Saturday, November 12, 2016

A New Experience in Mount Pleasant, NC

Town leaders of Mount Pleasant combine
a pig cookoff with a fall festival.
A barbecue cookoff has high expectations – for the cooks, judges, organizers, and public. Each year that an event is held, everyone expects it to be better than the last one. Because an inaugural event can’t build on past experiences, a first-time event is sometimes entered with apprehension – about what will go right and what will go wrong.

The Town of Mount Pleasant, NC, joined the barbecue circuit when it held its first Polar Pig Cookoff, appropriately named for an event near the end of the year. For the inaugural event, 25 teams completed in the pro competition and another eight in the backyard category. The town plans to make the event annual because, as the Mayor Del Eudy says, “there’s a lot of cookers here.”

At an inaugural event, popuptents of novice cooks set up next to plush trailers and campers of experienced teams.

An event that is the first one of a hoped-for continuation often produces surprisingly good results as happened in Mount Pleasant because organizers are so determined to be successful. The barbecue entries that I judged were just as competitive as those turned in at established cookoffs. Although many judges were from the region, others had traveled a long distance, such as from Ohio, to participate in this inaugural event.

Some teams set up on the infield of the ball field of town park at Mount Pleasant.

An important part of a fall event is weather, which was perfect for the inaugural Polar Pig Cookoff. Although “polar” is part of the cookoff’s name, the area was far removed from any polar conditions. The balmy fall weather benefited the cooking teams and also enticed local residents to check out the festival and enjoy live music, craft vendors, and children activities.

Very creative trophies await the winners.

Even though the cookoff was Mount Pleasant’s first, it attracted more than the usual number of cooking teams for an inaugural event, which guaranteed its success for this year and also projects even better success in the future. For a small town of only 1,700 residents, Mount Pleasant can be proud of its inaugural cookoff

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Creating a Community Spirit in Vander

A first-time competitor goes all-out in decorating with a Halloween theme at his site.

In Cumberland County of North Carolina, the unincorporated community of Vander is small -- slightly over a 1,000 residents. However, it knows how to conduct a whole hog barbecue cookoff. It has been having a competition for 14 years.

Judges (with Phil Spears, left, and Chris Hight, right) discuss procedures before visiting the cooking sites.

Conducted by the Vander Civic Association, the contest is sometimes the second largest competition sanctioned by the N.C. Pork Council (second only to Newport). In 2012, 36 cooks competed. This year 26 tested their skills. Most of the contestants were from Cumberland County and nearby areas and had competed in the Vander event in previous years. At least two cooks -- Roy Parker and Charlie Meeks -- had been finalists already this year in sanctioned contests.

Teams set up on a field that had been under water with record rainfall from Hurricane Matthew.

Several days before the cookoff was held, Hurricane Matthew inundated the area with rain as it pounded the Carolina coast. A record 14-inch rainfall caused widespread flooding, and power outages were extensive. Nevertheless, the Vander team quickly restored the field, which had been under water, so the cooking teams could set up.

Meat thermometers (at least two are required, this cooker has four) help indicate how completely a pig has been cooked.

The teams, which were contending in competition and backyard categories, didn’t seem to have been discouraged in any way by the hurricane. Some first-time contenders earned high scores, and they were just as competitive as the experienced teams. Several cooks cooked with only wood or charcoal, although that way is somewhat more difficult than with gas.

Even a smaller cooker can produce excellent results.

The cookoff has the feeling of a small town fair. In addition to the cooking teams, vendors displaying and selling arts and crafts, food, and other local products lined the walkway that encircled the field where the cooking teams were set up. Some vendors were still setting up while judging was underway, but they were ready for the public when it arrived to buy plates of barbecue and other food sold by the civic association as its major fundraiser of the year.

The judges turn a pig to check crispness, moisture, appearance, and other criteria.

For this event, I was one of three judges. One had not judged before and had only recently been certified, but he was well prepared and performed like a pro. The other one had been judging for a few years. Before we went out to judge at the cooking sites, we had a congenial and productive discussion about procedures that helped keep us on schedule as we visited each site.

Some charring usually occurs when wood or charcoal, not gas, is used for cooking, but this charring is too much.

