Saturday, June 9, 2018

Whole Hog Cookoff in an Urban Park

Music played throughout the day on the stage of Midtown Park at North Hills.

Imagine green space encircled by cooking teams competing in a whole hog cookoff. Now place that scene in a dense urban area with high-rise commercial and residential buildings towering over the teams. You are now in Raleigh, NC, for the Fourth Annual Kickin’ It Country Whole Hog Cookoff in Midtown Park at North Hills.

Cooking teams set up between Midtown Park and the commercial and residential buildings of North Hills.

If I was much younger, North Hills would be the place where I would spend time (and money), and many younger people do just that. It’s an innovative hub of activities that offers many ways to shop, eat, play, work, and live.

High-rise residential buildings surrounding Midtown Park overlook the cooking teams.

A mixed-used development, North Hills includes stores, restaurants, entertainment, commercial offices, residential units, and even a continuing care retirement community. For one day each year, the play area of Midtown Park is the home to a popular whole hog cookoff.

Lee Meeks (left), John Gibbons (obscured), and I evaluate skin crispness at a cooker.

For the fourth annual rendition of the cookoff, 15 teams registered. They included past annual state champions, winners at other regional events, and even a newcomer or two. All showed the superior skills needed to compete in a whole hog contest, and judging their pigs accurately required concentration and diligence.

John Gibbons (left), Lee Meeks (right), and I finish our evaluation at a site.

For the judging, I worked with John Gibbons of Holly Springs and Lee Meeks of Newport. They both brought to the cookoff a deep appreciation for the skills that a successful cooking team must possess as well as an thorough understanding of the scoring criteria established by the North Carolina Pork Council, which sanctions this and all other whole hog cookoffs that culminate in the Whole Hog Barbecue Championship each year.

Lee Meeks (right) and I evaluate moisture as pitmaster Chris Fineran (left) looks on.

The top three winners in the Fourth Annual Kickin’ It Country Cookoff were Kevin and Dana Peterson of Showtime’s Legit BBQ (first place); Chris Fineran and Steve Sumner of Beach Boys BBQ (second); and Ernest Twisdale, Stephen Twisdale, and George Collins of Grill Father Cooking Team. Each is now qualified to advance to the championship cookoff next fall and compete for the honor of being proclaimed the state champion and admitted into the Whole Hog Hall of Fame.

John Gibbons (right) and I complete our scoring sheets at a site.

However, the Hall of Fame already includes the lead pitmasters of these three teams. Kevin Peterson was the 2017 state champion; Chris Fineran, 2016; and Ernest Twisdale, 2015. In addition, Roy Parker, pitmaster of Old Hickory, the fourth place team, was admitted in 2006 when he won the state championship that year. These credentials and the high scores they earned this year show how very competitive the cookoff was.

John Gibbons (left), Lee Meeks (center), and I relax after all the scoring sheets have been completed.

In fact, the scores for the top three winners were exceptionally high. The highest score that a team can earn from one judge is 360 points. The top team scored 1,010 out of a possible 1,080 points. Only 10 points separated the top three teams, and the fourth and fifth place teams themselves were only a few points behind the leaders.

Kevin Peterson of Showtime's Legit BBQ accepts the first-place trophy from Ashley Stallings, cookoff organizer.

Midtown Park at North Hills is the place to be on the first Saturday each June. The barbecue cookoff competition is superior, and after the judging is over, the barbecue is served as a fundraiser for a major local charity. For the other 364 days of the year, North Hills is still the place to be for shopping, eating, playing, working, and living.

Proceeds from BBQ plates sold after judging activities ended benefit the Raleigh Police Memorial Foundation.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Surviving the Wind and Rain in Ayden

Ayden is a classic Southern barbecue town. Because it is the home of two BBQ kings of North Carolina: Bum’s and Skylight Inn, it has earned a well-deserved spot on the N.C. Historic Barbecue Trail. It is also home to one of my favorite cookoffs, the Kings of Q, held each May.

Cooking teams set up in open spaces in downtown Ayden.

