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.

Judging in the Shrine of Eastern N.C. Barbecue

Barbecue cooks will be talking about the Big Pig Shindig, the inaugural event of the 2018 North Carolina Whole Hog Barbecue Series, for years -- not because the competition, the pigs, or the prizes grabbed their attention but because the wind did. When the cooks were trying to set up their sites on Friday evening, high wind warnings and watches were in effect from northern Georgia to southern Maine, a distance of 900 miles.

Dustin Taylor stands ready at his site as the judges arrive.

Wilson, NC, where the Big Pig Shindig is held, is in the middle of this zone, and this year March roared in like a lion. Although the winds were more severe to the north and parts of New England experienced hurricane-force wind gusts of 75 mph, the winds at the start of the cookoff were tremendous, and tents were difficult to erect and stabilize.

The pig cooked by Roy Parker is ready to be judged.

A couple of cooks even passed on trying to put up tents. One competitor who was cooking with wood had to move his cooker to a different location because he was the first one in a row and was receiving the direct impact of the gusts.

Only a few pigs showed signs of uneven brownness or areas that were burned.

Sponsored by the Wilson Chamber of Commerce, the Shindig was sanctioned for the first time by the N.C. Pork Council in 2018, although the cookoff had been held before. The change to being sanctioned attracted more teams, almost doubling the number from last year’s event. Of the 23 teams registered, 21 were judged. Two withdrew from the competition because the high winds interfered with their cooking efforts.

After the judges complete their evaluation, the once perfectly intact pig is in shambles.

While the Shindig was going on, the chamber also held its annual Spring Expo. More than 100 businesses and organizations set up booths to discuss their services and products. To accommodate the increase in cooking teams and the ever-growing crowd for the expo and cookoff, the chamber moved the events to the Wilson County Fairgrounds to give them more space.

Chris Fineran, who won first place, smiles with Michole Evans, event organizer.

The winning team was Beach Boys BBQ, led by Chris Fineran, who consistently places high in N.C. whole hog cookoffs. Because he had been the state champion in 2016, he was invited to cook the previous weekend for the BBQ Summit, a training event for judges, cooks, and contest organizers. 

One team had banana pudding for each judge (although the pudding was not a scoreable item).

Fineran is a regular competitor in the Whole Hog Barbecue Series once it gets underway each year. When he won the state championship in 2016, he had participated in 18 of the 25 contests in that year’s series, placing in 13 and winning 4 of them.

The pig cooked by Kevin Wooten earned the second highest score.

The second place team in Wilson was Pickin’ & Grillin’ BBQ, led by Kevin Wooten. Third place was won by Showtime’s Legit BBQ, led by Kevin Peterson, who himself is also a past N.C. Whole Hog Champion, thus showing the high level of competition that the Shindig attracts. When Peterson won the statewide competition in 2017 at age 34, he became the youngest champion ever.

Scores are tallied quickly by a team of volunteers to determine the winners.

For the Shindig, the judges in addition to myself were Lubin Prevatt, Tim Croon and Paul Derrick. All of us were impressed with the excellent results not only by the three winners but by the entire field of competitors.

Judges (Ray, Paul, Tim and Lubin) relax while the scores are counted.

Judging in Wilson is an honor because, as Chamber President Ryan Simon has said, Wilson “is the shrine of eastern North Carolina barbecue” and its agricultural heritage “is still very much a part of the Wilson economy.”

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Holding a Summit for Whole Hog Contest Training

When the N.C. Pork Council began the Whole Hog Barbecue Series in 1985, it established the procedures for sanctioning contests and certifying judges. For each contest, all judges must be trained and approved by the NCPC. To enhance how the series is conducted, the NCPC held its first Whole Hog Barbecue Summit, what promises to be an annual event, in 2018.

The summit was initially planned as a refresher for currently certified judges as well as an opportunity for anyone interested in becoming a sanctioned judge. Previously a judge could be certified by shadowing a training judge during a contest to observe the judging process and learn how the scoring criteria are applied. Now attending a summit is a requirement for initial certification as is the requirement to shadow cooks during a contest to understand the cooking process from a competitor’s perspective. To maintain certification, a judge also needs to attend a summit every five years (a new requirement). In addition, attending a summit is a prerequisite for becoming a master judge, a new category being created by the NCPC.

Brownie Futrell, a veteran judge, explains several rule changes being implemented in 2018.

Held in the spacious Lenoir County Livestock Arena in Kinston, NC, the 2018 summit was attended by cooks, judges, and contest organizers. What was started as an opportunity to train judges expanded into an opportunity to help cooks and event organizers in preparing for contests because the NCPC realized that all participants could benefit from receiving the same information. The summit also provided an opportunity to announce several rule changes and changes to the scoring criteria being implemented this year.

A panel of training judges -- Brownie Futrell, Dave Cowley, Lubin Prevatt and Charlie Martin -- answer questions asked by attendees.

A major component of the summit was a chance to observe veteran judges as they evaluated pigs cooked for demonstration purposes by four competitors and listen as they discussed their reasons for determining the scores that they assigned. To make the judging activities at the summit as realistic as possible, the cooks included past winners of the Whole Hog Barbecue Championship, the culmination of the series each year. In the series, winners of regional contests advance to the championship and compete for the honor of being proclaimed the state champion and admitted into the Whole Hog Hall of Fame.

Kevin Peterson (Showtime Legit BBQ), winner of the 2017 state championship, was one of the competitors cooking at the Summit.
The day of learning at the summit included ample time for fellowship. The camaraderie evident at the summit shows the close bond that the Whole Hog Barbecue Series has developed among cooks and judges. I enjoyed the chance to talk informally with cooks whom I’ve judged at contests but didn’t have adequate time to talk to because the judging schedule follows a very tight timeline. I also was able to talk to judges whom I’ve worked with and others that I hope to meet soon at future contests.