Although it is only five miles away from the center of Fayetteville (with a population of more than 200,000), Vander still retains its rural and independent character. The civic association has developed a cadre of community leaders who work to improve local cohesiveness and spirit. Their showpiece is the Vander Pig Cookoff, the most significant annual event for the community and one that reassures them that their civic identity is very much intact.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Whole Hog Judging in Western New York

Judging whole hog cookoffs is a great way to taste and evaluate excellent barbecue. Participating at events in a variety of locations opens a door to experience regional differences and styles in whole hog cooking.

Butts & Beans BBQ was one of the whole hog contestants.

Because I traveled to at Oinktoberfest for the cookoff sanctioned by Kansas City Barbeque Society, I took advantage of the opportunity to judge the festival’s whole hog competition on the next day. Being from North Carolina carries a lot of credibility at whole hog contests because the state has a well-recognized tradition of excellent whole hog cooking, particularly in its eastern areas that have a rich colonial past. In fact, the contest coordinator mentioned at the judges’ meeting that my home is North Carolina and asked me to give some examples of N.C. whole hog events.

Nancy Muller, contest official, discusses procedures with judges.

Of course, one example that I had to use is Newport Pig Cookin’ where 77 contestants competed this year and often more than 100 cooks participate. In contrast, at Oinktoberfest, only eight teams competed, and only seven turned in samples (one disqualified itself because the pig was undercooked); in 2015, only four competed.

Not much meat is left on the pig cooked by Butts & Beans after the cuts from the five sections have been made.

At Oinktoberfest, in addition to a smaller number of cooking teams, I expected to see other differences compared to events conducted by state and national sanctioning groups, such as the N.C. Pork Council. The biggest difference is that at Oinktoberfest the entire pig is not evaluated (only cuts from a pig), and no evaluation is made at a cooking site. Instead, cooks submit samples of cuts from five sections: shoulder, loin, ribs, belly/bacon, and ham. An hour before turn-in, an observer (known as the Hog Patrol) is at a site to confirm that the cuts are made in the correct sections.

A member of the Hog Patrol is ready to observe as cuts from the five sections are made.

Also at Oinktoberfest, the rules require cooking with only wood or charcoal, the “traditional” way but also more difficult to control temperature and flareups than when using gas. As a result, most pigs were charred and their brownness, moisture, and skin crispness -- major criteria of N.C. whole hog cookoffs – were less than satisfactory. Another difference is that Oinktoberfest contestants can use injections, which are prohibited in North Carolina. In addition, contestants had to provide their own hog. Perhaps to reduce expenses, many purchased a hog slightly more than the minimum weight, 40 pounds (a much lower weight than at past Oinktoberfests and significantly lower than at many events where pigs average over 100 pounds). However, the small size limits the areas to select meat. The ribs, in particular, were small and not very meaty.

Cooking a whole hog is a lot of delicate work and timing.

Judges at Oinktoberfest were all certified KCBS judges, who are trained to evaluate chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket. They used the same criteria – appearance, taste, and tenderness -- of KCBS for these meat categories to evaluate the samples turned in and to determine a composite score for each contestant. The judging was “blind” – judges did not know the contestants they were evaluating (unlike at most whole hog events, where judges visit sites and determine scores before leaving them).

The Tranquil Carnivores team prepares samples for turn in.

Judging at Oinktoberfest gives me a greater appreciation for national, regional, and state organizations that sponsor and sanction barbecue competitions, particularly whole hog cookoffs, and that provide a uniform approach to achieve in a high degree of consistency among events. A lot of insight and experience is needed to develop effective rules and to establish meaningful criteria. Oinktoberfest can be commended for bringing whole hog competition to western New York, and it will be a more effective contest as it matures and encourages more competitors to participate in whole hog cooking.

Finding the best cuts helps to achieve a higher score.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Celebrating Oinktoberfest

For my first contest in New York, I ventured to the town of Clarence, a suburb of Buffalo in the western part of the Empire State, where Oinktoberfest has been held for 15 years. The longest continually running barbecue competition in New York, Oinktoberfest has become a premier event to celebrate the arrival of fall as well and, of course, excellent barbecue.

