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.