Saturday, January 30, 2016

Returning to Lakeland, Florida

The Lakeland Pigfest has been held for 20 years.

When the opportunity to return to Lakeland, Florida, for a barbecue contest became available, I jumped at the chance. Being in Florida in January to enjoy warm temperatures and combining the travel with judging barbecue is a great combination.

Pig In or Pig Out competed in the pro division of Pigfest.

Although Lakeland is a nine-hour drive from my home, the destination makes the journey more than worthwhile. I decided to stay a week more than last year in Florida after I was notified by contest organizers that I would be a judge. The extra time gave me and my family time to explore the panhandle of the state, visit Gulf Coast beaches, and spend several days at Walt Disney World – and miss a snow and ice storm in my home area.

Judges mingle before the competition begins.

Another change this year is that I was able to judge in the “pro” division, which is for the highly competitive teams (last year I judged in the “backyard” division of the Lakeland Pigfest). Participating as a judge in the “pro” division was phenomenal. The meats were exceptional, particularly the briskets.

Fired & Wired was one of the teams competing in the backyard division.

The Pigfest is one of only four events in January sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society. Two are in foreign countries (Italy and Australia). If a cooking team wants to compete in January in the United States, it has to choose the Pigfest or a BBQ throwdown in Denver. Quite a few choose the Pigfest, which has been the host to more than 200 teams from 17 states since it began in 1997.

The Smoke Shack team had the tallest signs but placed low (57 out of 58 teams) in the pro division.

The pro event attracted 58 cooking teams from all over the country, and the backyard competition attracted an equally large number of teams -- requiring the organizers to field a huge number of certified judges: six judges and a table captain are needed for each increment of six cooking teams. 

The perfect way -- homemade ice cream -- to end a day of judging barbecue.
The 2016 Pigfest was the 20th annual occurrence. All the past experiences have given the organizers an excellent foundation for planning and conducting the next event. It remains one of the top events that I’ve been able to attend as a judge. The nine-hour drive is a small concession to make to start a new year in Florida with a premier contest.

Judging in a Kids Contest

When I had the opportunity to judge in a barbecue contest involving only children, I wasn’t too sure what to expect. However, when I saw the competition for kids under the age of 16 at the Pigfest last year in Lakeland, Florida, I was impressed with the enthusiasm that children bring to an event and the joy that they express when they receive prizes and trophies.

A grandfather offers advice to an aspiring barbecue cook.

The annual Pigfest has included a “Kids Q” contest as part of its activities since 2004. It begins early in the morning, and all judging is completed well before judges have to be ready for the adult competition. After watching the Kids Q in 2015, I wanted to be a judge for this event when I returned to Lakeland for another contest.

Kids prepare meats for their grills.

At Lakeland, the children cook on their own grills in a designated area. Although I enjoyed seeing them labor over their grills under the watchful eye of a grandparent or other mentor, the highlight is the awards ceremony at the main stage. Trophies and prizes are awarded to the winners, plus every child get to keep the grill used in the contest. Another special moment is when youthful contestants parade by the “seasoned” judges, who rise and applaud as they turn in their final entries.

A watchful parent guides a young barbecue competitor.

The contest is divided into two age groups: 11 to 15, and 10 and under. During the cooking process, a parent or guardian has to be present with each child. Although contestants can be helped with fires or slicing, each child had to do all the preparation, cooking, and presentation.

Kids Q competitors parade by the judges, who stand and applaud as chicken is brought for evaluation.

Judges use the KCBS evaluation forms of a regularly sanctioned event to rate the entries for appearance, taste, and tenderness. Although the contest complies with KCBS rules, the children compete in only two categories – steak and chicken (rather than the four – chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket – of a regularly sanctioned event). A local grocery store chain provides the meat to the children, so except for the registration fee, their expenses are limited.

Kids line up to turn in their chicken entries.

Lakeland officials are making sure that cooking barbecue in their area doesn’t become a lost art. By holding Kids Q, they are grooming a new generation of barbecue fans and helping older family members pass on a hobby to younger members. It’s a great event that should be adopted by more contest organizers.

A Kids Q judge thinks about a score to record.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Finding and Appreciating Jim ‘N Nick’s

The sign by the road says it all.

Have you been traveling down a highway when you saw a sign for a restaurant and thought, “That’s a place I’ve been wanting to visit”? As I was driving through the panhandle of Florida on U.S 98 heading west into Destin, the neon sign for Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q caught my attention.

On arrival you are greeted with a basket of mni cheese biscuits, a specialty of Jim 'N Nick's, which also sell the mix in bags.

Jim ‘N Nick’s serves barbecue I’ve wanted to taste since I first learned about it from Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization that documents, studies, and celebrates the food cultures of the American South. As I have attended SFA events, I’ve noticed that Jim ‘N Nick’s is one of the dedicated SFA corporate donors and actively promotes SFA’s events, programs, and workshops.

Riblets, a small plate or appetizer to share, are bite-sized pieces of smoked ribs.

Jim ‘N Nick’s, a casual chain that features slow-cooked barbecue, began in Birmingham, Alabama, where the late Jim Pihakis with his son Nick opened the first restaurant in 1985. Nick learned how to smoke meat slowly over wood coals by apprenticing under Phillip Audrey, pitmaster of Ollie’s Bar-B-Q in Birmingham. Jim ‘N Nick’s has grown to 34 locations in seven states. Almost half are in the state of Alabama, and four are as far away from my home as Denver.

A pulled-pork sandwich comes with two sides -- collards and beans were my choices.

The food definitely doesn’t taste like it was prepared by a chain, perhaps because its network of local producers provides pastured-raised heritage breed pork and each restaurant is locally owned and operated. Jim ‘N Nick’s says, “All BBQ has the same three basic ingredients: smoke, meat, and time,” and it combines all three superbly. It refers to its classic pulled pork sandwich as “pig on a bun,” which John T. Edge, SFA director, calls “the ideal pulled-pork sandwich, the workaday sustenance of all BBQ aficionados.”

John T. Edge's observation is highlighted in the menu.

With such a lofty portrayal, I couldn’t order anything else. With a pulled pork sandwich, I ordered slow-cooked collards and baked beans. To accompany a sandwich or plate, Jim ‘N Nick’s offers several favorite sides, or “scratch-made trimmings.” Also on the menu are mac & cheese, coleslaw, potato (mashed, chips, fried, or baked), fresh fruit, and house or potato salad. Even with several cheese biscuits, I saved room -- a challenge -- to finish with banana pudding.

Banana pudding is always on the menu as a dessert.

Everything brought to the table was superior. It’s hard to pick a favorite, although the cheese biscuits are a great way to begin a meal and the riblets that my wife ordered were perfectly prepared. Although I generally don’t consider a chain to be topic for this blog, Jim ‘N Nick’s is definitely an exception that deserves praise and a place that I would visit when I’m in one of its locations again.