Saturday, July 1, 2017

Judging the Best Barbecue

[Note: This post, prepared originally for OutreachNC magazine, is hosted on the magazine’s website, with excerpts and a link to the website posted here.]

Being a judge at a barbecue cookoff is the best way to spend a weekend. Imagine tasting the best barbecue prepared by dedicated and enthusiastic pitmasters.

Judging at barbecue contests connects me to cooking traditions of our state, which boasts a rich history, sometimes united but often divided between western and eastern regions.

Barbecue fans in our area argue seriously about how to cook (wood vs. gas, whole hog vs. shoulder) – as well as the sauce (vinegar-pepper only or with ketchup added) and meat (pork only or also chicken and beef brisket). I don’t enter such arguments. I simply enjoy the style of each region and contest and try to stay true to the traditions and standards.

On the morning of a cookoff, the cooking sites are absolutely quiet – hardly a sound is heard -- as the cooks concentrate on their final preparations. When photographer Katherine Clark accompanied me at one whole hog contest, the sun was slowly rising as the judging began at 8 a.m.

Continue reading with an online version of the July 2017 issue of OutreachNC ...

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Improving Community Spirit

Covington is the third-least populous city in Virginia, and its population has been declining gradually since 1960 when it was more than 11,000. Because it’s now fewer than 6,000, any festival helps to improve community spirit.

Cooking teams set up on West Main Street in downtown Covington.

The economy of Covington is overwhelmingly dominated by one employer, WestRock, a corrugated packaging company. The second largest U.S. packaging company, WestRock employs about 1,300 workers. It traces its roots in Covington to 1890, when a predecessor company began operating in the city and Covington was enjoying a huge economic boom.

The large parking area behind West Main Street businesses was the scene of most festival activities.

Although the boom days are over, Covington still retains the charm of a small city in what once was the vast Appalachian wilderness that started changing in 1745 when the first settlers arrived and began claiming land. The downtown area, which includes several locally owned small businesses, was built decades ago in its prime. It looks like a movie set from the 1940s and is a historic district recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, which also lists three properties in the city as historic.

Judging took place in the council chambers of City Hall.

To draw attention to downtown businesses, the city has been sponsoring a barbecue cookoff sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society since 2014. The city’s director of finance and human resources is the event’s primary organizer and each year attracts more cooking teams and boosts interest in the event. This year, 32 teams competed for a total of $8,000 in prize money.

Billy Jim's BBQ, the team that finished the cookoff with the lowest point total, nevertheless had the most distinctive cooker.

Known as the Covington Cork & Pork Festival, the event combines a growing interest in wine tasting with the long-standing popularity of barbecue. Craft beer and wine vendors provide the “cork” component of the festival. In addition to the barbecue competition, the festival includes music performances, dance programs, children activities, and other entertainment.

Some teams set up in the parking area adjacent to City Hall.

In recognition of its dominant role in the community, WestRock is the primary supporter of the festival, and other businesses contribute as sponsors. Proceeds from the festival benefit the work of Olde Town Covington and are invested locally to support tourism and non-profit programs.

David Bryant, contest organizer and city finance director, speaks to the judges at their meeting.

With the Covington Cork & Pork Festival, city leaders have found an excellent way to continue the renovation, revitalization and improvement of their downtown area. Enjoyment of barbecue is promoting community spirit here as it does elsewhere.

Judges take the oath, administered before every contest, to be fair and impartial.

Primary streets in downtown Covington are closed for the festival.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Revitalizing a Small Downtown

A small city sometimes needs a boost to maintain its downtown business district. In the “Upstate” area of South Carolina, the city of Woodruff is striving to maintain a healthy local economy. Because it’s in the shadows of the larger cities of Spartanburg and Greenville, Woodruff’s leaders look for new ways to attract customers to its businesses.

Cooking teams begin to set up in the park behind the former high school building.
Since 2015, each spring the city has conducted a barbecue cookoff known as Piggin’ in the Park to bring visitors – cooking teams, judges, family friends, and others – to the downtown area. Organized by Alyson Leslie, Woodruff’s community and economic development director, the event is one of several new city programs to help support local business owners.