The entrance of the Great Pumpkin Farm is all about the pumpkin.

Oinktoberfest is held at the Great Pumpkin Farm. The main attraction at the entrance is a pumpkin “patch” where children can wander through creative pumpkin displays. The fall decorations and pumpkin-themed exhibits make the farm an annual destination for many families.

Pumpkins greet the public on arrival at the Great Pumpkin Farm.

The weekend of Oinktoberfest is one of six weekends when the farm holds a fall festival and charges admission ($7 for ages 2 and up). Many attendees are families with young children who are entertained more by the carnival rides, farm activities, and Halloween-type attractions such as the “Boo Barn” than by the barbecue scene.

Teams set up for the competition; most participate in cookoffs on both days.

Most cooking teams set up in a back area away from festival activities, and some attendees might not even realize how many cooking teams are competing in the contest sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society. Most of the 54 cooking teams competing this year were from New York. An incentive for competing is that Oinktoberfest is the final event for determining the Empire State Champion. A few teams from Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Ontario (Canada) also joined in the competition. The table where I was the captain included judges also from Ohio and Ontario. 

At least one judge wants everyone to know his hobby.

Oinktoberfest is actually a three-day event, beginning on a Friday night with music and family entertainment and attractions. On Saturday is the KCBS contest with the usual categories of chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket.

An early crowd lines up to enter the festival grounds at Great Pumpkin Farm.

For 2016, the theme of Oinktoberfest was “East Meets West” to recognize how Asia-inspired barbecue (such as Korean bulgogi, Chinese char siu pork, and Japanese yakitori) is becoming a part of barbecue’s growing popularity. As a result, Oinktoberfest included an optional fifth category of “Asian pot luck.”

Family activities attract a lot of attention at Oinktoberfest.

Oinktoberfest has firmly established itself as a premier barbecue competition. Being there was an enjoyable experience, and Oinktoberfest has definitely expanded the popularity of barbecue in western New York.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Finding the Best Barbecue in Jacksonville, NC

It’s easy to find the best barbecue cooked whole hog style in Jacksonville, NC. All you have to do is head for the Onslow County Shrine Club when it is having its annual pig cookin’.

The sign by the highway that draws attention to the cookoff is only yards away from the Shrine Club where the cooks set up.

The Shrine Club attracts some of the best cooks in North Carolina who are competing for the right to advance to the state championship sponsored by the N.C. Pork Council. The top three cooks at the Onslow County event are eligible to participate in the Whole Hog Barbecue Championship, which this year will be held in Raleigh during Wide Open Bluegrass, the largest urban bluegrass festival in the world.

Sometimes a fan is needed to control the cooking temperature.

I was pleased to be one of the three judges for the Onslow County event and worked with two seasoned pros, both from Newport, NC: Jim Bristle and Bobby Prescott, who not only judge but also complete as cooks. Each has been a finalist in a regional event and competed in the state championship cookoff, which Prescott himself won in 1989 and 1996.

Judges begin their evaluation of the first of 15 cooked pigs.

The pigs that the Shrine Club provided the cooks weighed an average of 125 pounds with the biggest one weighing 131. Of the 15 cooks who entered the Onslow County contest, 12 had participated in previous years and were seasoned competitors well prepared to win. The three cooks new to the contest were very successful, even without more competition experience.

The judges turn a pig over to evaluate both sides.

The NCPC criteria for judging each pig include appearance, brownness, skin crispness, moisture, and meat/sauce taste. In addition, the cook’s site is evaluated for completeness. The winning pig depends on the skills of the cook, who is prohibited by the rules from using any sauce or injecting the pig to improve moisture. Because judging begins at 8 a.m. on Saturday, the cooks set up the day before and begin their cooking so that their pigs are ready for evaluation when the judges arrive at their sites the next morning.

After the evaluation by the judges, the once perfectly intact pig is in pieces.

The top three cooks were David Grandy (1st), Kevin Peterson (2nd), and Roy Parker (3rd). Earlier this year Parker had placed first in the Johnston County Pig Cooking Contest in Smithfield and the Kickin’ It Country Whole Hog Cookoff in Raleigh, both in May, as well as first in the Gen. William C. Lee Celebration in Dunn in June.

