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.