McKinney Park is almost filled by cooking teams, vendors, and festival activities.

Sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society, the cookoff has continued to grow each year. This year the number of cooking teams more than doubled to 44 from the 20 that competed last year. Organizers hope the event grows eventually to 55 teams, the size that McKinney Park, where the event is held, can accommodate.

Smoking Butt Heads placed in the top 10 in the ribs category.

Only a block from Main Street that bisects the business district, the park is the perfect venue for a festival and has ample space for cooking teams, children activities, food vendors, entertainment, and other activities. It was created recently out of the athletic fields of the city’s adjacent historic high school, built in 1925 and on the National Register of Historic Places, that now serves as City Hall.

Judges check in before the competition begins.

Piggin’ in the Park is one of six events of the Palmetto BBQ Series in South Carolina that offers additional prizes and results in crowning a state champion -- the team with the highest score in four of six events. Although several teams competing in the cookoff were from out of state, many were from South Carolina with the goal of gaining points to win the state championship.

New owners are moving into vacant buildings, such as this one that once was a service station and later a florist.

Leslie estimates that at least 16,000 cars come daily through the city on Main Street. Because Woodruff’s population is just slightly over 4,000, that’s a lot of potential customers for the city’s businesses. With events like Piggin’ in the Park bringing visitors into the area, the city – whose motto is “Where Time Is Well Spent” – should continue to be successful in revitalizing its downtown.

Business owners on Main Street in Woodruff are renovating and recruiting new business.

Theo's Snack Shack, which sells snow cones on Main Street, hopes for more visitors to Woodruff.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Judging in the Barbecue Capital of the World

If a city can claim to be the capital of barbecue, it is Lexington, NC. It proclaims to have more barbecue restaurants per person than any other city, and its own barbecue style is recognized worldwide. For many years its barbecue festival has attracted thousands and been one of the country’s most popular food events. When Lexington began holding a barbecue cookoff, I had to be a judge.

Full-size ornamental pigs, such as this one in front of the historic courthouse, throughout Lexington proclaim the city as the Barbecue Capital of the World.

In addition to celebrating barbecue, the BBQ Capital Cookoff is helping to revitalize the historic train depot area of Uptown Lexington. Where textile, furniture, and other manufacturing activities once dominated the city’s center, dilapidated and vacant structures are being removed or renovated to serve new retail, restaurant, entertainment, and other mixed-use purposes. Held in the district on the grounds of the new city amphitheater, which opened just days before the 2017 cookoff, the contest has become a signature event for Uptown Lexington and its proceeds are reinvested into the Uptown district.

The city newspaper promotes the cookoff on its front page.

The cooking teams spread out on the grassy areas next to the amphitheater, and the judges met in the historic depot by tracks still active. The quietness of the judging process was intermittently interrupted by the sounds of six trains -- a passenger train heading north from Charlotte and five freight trains, all heading south – rumbling by on an adjacent track.

Banners about the cookoff adorn Main Street in Uptown Lexington.

Since it began in 2011, the cookoff has continued to gain local interest and enthusiasm. The event has usually included two days of music that now can be showcased professionally on the stage of the new amphitheater. Last year, a motorcycle ride to raise awareness about autism was rescheduled to be the first official event of the cookoff, and this year the ride began and ended at the cookoff location. In addition, another new attraction was added: a car show (with 15 trophies).

The smokestack of the former Dixie Furniture Co. overlooks antique vehicles participating in the car show.

The contest attracted an eclectic assortment of judges. A couple were novice judges; one was participating in his 100th event; several others had already judged at more than 100 (one at 126). One judge was scheduled to judge at 30 contests this year. The entries of the 38 teams at the cookoff were unusually superior, perhaps because experienced teams were enticed to compete by almost $16,000 in prize money.

Piggy charts guided judges to the right seats.

When I first attended the barbecue festival 10 years ago, Lexington instantly became one of my favorite destinations. Plus two of my favorite barbecue restaurants -- Lexington #1 and The Barbecue Center – are among the 16 in the city that preserve the heritage of cooking pork shoulders slowly over hickory coals. 