For 2018, the enthusiasm was high, but the weather was less than favorable. For the third annual rendition of Kings of Q, appropriately named to honor the city’s two regal pit master families and the legacy of their BBQ restaurants, 38 teams competed for a total of $10,000 in prize money in less than ideal conditions. The night before the judging took place, a major storm arrived and dumped several inches of rain, and heavy rain continued throughout the day of the festival, significantly reducing the turnout of the crowd.

As Stephen Tripp, the mayor of Ayden, welcomes judges, he points to the locations of the town's two BBQ kings. 

However, because the People’s Choice contest was conducted indoors, it offered a brief respite from the rain and was more popular than usual. The awards ceremony had to be moved indoors, and the festival was closed early because of rain. The team Muttley Crew, which won the cookoff, had high scores in all meat categories – chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket – and even earned a perfect score for its chicken entry.

Voters in the People's Choice contest appreciate the indoor space and avoid the rainy weather.

When all the judging activities were over and the judges were dismissed, I returned to my car only to find that the heavy rain had made the unpaved parking lot treacherous. My car immediately was trapped by mud when I started driving. Fortunately, a festival volunteer saw my trouble and paged town employees to pull me to safety. After a delay of about 45 minutes, I was out of the mud and carefully on my way home (but had to stop at The Collard Patch before leaving town).

Gray clouds that bring heavy rains hover over the cooking throughout the festival.

I look forward to returning to Ayden for another cookoff. However, next time, if it is raining, I’ll look for a safer parking area while I participate in the judging activities. Ayden is a fabulous place to be even in inclement weather, but it’s more enjoyable when the sun is shining.

The public works truck that pulled me out of the mud stays safely near the edge of the parking area.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Judging in an Former Mill Town Being Reinvented

The people's choice trophy for the
pork category awaits the winner.
Kannapolis, NC, has always intrigued me because it once was the home of the world’s largest producer of sheets and towels. As textile jobs have been sent overseas and domestic mills closed, the former mill towns in North Carolina have faced huge economic and social challenges. Kannapolis seems to be one that has an exceptional bright future.

When I learned that Jiggy with the Piggy, a barbecue cookoff, was held in Kannapolis, I've wanted to participate as a judge and learn more about the city. On the space where mill buildings once stood, a superior barbecue contest is held. Cooking teams set up in downtown Kannapolis on the spacious horseshoe-shaped green space of the North Carolina Research Campus, where eight universities are teaming up to make breakthroughs in health and nutrition research.

Judge activities are held in the Kannapolis Town Hall.

The history of Kannapolis, which did not incorporate until 1984, stretches back to its beginnings as a textile center in 1908 when Cannon Manufacturing, a textile mill, began production. Within six years, it was producing more sheets and towels than any other mill. Although the successor Cannon Mills Company prospered for decades, textile industry changes led to the bankruptcy and then closing of the parent company.

Judges settle in the spacious conference area of the city offices.

The economic harm to Kannapolis was staggering when 4,340 workers lost their jobs in July 2003, the largest one-day layoff in state history. The turnaround of the city began in 2004, when billionaire David Murdock bought the mill at auction and announced plans to create a $1.5-billion project called the North Carolina Research Campus to create discoveries in nutrition, disease prevention, and agriculture. Being part of a barbecue cookoff in the middle of this campus was a special experience.

Cooking set up on the spacious area of the North Carolina Research Campus.

Jiggy with the Piggy this year brought in 70 teams from six states to compete for trophies and prize money totaling $15,400. The large number of teams required almost 100 judges (fortunately I was one) to evaluate the tenderness, taste, and appearance of entries in the categories of chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket. The festival also included concerts, children activities, more than 100 arts and crafts vendors, and two people’s choice contests (wings and pork).

In the heart o Cannon Village, the Dale Earnhardt Plaza celebrates the life and career of the NASCAR legend by his hometown.

Kannapolis is reshaping itself as an innovative community where health, nutrition, education, and science are now its business focus. In early May each year, it’s also the place to be for a great barbecue cookoff.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Returning to the Firehouse BBQ Cookoff

Returning to Kings Mountain, NC, for the annual Firehouse BBQ Cookoff is been a priority since last year. Held in this small suburban city within the Charlotte metropolitan area, the contest has always been well organized as it was again for its 22nd year.

