Saturday, November 14, 2015

Smoke on the Harbor Again

Being a judge at the Smoke on the Harbor BBQ Throwdown in Mount Pleasant, SC, for the third year in a row was just as enjoyable as being at my first two events there. The contest is superbly organized, and its location attracts a great crowd in the Charleston area.

Smoke on the Harbor has become a premier event for the Charleston, SC, area.

Hosted by the Charleston Harbor Resort & Marina, the throwdown takes place at the scenic Lookout Pavilion on Patriots Point across Cooper River from historic downtown Charleston. At the pavilion, a virtual village is created with the cooking teams, vendors, and displays. The village comes complete with even a kid drop-off zone that lets parents enjoy food, music and drink while someone else watches their children.

The kid zone was popular with parents.

Unusual for a barbecue cookoff is the cocktail competition that is part of the throwdown – the barbecue scene continues to change with a younger generation that wants to enjoy more than simply smoked meat. George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey is a sponsor of the throwdown, and its presence is very prominent.

A member of the Coastal Smoke team prepares garnish for its entries.

The throwdown also raises awareness of hunger in the area and includes a food drive that benefits the East Cooper Meals on Wheels. A donation of five canned goods cuts the admission price of $10 in half.

The cooking team Fire and Smoke Shak sets up early.

After conducting the inaugural event in 2012, the organizers have sought KCBS sanctioning, which significantly raises the competitive level of the cooking teams. Because I’ve been a judge at each of the subsequent events that have been sanctioned, I’ve observed how important sanctioning is to the throwdown’s success. At the opening meeting of the judges with the KCBS contest representative before the competition begins, the organizers specifically mention the value of sanctioning.

Judges (including Joyce Gardner, judge coordinator of the Hog Happnin' event
in Shelby, NC) take their seats to be ready for the first entries.

Cooking teams are looking for the slightest advantage to leave as winners. For the 2015 event, 28 teams competed for the total prize purse of $6,150. In addition, an official proclamation by the South Carolina governor declares that the cooking teams are vying for the winning designation as a S.C. State Barbecue Champion.

A remote-control hog entertained several spectators during the afternoon.

Returning to the throwdown in Mount Pleasant again was like visiting a favorite place. It’s a great venue, and I hope to return for a fourth time next year.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Shelby, a Legendary Place for Barbecue

Shelby, NC, is where many people go for great barbecue. As the home of Red Bridges’ Barbecue Lodge as well as the annual Hog Happnin’ cookoff, Shelby has been on the “barbecue map” for a long time.

One of the prominent destinations on the North Carolina Barbecue Trail, Red Bridges’ has contributed to N.C. barbecue lore and brought many visitors to Shelby, a small city in western North Carolina between Charlotte and Asheville. They come to taste barbecue prepared by third-generation family members who learned their craft from the original Bridges, who himself learned the art of cooking pork shoulders slowly over wood coals from legendary Warner Stamey of Greensboro. Similarly, the Hog Happnin’ entices visitors to Shelby with its fine reputation as a competitive barbecue event since it began 24 years ago.

Hog Happnin' is held at the Cleveland County (NC) Fairgrounds.

After visiting Red Bridges’ earlier this year, I wanted to be a judge for the Hog Happnin’ to experience how it contributed to the barbecue culture of Shelby, the county seat of Cleveland County. A large crowd at Hog Happnin’ is typical because the weather during the first weekend in November is almost always perfect. Only once before (in 2014) had it rained during the event – and the second time was this year. Although the rain dampened the crowd turnout, it didn’t diminish the spirits of the cooking teams.

Rain chilled but didn't diminish the enthusiasm of the cooking teams.

This year Hog Happnin’ attracted 61 teams – some from as far away as California, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Florida that sought to advance in the overall points tournament held nationwide by KCBS, and they came to Shelby to hold their places in the points race. Teams were also attracted by cash prizes that total $15,000, in addition to the prospects of advancing in the Old North State Barbecue Series. Hog Happnin’ is one of five KCBS-sanctioned events in the series held throughout North Carolina to determine the Old North State Champion (other events are held in Kings Mountain, Lexington, Kannapolis and Salisbury).

Several out-of-state teams, such as this one from Rhode Island, traveled a long distance to compete.

The contest has been superbly organized since it began. Jerry Gardner, whose KCBS membership number of 461 indicates that he is an early member of the Society, served as the event director for its first 17 years. Now as the BBQ competition director, he focuses more specifically on cooking teams, judges, and other competition details.

Although the typical gate fee of $5 was waived, rainy weather reduced the size of the crowd.

I had met Gardner in April at Bib’s Camel City Cookoff (we were seated at the same judges table) and learned about his long involvement and leadership of Hog Happnin’. Gardner also mentioned that registration for judges was timed to open online on June 1. Early that day I completed the application but didn’t receive notification until mid-September that I had been selected as a judge (from his wife Joyce, also a certified judge, who is the judge coordinator). With such a large number of cooking teams, the organizers fielded 12 tables of judges.

Judges relax in the fairgrounds exhibition hall before the turn-in of entries begins.

Since its beginnings, proceeds from the Hog Happnin’ have benefited the local charities. Among its recipients is the Children’s Homes of Cleveland County. According to Gardner, the event has raised more than $300,000 over the last 13 years for the Homes. Before the judging began, Margie Christopher of Children’s Homes spoke to the judges about how important Hog Happnin’ is for providing necessary funds for its annual operations.

Winner of the Grand Championship was Smokin' Mo's, a team from California.

Although being a judge is a reward in itself, an added benefit at Hog Happnin’ is that judges are treated to homemade ice cream after all entries have been judged. Made by David Lail of Frostbite Ridge Farm, it was the perfect end to the competition.

Homemade ice cream is a great way to finish an afternoon of BBQ judging.

Shelby is a logical location to conduct a barbecue cooking competition. Hog Happnin’ has deservedly earned its place in the statewide culture for promoting and enjoying barbecue and in the community for contributing to worthwhile causes.