Cooking teams set up on grassy areas in the depot district where manufacturing business once stood.

The cookoff similarly honors the city’s barbecue traditions. Although Lexington is only one of the 25 places where I’ve been judge at a cookoff, it’s definitely a favorite.

Mcadoo Heights BBQ took home the trophy for the Grand Champion.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Judging in a Fire Museum

As unlikely as a fire museum is for being the site of serious barbecue judging, it works just fine for the annual Firehouse BBQ Cookoff in Kings Mountain, NC. For more than twenty years, the firefighters of this small city (population just over 10,000) have organized a celebrated barbecue cookoff.

An antique fire truck is on display at the museum where the judges met.

As one of the first events each year, the contest brings out teams who are starting their competitive schedule for the year. Because the cookoff was one of the first held in North Carolina sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society, it has attracted very experienced cooking teams for several years. An additional enticement for the pitmasters is that the cookoff is one of the 11 events in the Old North State BBQ series, which offers additional prizes in addition to the prize money awarded in the contests.

Cooking teams set up in the interior of the Deal Park walking track.

At this year’s cookoff, 49 teams competed. In addition to attracting very competitive cooking teams, the Firehouse BBQ Cookoff also brings in very experienced judges. For this year, many judges were master judges, and a few had even participated at more than 100 contests.

Muttley Crew placed first in the ribs category, which propelled it to a top 10 finish.

The Historical Kings Mountain Fire Museum, which opened in 1976 and illustrates the colorful history of firefighting equipment over several decades, has hosted the competition for 21 years. The cooking teams set up in the interior of the Deal Park walking track, which is adjacent to the museum.

A large sign makes sure that the cooking teams know the turn-in times.

After conducting a barbecue cookoff for more than two decades, the firefighters know what they are doing. The event is well planned and organized, and it will be the place to be in April for both cooking teams and judges for years to come.

All is quiet at the turn-in table until the teams bring their chicken entries, the first category to be judged.

A box of large trophies is ready for the awards ceremony.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Improving an Agricultural Celebration by Adding a Whole Hog Cookoff

Homegrown in the Park, an annual festival in Burlington, NC, was begun by the Farm Bureau of Alamance County as a way to “bring the farm to the city” by holding a farm day in a city park. Previously, the bureau had offered tours of neighboring farms to educate the public about local agriculture.

Several teams created an inviting atmosphere at their cook sites that added to the ambiance of the festival.

The county has become increasingly urban, led by the growth of Burlington, its largest city, and Graham, the county seat. In recent decades, the population of the county has grown by as much as 20 percent. Farms have been lost as new residential areas have been created. Because many residents live in the county but work elsewhere, it is often described as a “bedroom community,” and appreciating its agriculture is important because the number of its farms have declined by 70 percent over the last century.

Impressive trophies were taken home by the finalists.

In its first three years, the festival drew increasingly large crowds by offering educational exhibits and displays to celebrate local agriculture -- music and free food were additional enticements to attend. For its fourth year, the festival was expanded to include a whole hog cookoff, and sanctioning by the N.C. Pork Council was obtained so finalists could advance and compete in the state championship, the culmination of the Whole Hog Barbecue Series.

Barbecue chopped by a team after being judged was served on plates to the public.

The whole hog cookoff seems to be exactly what the festival needed to complete its celebration of the county’s agricultural traditions and heritage. Barbecue from the cookoff is served to the public, and nothing brings out a crowd like excellent barbecue cooked by competitive teams. For its first cookoff, the festival attracted 14 teams. Although several had not competed in the Whole Hog Barbecue Series before, they all produced superior barbecue. The three other judges and I were impressed with how most pigs were scored high in areas of skin crispness, brownness, moisture, and appearance.

The pig cooked by Blue Pig BBQ, now in shambles after being judged, took home first-place honors.