Chris Fineman, 2016 Whole Hog Barbecue Champion, shows off the pig that he cooked for the Summit before the judges arrive to evaluate.
No one left the summit empty-handed. Judges received an official nametag to wear at contests, and everyone received a Whole Hog Series apron. The best part of the summit was that everyone also left with a better understanding of the scoring criteria and judging process.

Summit attendees watch judging activities on a large screen as others crowd around a cooker as veteran judges explain the scoring criteria.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Polar Pig BBQ Cookoff Grows in a New Location

The inaugural Polar Pig BBQCookoff, held last year in Mt. Pleasant, NC, successfully started a new fall tradition of barbecue competition in an area northeast of Charlotte. To give the event more space, the new organizers moved the contest five miles from the original site to the spacious property of the Cabarrus Arena and Events Center in Concord.

Even as the center was hosting a cheerleading competition and a gun show in other facilities on the same day, it was a better location than being behind the Mt. Pleasant Town Hall and provided more than adequate space for the contest. In the inaugural event, 25 teams competed. With the additional space of the new venue, the organizers accommodated almost twice that many – 47 teams cooked this year.

Trophies await the winners of the Polar Pig BBQ competition.

Because the event is held on the second Saturday in November, teams interested in earning points in the final weeks of the year’s competition conducted by Kansas City Barbeque Society were eager to participate. The overall winner and grand champion was perennial favorite Redneck Scientific, which last year placed second and won reserve champion honors. 

Judges assemble before the competition begins.

Having the contest at the Cabarrus Arena and Events Center brought out a larger crowd than had attended at the inaugural event. In addition to observing the contest participants, the crowd could enjoy a zone of vendor tents, a beer garden, live music, and a kid’s play area. This year, the event also included a people’s choice award, and spectators could taste samples prepared by cooking teams.

Cooking teams set up inside the track of the 11-acre midway of the Cabarrus Arena and Events Center.

The future for the Polar Pig BBQCookoff looks promising. The significant improvements in event planning and the major increase in the number of cooking teams are encouraging signs that the competition will be even better in 2018. I hope to return again next year.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Mallard Creek, the Granddaddy of All Barbecue Events

For years I’ve wanted to attend the granddaddy barbecuefestival of all, the long-running event organized by Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. Finally, in its 88th year, I got to see why it’s so famous.

Now in its 88th year, Mallard Creek is the place for BBQ in October.

More than 20,000 people attend the latest incarnation of an event begun in 1929 when the nation fell into the Great Depression. That year the church cooked two hogs and a goat, and sold its first barbecue to pay a contractor who was constructing Sunday school rooms. Now proceeds raised support local and world missions and supplement the church’s building fund. The food -- chopped pork barbecue, Brunswick stew, coleslaw, and applesauce -- continues to please each new generation.

The annual event is a reunion of church members and community residents.

The crowd includes plenty of politicians eager to campaign before elections are held in only 12 days and greet voters as they move through the waiting line. A lot of food is needed to feed the crowd. This year more than 13,000 pounds of pork barbecue, 25,000 gallons of Brunswick stew, 2 tons of coleslaw, and 400 gallons of coffee were prepared. Each plate costs $10, and a sandwich only is $4. (If you call ahead, the church can accommodate group orders of 50 plates or more – but no deliveries.) Barbecue is also sold by the pound, and stew and slaw by the quart.

The BBQ plate costs $10.

While applesauce on a barbecue plate may not be usual, the biggest surprise is the Brunswick stew, which is made with rice, not potatoes. In addition, instead of shredded chicken and other meat such as beef, it has ground-up chicken, pork, and beef; instead of lima beans, it has only tomatoes and corn.  Rebecca McLaughlin, who died in 2004 at age 93, is responsible for the stew recipe. According to her son Dale, she began overseeing its preparation in the 1940s and continued for about 40 years. Because she thought potatoes were too mushy, she swapped them out for rice. She stopped using lima beans because she thought they were too strong.

Four drive-through takeout lines serve customers until all the food is sold.

Always on the fourth Thursday of October, the sale requires much more effort than is obvious and begins in earnest early in the month when the Community House, where the event is held and that is located two miles from the church, is cleaned up and checked for general repairs. A week in advance, equipment for cooking the meat is set up and the seasoning room is prepared.

Politicians greet customers as they walk through the waiting line to the serving area.

On the Thursday before the event, the first meat comes off the cooker, and the chopping and seasoning process begins. Next the barbecue is weighed and bagged in one-pound packages. Then the equipment and area are cleaned and prepared for another day of cooking on Friday. On Saturday, the slaw – cabbage, onions, carrots, and celery – is made. More cleanup is needed on Saturday as well as Sunday afternoon.

Barbecue, Brunswick stew (made with rice), and coleslaw can also be bought in bulk quantities.

On Monday as early as 2 a.m., church members start cooking chickens to make the Brunswick stew. On Tuesday, the ingredients for the stew are mixed, and then the stew is dipped into containers. Additional site preparation continues on Wednesday so that the area is ready for the big day on Thursday.

The serving line never rests.

Customers begin arriving as early as 9:30 a.m. (although the publicized start time is 10 a.m.) and keep coming until the barbecue is sold out. On some years, it’s gone by late afternoon. Then the final cleanup begins as tables and chairs are taken down and paper goods are consolidated and stored.

Local neighbors, the only paid workers at the event, stir stew with long paddles. 

The event is a major undertaking. It seems each church member has an important task, and many work countless hours. Their joy and camaraderie are obvious as they work together and serve the crowd. So much good-tasting food is prepared for so many customers, and they keep coming back year after year.

Huge trailers keep prepared food refrigerated until the day of sale.