition, when I left the Inn at Wise after the contest had ended, Old Virginia Smoke, the team that finished third in the brisket category, was giving samples of burnt ends—the best of brisket—to passersby on the street.

Many top and prominent teams from the region were among the 27 teams (two fewer than last year) that competed. The winning team was Rocky Top Barbeque. Second place (reserve champion) was won by Muttley Crew BBQ of Apex, NC. At the table where I judged, two meats—chicken and ribs—were exceptionally superior.

Cooking teams set up on Main Street in downtown Wise.

Part of the pleasure of judging in Wise is how kindly the judges are treated by the contest organizers. Before the meat turn-ins began, a drawing for several gifts—trail passes, T-shirts, BBQ sauces, and other souvenirs—was held. Because my lucky ticket was picked, I won a bottle of local wine. Mountain Rose Vineyard, only six miles from downtown, has converted land mined for coal into a lush vineyard, and I got to take its best red wine home with me.

My prize for having a lucky ticket.

Because the contest organizers decided this year to reserve one-fourth of the judge seats for judges who had not been to Wise before (a smart decision to build interest and possibly create a larger pool of judge applicants for future years), I was initially “waitlisted” for this contest. However, as additional registrations of cooking teams were received, more judges were needed, including me.

Judges relax in the inn's conference room before the contest begins.

I feel fortunate to judge again in Wise. Because the contest is so well-organized and judges are treated so generously, I hope to return again.

Trophies are ready for the winning teams.