With a whole hog cookoff now a major part of the festival, Homegrown in the Park is guaranteed to continue to grow and attract large crowds as its organizers and sponsors celebrate local agriculture.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

A New Cookoff to Start a Tradition

Duplin County in North Carolina is well known for its wines, history, museums, and festivals. After having its first whole hog cookoff that promises to be an annual tradition, the county -- big in square miles (ninth largest in the state) but small in population (58,000) -- will also be known for its competition-quality barbecue.

Showtime's Legit, the first team to be judged, awaits arrival of the judges.

The Duplin County Events Center, which hosts a variety of tourism and agricultural events, is the home to concerts, competitions, shows, tournaments, exhibitions, and other activities. The N.C. Muscadine Festival, which has been held annually each fall since 2005, was the first major event held at the center. To balance the schedule by holding a major event in the spring, a whole hog cookoff has been added. Although excellent barbecue is enticement enough to attract a sizable crowd, the organizers have also included bluegrass music and craft beer sampling. The event’s name says it all: Blue, Brew, and Cue Festival.

A pig looks perfectly prepared before the judges begin their inspection.

Because the organizers achieved sanctioning by the N.C. Pork Council for the festival, they were assured that the event would attract competitive cooks. Although the cooks want to earn bragging rights as finalists and win a festival trophy, they also want to qualify for the annual statewide championship held later in the year. When at least 10 cooks participate in a local contest sanctioned by the Pork Council, the finalists are eligible to advance and compete in the championship.

I check a temperature gauge as part of the evaluation.

For the inaugural cookoff, 20 competitors registered. Many cooks earned high scores – an indication of how competitive an inaugural contest can be. Although a few novices to the Whole Hog Barbecue Series were competing in a sanctioned event for the first time, several had been competitors in past years and achieved success in those contests. At least one competitor -- Roy Parker -- had won the annual Whole Hog Barbecue Championship (2006), and he clearly was confident. When I visited his site with the other judges for this festival, I thought the skin crispness -- one of the scoring criteria of a cookoff -- of his pig was excellent.

After judges walk away from a cooker, the pig is in shambles from the inspection.

The pigs were provided by Smithfield, a festival sponsor, to the cooks the evening before judging was conducted. Although they varied in weight from about 94 to 116 pounds, they were uniformly moist after having been cooked overnight, a phenomenal accomplishment for the cooks because contest rules prevent them from injecting the pigs or adding any sauce.

I enter the scores for one team before leaving its site.

For the contest, I teamed up with two long-term judges, Charlie Martin and Timmy Evans. Martin had been a judge at the Newport Pig Cookin’ Contest in 2016 and was one of the judges whom I shadowed as part of my certification by the Pork Council.

After the pigs are judged, meat from the cookers is brought in bins to festival volunteers who prepare for selling barbecue plates to the public.

For a first-time event, the Blue, Brew, and Cue Festival was well planned and organized. The combination of music, beer, and barbecue is a winner and should serve as a strong foundation for future cookoffs. Duplin County should soon be able to add excellent barbecue to its other tourism credentials – how appropriate for the county that has more hogs than any other in the United States. 

Photographer Katherine Clark takes pictures as I and the other judges evaluate a pig.

Note: During the judging process, I was followed by photographer Katherine Clark, who took pictures to accompany an article that I had written for OutreachNC magazine.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Curling Whiffs of White Smoke

As you approach the original Little Richard’s Lexington BBQ in Winston-Salem, NC, it’s easy to notice the curling whiffs of white smoke spiraling from the smokestacks. It’s a good sign. Barbecue is being cooked in the traditional manner – over hot wood coals.

Spiraling smoke tells you how Little Richard's cooks its pork shoulders.

Little Richard’s takes its name from founder Richard Berrier who got his start in the barbecue business when he was 13. It cooks pork shoulders – the Lexington style, hence the use of Lexington in its name – with hickory wood on an open pit for up to 10 hours. Then they’re hand-chopped as the restaurant’s dip (sauce) is added.

The parking lot fills quickly when Little Richard's opens.

When I arrived for lunch several minutes before noon on a Monday, the restaurant was busy. Only two tables were available. Glancing at the other tables, I saw that most customers had a BBQ tray (a cardboard boat loaded with chopped barbecue and slaw) or a BBQ sandwich. Even a small tray, which also comes with hushpuppies or a roll, was more than enough for lunch.