Scoring sheets are filled out before moving to the next cooking site.
After the judges have completed the scoring, the cooks turn in chopped barbecue to the contest organizers who sell it to the public beginning at 11 a.m. Patrick McGirl of the Shrine Club estimates that about 350 plates are sold (at $7 a plate), and additional barbecue is sold in bulk quantities later in the day.

Judges evaluate the pig cooked by Roy Parker (left is Jim Bristle and right is Bobby Prescott).

The pig cookin’ in 2016 was the ninth annual contest conducted by the Onslow County Shrine Club. Because it limits the contest to 15 cooks, they are forewarned to register early next year for bragging rights and the opportunity to advance to the Whole Hog Barbecue Championship. Next year the Shrine Club’s tenth annual contest will again be the place to find the best barbecue in Jacksonville.

After the pigs are judged, the cooks
prepare chopped barbecue for the Shrine Club.
The winning cook
takes home an
impressive trophy.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Legacy of Lexington Style

Old-fashioned at Stamey's means Lexington style.
When people want traditional “Lexington style” barbecue of North Carolina, they often travel not to Lexington but to Greensboro. The Gate City is the home of Stamey’s, which traces its roots to 1930 and was founded by the legendary C. Warner Stamey, who taught the Lexington style to other early pitmasters.

Stamey himself learned in Lexington how to make pit cooked barbecue from early entrepreneurs Jess Swicegood and Sid Weaver when he was a high school student there in the 1920s. After moving back to his hometown of Shelby, he made and sold barbecue before returning to Lexington in 1938 when he bought Swicegood’s business. He renamed it Stamey’s where he continued to develop his reputation as a barbecue pitmaster and promoter.

A photo of the founder watches over the entrance that includes several vintage photos of the business and a waiting bench.

Greensboro has two Stamey’s locations, the second one opening in the 1970s. The original one, which I visited, was opened by Stamey in 1953 as a drive-in after he had moved from Lexington. Across the street from the Greensboro Coliseum, it was replaced with a new structure in 1979 and has been operated continuously by a member of the Stamey family, currently Chip Stamey (grandson of the founder).

Tables in the dining area turn over frequently because orders are taken and served promptly.

Adhering to the style promoted by the founder long ago, the pitmasters still cook only pork shoulders and only over hardwood coals. Although Stamey’s claims a “secret” sauce, the secret is not well kept because it has provided the recipe – equal amounts of ketchup and apple cider vinegar with sugar, salt, black and red pepper -- to the Cooking Channel. Ketchup in the sauce keeps Stamey’s true to the Lexington style and separates it from the style of eastern N.C. where the sauce has no tomato (and whole hogs rather than only shoulders are cooked).

Lexington style is barbecue (using only pork shoulders) with hushpuppies and red slaw.

The chopped barbecue that I ordered came from the kitchen already adequately sauced, so I added no more at the table. The plate included red slaw (coleslaw made with Stamey’s sauce, not mayonnaise) and crisp hushpuppies (reportedly popularized as a side on barbecue plates when Stamey began serving them decades ago after seeing them served at local fish restaurants). The Brunswick stew that I also ordered was a colorful complement to the red slaw.

Brunswick stew comes with the requisite amounts of vegetables.

Credited with spreading “Lexington style” in the western half of North Carolina, Stamey nurtured several protégés such as Alston Bridges, Red Bridges, John Stogner, Doug Gosnell, and Wayne Monk. Even though I’ve been to Lexington and also eaten “Lexington style” in other cities such as Winston-Salem and Shelby, I felt closer to the tradition by being in Stamey’s and at its first location in Greensboro. The way the servers greet customers and take orders shows they know that they are preserving a legacy.

The carry-out counter stays busy throughout the day.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Morphing from a Dairy Center

The Barbecue Center was
once the Dairy Bar.
No trip near, through, or to Lexington, NC, is complete without a stop at one of its legendary barbecue establishments -- with more than 20 places to choose from. In the city that boasts the opening of its first one in 1919, the lineage of pitmasters is very royal.