During the third weekend in April, a fire museum becomes the host of a barbecue cookoff.

The cookoff is so respected that the North Carolina governor proclaimed the 2018 contest as the N.C. Firehouse Barbeque State Championship. One benefit of the recognition is that the winner this year receives an invitation to the American Royal Barbecue Contest and is eligible for the Jack Daniels Invitational Contest. With $4,500 in total prize money at stake, 33 teams signed up for the hopes of not only taking home cash and a trophy but also receiving invitations to the other prestigious events as well.

Cooking teams set up on the grassy area of Deal Park.

Before the first entries were turned in and the judges had settled into their chairs to begin serious judging, the atmosphere resembled that of a reunion. One benefit of being a judge is seeing familiar faces at each cookoff. The judges at this year’s event included several who had been at previous Firehouse BBQ Cookoffs.

Before the competition begins, judges who arrive early look over an antique fire engine, which had been moved outdoors.

All judging activities take place in the Kings Mountain Historical Fire Museum, one of only three fire museums in the state. Built more than 40 years ago, the museum houses two vintage fire engines (1930 and a 1938 models), which are moved outside so the judges have adequate room to set up and evaluate the cookoff entries.

Judges wait in the museum for the first barbecue entries to arrive.

The museum has several items of interest, including a 1927 hose cart, the first piece of equipment to fight fires in the city. A soda acid fire extinguisher, which needed two firefighters to move it, is also on display. Other relics — helmets, hoses, nozzles, patches, and other memorabilia — hang from the ceiling and are in display classes. All of these were quietly overlooked when the judges began their task: judging chicken, pork, ribs, and brisket.

Vendors line the walking track at Deal Park as the competition begins.

Once again Kings Mountain has earned its spot on the barbecue competition trail. Teams compete, judges evaluate, prize money is distributed, and trophies are earned – and after everyone has gone home, the museum returns to a state of slumber to protect its collectibles until the third Saturday in April of another year when a new cookoff begins.

Festival activities include a play area for children.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Giving Back at Urbanna

Bill Jones, contest organizer and OBR
lead for Virginia, serves Brunswick
stew on Friday to early arrivals.
BBQ Gives Back is appropriately named. Held in Urbanna, Virginia, the cookoff generates funds for Operation BBQ Relief (OBR) and also supports a local food bank.

OBR is a group of volunteers who respond to disasters throughout the United States and feed victims and first responders. All net proceeds of the event are donated to OBR, and a voluntary collection of funds for OBR is also held. Last year, in its inaugural event, the contest contributed $6,500 to OBR.

In addition to the meats the teams cook for the contest, each competing team cooks a pork butt that is provided to the Team Thanksgiving Food Bank, based in Churchview, Va. After the contest was held in March last year, 500 pounds of cooked meat were donated to the food bank that it then gave to families in need through September 2017 without its having to buy any additional meat. The contest also held a voluntary collection of dry and canned goods, and cooking teams and judges willingly contributed.

The recreation center at Bethpage was the site of judging activities.

Although the purpose of the cookoff is to “give back,” the focus of each cooking team is on preparing winning barbecue. In the contest’s second year of being sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society, 75 teams competed for a total of $11,000 in prize money. Held at the Bethpage Camp-Resort on the shores of the Rappahannock River, the contest has ample room for the cooking teams. Because so many teams were competing, 11 tables of judges were need to evaluate all the entries. It’s one of the largest cookoffs that I’ve attended.

Judges relax inside the recreation center before the first entries arrive.

Urbanna, a historic colonial port town, brags that it has more boats than people and that it is the home of Virginia’s Oyster Festival each November. It has gained also a reputation as the site in March where barbecue cooks and judges demonstrate their generosity and community spirit.

Awards await the winning teams.

BBQ Gives Back is fittingly named. Everyone enjoys participating in an event with such a noteworthy purpose. Being able to judge great barbecue is also a benefit for the judges.