My tray was packed with adequate servings of slaw and barbecue.

Although the chopped pork was moist and delicious without needing any extra sauce, I was captivated by the tangy flavor of Little Richard’s own house dip and kept adding more and more to my boat as I ate the barbecue. The dip, mixed every morning, is Little Richard’s select combination of vinegar, ketchup, water, spices, and salt. It is thin and vinegary with a consistency similar to sauces in eastern North Carolina.

The dip recipe is a secret, but the ingredients are listed on the bottles.

True to Lexington style, Little Richard’s offers a vinegary red slaw, which gets its characteristic color from ketchup, with its BBQ plates, trays, and sandwiches. The menu lists “slaw,” with no description -- the implicit understanding is that the mayonnaise-based coleslaw of eastern N.C. barbecue traditions isn’t available because it’s not Lexington style.

Soon after I arrived for lunch, every table was occupied.

The original location, a destination on the historic N.C. Barbecue Trail, opened more than 25 years ago (a second location is also available -- surprisingly and somewhat confusing, several other barbecue restaurants in the area are also named Little Richard’s but are not connected).

The wood pile in back is Little Richard's proof that it cooks its pork slowly over hot coals.

By serving delicious barbecue that is cooked slowly with hickory wood, Little Richard’s is easily achieving its goal of “Eat Mo’ Pig.”

"Eat Mo' Pig" is an appropriate motto.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Returning to a Classic in Lexington, NC

Soon after I moved back to North Carolina, a day trip to Lexington was high on my to-do list. The purpose, of course, was to enjoy barbecue at one of the city’s dozen classic establishments.

Plenty of wood is ready for slow cooking pork shoulders.

Of all cities in the state (and the South), Lexington is probably the one most closely identified with barbecue. Visit NC, managed by a state agency to promote tourism, recognizes the barbecue legacy of the city by featuring a “barbecue tour” of it < >, and its legendary barbecue festival attracts thousands of spectators each October.

A pig in the Pig in the City art initiative greets customers as they arrive.

Even the city’s official website pays homage to the city’s barbecue heritage <>, and many businesses participate in the Pigs in the City art initiative, which places life-size pigs painted and decorated artistically around the city.

A barbecue tray with slaw is served in a cardboat boat, typical for Lexington-style restaurants.

Because Lexington Barbecue Restaurant (sometimes called “Lexington #1” or “The Honey Monk” by the locals) was the first place where I ate barbecue in Lexington, it’s always a place to stop when I’m in the area as I was recently. Very little changes here. Although it has expanded from a small cafĂ© to the large white building it now occupies, it has always served excellent pit-cooked barbecue since being opened in 1962 by Wayne Monk (hence, its alternate names of “The Monk” and “The Honey Monk”). Monk, who worked under the legendary Warner Stamey of Greensboro, was 26 when he built the first building and opened the business.

The white building is the current home, long ago replacing the small cafe built in 1962.

Located on appropriately named Smokehouse Lane, Lexington Barbecue cooks pork shoulders slowly and fresh daily over oak or hickory coals for about ten hours. The result is always superior barbecue – well worth the drive and the logical starting point for enjoying barbecue in the “barbecue capital.” USA Today has listed it in the top 10 best Southern barbecue spots, and Southern Living magazine has identified it as the favorite barbecue place of its readers in North Carolina.

The line of customers waiting for tables on a Friday night seems to never end.

Barbecue is served chopped, sliced, or coarse chopped. Plates, trays, and sandwiches come with “red” slaw, traditional for Lexington-style. Returning to Lexington Barbecue reminded me of my first visit – the simplicity of the restaurant; the friendliness of the wait staff; the authentic preservation of its style; and the excellent barbecue, slaw, and hushpuppies. No wonder that it continues to receive high praise and recognition even with all the other nearby barbecue restaurants.

A young fan declares Lexington Barbecue, also known as Honey Monk ("Hnemonk"), is the best.