The Lexington style of barbecue is so well known: pork shoulders cooked slowly over hardwood coals. It is always served with red slaw (coleslaw made with ketchup rather than the traditional mayonnaise base). The meat is usually served chopped, although sliced can be requested, and with a sauce seasoned with vinegar, ketchup, pepper, and other spices.

The wood outside tells you that slow cooking over hardwood coals is still the tradition.

For my most recent foray into Lexington, the destination was the Barbecue Center, which is the oldest barbecue restaurant in Lexington that still cooks on pits. It had its early beginnings as the Dairy Center and was known for its ice cream and banana splits, which seems an unlikely beginning for a legendary barbecue restaurant in Lexington. Barbecue now brings in the customers, but the signature dessert is still a humongous banana split.

The counter, originally in the Dairy Center, was moved to the Barbecue Center's new location when it opened in 1961.

Barbecue was added to the menu to improve business for the Dairy Center in the winter months. Doug Gosnell, who took over the restaurant in 1955, learned how to make pit-cooked barbecue, Lexington-style from the legendary C. Warner Stamey, who trained many other early pitmasters in the Piedmont area of North Carolina.

The dining area of the Barbecue Center is busy throughout the day.

The tray of barbecue that I ordered arrived just as expected: packed with chopped pork and red slaw. They and the hushpuppies were excellent. Rather than end the meal with the mountainous banana split, which reportedly weighs more than three pounds (a table of four usually shares one banana split), I settled for the much smaller and almost as famous banana pudding. 

A tray of barbecue (chopped, course chopped, or sliced) comes with red slaw.

Being able to trace its roots to Stamey places the Barbecue Center at the beginning of Lexington style. By continuing to make excellent barbecue and sides, it has a secure place in preserving Lexington traditions for a long time to come.

Banana splits are still
made at the counter.
Banana pudding is almost as famous as the banana split.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Pigs and Pedals Revisted

Returning to Asheboro, NC, to judge has been a priority since 2014 when I participated in the inaugural Pigs and Pedals cookoff. Because family obligations prevented me from attending in 2015, I was interested this year in seeing how the event had changed since its inception.

In its first year, the cookoff was well planned, organized and executed. For 2016, Pigs and Pedals was again a superior experience. A few changes had been made since the initial cookoff. Judging is now conducted in The Exchange, an attractive event space in the middle of the downtown area and very convenient to the cooking teams. The number of cooking teams also increased to the maximum that the event space can accommodate: 47.

The Smokehouse Mafia, last year's Grand Champion, sets up early.

The surprise for me was an assignment as table captain, which meant that I would not be judging and evaluating barbecue entries. It was my first time as a table captain although I had been certified early last year and had volunteered at other events. The primary duties are to assist the contest representatives of Kansas City Barbeque Society by coordinating activities at a judging table (there were eight this year), serving the judges and collecting their evaluations.

Piggy cupcakes made by a local bakery greet judges as the arrive in The Exchange.

The six judges at the table where I was assigned had a wide range of experience. Three were master judges (more than 30 contests), one was participating for only his third event, and one was recently certified and judging for the first time. Contest organizers attempt to include new judges at events and place them at tables where they can learn from experienced judges.

The Exchange, an event location, is now the venue for all judging activities.

Although I prefer to judge, I willingly had volunteered to assist as a table captain when I registered. I will continue to volunteer in more than only the capacity of judge, although the rewards of being a judge and evaluating barbecue entries are clearly the motivation for judges to participate and spend the time required to drive and attend.

Pigs and Pedals remains one of my favorite barbecue contests and I hope to attend future cookoffs – as a judge or in another capacity.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Cooking with a Team

The thrill for some barbecue fans is being a judge at a cookoff. For others, it’s taking on the challenging work of a cooking team. Sometimes the interests combine, and a cook wants to be certified as a judge, or a judge joins a cooking team to experience a cookoff from a different perspective.

Amanda Reed, her husband Jim, and best friend Kendra Battasta (left to right) show me the cookoff from a team's perspective.