Bethpage Camp-Resort is popular with both cooking teams and judges.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

An Inaugural Success in Wake Forest

When I arrived in Wake Forest, NC, for a barbecue cookoff, I followed the signs for “Judges Parking.” As I exited my car, the attendant greeted me with “Good morning, Your Honor.”

Because I looked quizzically at him, he asked, “You are a judge, right?” “Oh yes,” I said, realizing that his greeting was his way to confirm I was authorized to park in the lot reserved for contest judges. This encounter was the first of many with contest organizers and volunteers that was very cordial and friendly, a mark of a great contest.

Judges who arrived early relax in the taproom (but no beer) next to the exposed brew house.

At White Street Barbecue Experience, I was continually greeted in such a positive manner, a surprise because this event is its inaugural one. For its first cookoff, the contest was structured as a “backyard” cookoff and competition was limited to two categories: ribs and chicken. However, the contest offered more than $13,000 in prize money, a large sum for any event particularly a backyard contest. Slow Smokers was declared the grand champion after placing first in ribs and second in chicken.

Voting for the People's Choice contest was a popular activity of the event.

The contest takes its name from White Street Brewery Company, the sponsoring organization, which opened for business in 2012 in a 1930s car dealership that was transformed into a production brewery. The building retains its century-old original character. All judging activities took place in the large taproom with exposed bricks, beams and brew house. Customers at the oak bar enjoyed sipping their craft beer and looking on as barbecue entries were judged.

Oinkers BBQ placed third in the ribs category.

The heart of downtown Wake Forest was blocked off for a day-long BBQ block party, and it was well attended. Music, demonstrations, vendor food, and a people’s choice contest kept the crowd amply entertained and fed. In addition, beer trucks were strategically placed throughout the festival area and always seemed to have someone standing in line.

Judging activities took place inside White Street Brewery Company.

For its inaugural event, White Street Barbecue Experience was very successful and popular. With such a solid foundation, the cookoff is ready to turn “professional” and permit the teams to compete in all four meat categories standard in events sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society.

Cooking teams set up in areas off White Street in downtown Wake Forest. 
Taproom customers unwind as judging activities conclude.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Still Serving Like It’s the 1950s

When you walk into Parker’s Barbecue in Wilson, NC, you are met as soon as you pass through the front door -- sometimes by a greeter, frequently by two, and often by a whole host of friendly faces, including young men wearing 1950s-style paper hats who as servers will wait on you soon.

Parker's in Wilson, NC, is a destination for barbecue lovers.

Most customers don’t need a menu when they arrive. After all, Parker’s has been in business since 1946, and little has changed since then. Parker’s serves pork barbecue only one way: chopped. There’s little indication that it will ever change its approach. Why change what has worked well for decade?

Servers wait near the cashiers for customers to arrive.

Although Parker’s is also now known for its chicken and seafood, many customers still arrive hungry for only barbecue, which is slowly roasted every day and infused with Parker’s signature vinegar-based sauce. Each week about 150 whole hogs are cooked (only gas, not wood, has been used since the 1950s).

The kitchen is continually busy throughout the day.

Corn sticks or hushpuppies usually accompany a meal; I got both. In addition, I picked slaw, boiled potatoes and Brunswick stew as the sides for my dinner. The slaw has more “zip” than I had expected, but it combines nicely with the barbecue.

The centerpiece of my dinner is chopped barbecue.

The centerpiece, of course, is Parker’s chopped barbecue. When it arrives at the table, it is drier than a visitor might expect. However, on the table are two bottles of sauce -- both vinegar-based and one with more crushed red peppers -- so that the meat can be moistened to match a customer’s preferences.

Most customers arrive at Parker's with barbecue on their minds, although fried chicken is also popular.

In eastern North Carolina, when you mention Parker’s, most people know that you are referring to the original location in Wilson. However, Parker’s has expanded to nearby Greenville, but the first location is still the destination for barbecue fans because it is prominently featured on the Historic Barbecue Trail of the North Carolina Barbecue Society.

The takeout counter always has customers waiting.

Stepping into Parker’s is like going back to the 1950s. Little has changed. Thank goodness.

The menu rarely changes -- this one has been used for more than four years.