In Apex, NC at the Peak City Pig Fest, I had the opportunity to join Coastal Smoke, a team from Wilmington, NC. It has competed at events sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society for about three years and successfully competed even earlier at community cookoffs.

Amanda and Kendra continue setup activities by placing a cooker in position.

Last year at the Smoke on the Harbor BBQ Throwdown in Mount Pleasant, SC, I met Amanda Reed, the head cook for Coastal Smoke. When I asked if I could join her team at an event in 2016, she was more than gracious and agreed that I could join her at the Pig Fest. Cooking with a team is a KCBS requirement for certification as a master judge, which I hope to gain when I have completed other requirements.

Amanda injects a pork butt with a solution of apple juice and vinegar.

For the Pig Fest, Amanda arrived about noon to set up and begin preparations. Because I wanted to see the cooking team in action from start to finish, I also arrived at noon. I was amazed at the constant motion of the team on the first day. So many steps – setup, meat inspection, cooks’ meeting, meat preparations -- have to be completed early to be ready for the quick pace of simultaneous actions on Saturday.

Pork butts are checked on a cooker.

After spending nine hours on site on Friday, I left for the evening (and a comfortable, uninterrupted sleep). Amanda with her husband Jimmy and best friend Kendra Baratta continued with other activities that shortened their sleep considerably. (Although I briefly thought about staying with them, I long ago gave up “all nighters” and don’t get up in the middle of the night for anything.) 

Kendra watches as Amanda puts chicken pieces on a cooker.

Amanda, on the other hand, slept very little. Around 3 a.m., she started the fire so that the charcoals would be ready to smoke and provide residual heat when she placed the meats on the cookers. The brisket and two of four pork butts went on the cookers at 5 a.m. At 7 a.m., the other two pork butts were placed on the cookers. These two would provide the “money muscle” (a small strip of loin meat opposite the blade bone side that is very tender) for the pork entry.

After slow cooking for several hours, the ribs are sliced for the turn-in box.

On Saturday I returned to the team site just before 8 a.m. (I could tell that Amanda and the others hadn’t enjoyed much sleep.) I watched most of the preparations for the two remaining meat categories: ribs and chicken. The ribs went on the cooker at 8 a.m. and finally the chicken at 10 a.m.

The chicken looks so good as it is arranged in the turn-in box.

So that the meats would be ready at the contest turn-in times (beginning at noon for chicken and continuing to 1:30 p.m. for brisket, the last one), each was prepared in advance – liquid injections, sauces, rubs. For example, the pork butts were injected with a solution of 3 parts apple juice and 1 part vinegar with a little sugar and salt. Even before arriving at the contest site, Amanda had prepped the chicken pieces by removing the bones, some skin and fat.

Kendra turns in chicken, the first entry, exactly at noon to Doug Reid, the KCBS rep.

When the turn-in times arrived, I was surprised how calm the team was. Everything was going just like clockwork. Kendra was the “runner” and took each entry for turn-in at the designated time after Amanda had completed the final stages. Before a turn-in was ready, she had picked the best pieces, cuts, or slices from everything that had been cooked, which was three or four times what was needed for turn-in. For example, to select at least 6 pieces of chicken for the entry, 19 had been cooked.

Rib are perfectly placed in the turn-in box for a high appearance score.

When the last entry was turned in, there was a brief sigh of relief before starting the final actions: cleaning and packing for the journey home – and waiting (more than 3 hours) for the awards ceremony. The results were bittersweet. The scores for chicken, ribs, and brisket were lower than hoped for, but Coastal Smoke placed among the top 10 teams in the pork category (even at turn-in, we thought that the pork was the best of the four entries submitted).

The pork entry, with money muscle lining the center, is ready for turn-in.

Looking back on the weekend activities, I have much more appreciation for a cooking team. The investment of time, money, and effort is substantial. Few people, particularly the public that arrives mid-day on Saturday, realize the amount of work involved. For me, the weekend was great. Because I had judged at the Peak City Pig Fest last year, seeing the event from the perspective of a cooking team was rewarding. If I ever spend time with a cooking team again, I can only hope that they are as congenial as Coastal Smoke

Note: To see an album with more pictures of my cooking experience with Coastal Smoke, click here.