Saturday, November 11, 2017

Polar Pig BBQ Cookoff Grows in a New Location

The inaugural Polar Pig BBQCookoff, held last year in Mt. Pleasant, NC, successfully started a new fall tradition of barbecue competition in an area northeast of Charlotte. To give the event more space, the new organizers moved the contest five miles from the original site to the spacious property of the Cabarrus Arena and Events Center in Concord.

Even as the center was hosting a cheerleading competition and a gun show in other facilities on the same day, it was a better location than being behind the Mt. Pleasant Town Hall and provided more than adequate space for the contest. In the inaugural event, 25 teams competed. With the additional space of the new venue, the organizers accommodated almost twice that many – 47 teams cooked this year.

Trophies await the winners of the Polar Pig BBQ competition.

Because the event is held on the second Saturday in November, teams interested in earning points in the final weeks of the year’s competition conducted by Kansas City Barbeque Society were eager to participate. The overall winner and grand champion was perennial favorite Redneck Scientific, which last year placed second and won reserve champion honors. 

Judges assemble before the competition begins.

Having the contest at the Cabarrus Arena and Events Center brought out a larger crowd than had attended at the inaugural event. In addition to observing the contest participants, the crowd could enjoy a zone of vendor tents, a beer garden, live music, and a kid’s play area. This year, the event also included a people’s choice award, and spectators could taste samples prepared by cooking teams.

Cooking teams set up inside the track of the 11-acre midway of the Cabarrus Arena and Events Center.

The future for the Polar Pig BBQCookoff looks promising. The significant improvements in event planning and the major increase in the number of cooking teams are encouraging signs that the competition will be even better in 2018. I hope to return again next year.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Mallard Creek, the Granddaddy of All Barbecue Events

For years I’ve wanted to attend the granddaddy barbecuefestival of all, the long-running event organized by Mallard Creek Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. Finally, in its 88th year, I got to see why it’s so famous.

Now in its 88th year, Mallard Creek is the place for BBQ in October.

More than 20,000 people attend the latest incarnation of an event begun in 1929 when the nation fell into the Great Depression. That year the church cooked two hogs and a goat, and sold its first barbecue to pay a contractor who was constructing Sunday school rooms. Now proceeds raised support local and world missions and supplement the church’s building fund. The food -- chopped pork barbecue, Brunswick stew, coleslaw, and applesauce -- continues to please each new generation.

The annual event is a reunion of church members and community residents.

The crowd includes plenty of politicians eager to campaign before elections are held in only 12 days and greet voters as they move through the waiting line. A lot of food is needed to feed the crowd. This year more than 13,000 pounds of pork barbecue, 25,000 gallons of Brunswick stew, 2 tons of coleslaw, and 400 gallons of coffee were prepared. Each plate costs $10, and a sandwich only is $4. (If you call ahead, the church can accommodate group orders of 50 plates or more – but no deliveries.) Barbecue is also sold by the pound, and stew and slaw by the quart.

The BBQ plate costs $10.

While applesauce on a barbecue plate may not be usual, the biggest surprise is the Brunswick stew, which is made with rice, not potatoes. In addition, instead of shredded chicken and other meat such as beef, it has ground-up chicken, pork, and beef; instead of lima beans, it has only tomatoes and corn.  Rebecca McLaughlin, who died in 2004 at age 93, is responsible for the stew recipe. According to her son Dale, she began overseeing its preparation in the 1940s and continued for about 40 years. Because she thought potatoes were too mushy, she swapped them out for rice. She stopped using lima beans because she thought they were too strong.

Four drive-through takeout lines serve customers until all the food is sold.

Always on the fourth Thursday of October, the sale requires much more effort than is obvious and begins in earnest early in the month when the Community House, where the event is held and that is located two miles from the church, is cleaned up and checked for general repairs. A week in advance, equipment for cooking the meat is set up and the seasoning room is prepared.

Politicians greet customers as they walk through the waiting line to the serving area.

On the Thursday before the event, the first meat comes off the cooker, and the chopping and seasoning process begins. Next the barbecue is weighed and bagged in one-pound packages. Then the equipment and area are cleaned and prepared for another day of cooking on Friday. On Saturday, the slaw – cabbage, onions, carrots, and celery – is made. More cleanup is needed on Saturday as well as Sunday afternoon.

Barbecue, Brunswick stew (made with rice), and coleslaw can also be bought in bulk quantities.

On Monday as early as 2 a.m., church members start cooking chickens to make the Brunswick stew. On Tuesday, the ingredients for the stew are mixed, and then the stew is dipped into containers. Additional site preparation continues on Wednesday so that the area is ready for the big day on Thursday.

The serving line never rests.

Customers begin arriving as early as 9:30 a.m. (although the publicized start time is 10 a.m.) and keep coming until the barbecue is sold out. On some years, it’s gone by late afternoon. Then the final cleanup begins as tables and chairs are taken down and paper goods are consolidated and stored.

Local neighbors, the only paid workers at the event, stir stew with long paddles. 

The event is a major undertaking. It seems each church member has an important task, and many work countless hours. Their joy and camaraderie are obvious as they work together and serve the crowd. So much good-tasting food is prepared for so many customers, and they keep coming back year after year.

Huge trailers keep prepared food refrigerated until the day of sale.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Rocky Mount: Continuing After a Hurricane

The Eastern Carolina BBQ ThrowDown, held annually in October in Rocky Mount, NC, is a favorite event for many cooking teams and judges. However, October is also in the midst of hurricane season for areas near the Atlantic coast.

Cooking teams set up near the train station in the historic district.

Last year the event couldn’t be held because Hurricane Matthew brought devastating flooding and strong winds as the ThrowDown was scheduled to begin. After waiting patiently a year to return to Rocky Mount, 50 cooking teams were ready for intense competition. Muttley CrewBBQ, a team that I have visited, won top honors as grand champion as well as top place in the categories of chicken and ribs.

A festive crowd enjoys live music in front of the train station. 

The competition is held on the grounds of the Helen P. Gay Historic Rocky Mount Train Station, one of the most attractive sites for cookoffs sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society. It and more than 100 other distinctive buildings form the national historic district of the city. The station, built in 1893, is still active and is served by four passenger trains. Judges met in the adjacent Rocky Mount Senior Center.

The turn-in table is set up in advance.

The ThrowDown is organized by Rocky Mount’s Downtown Development Office, which seeks to keep the historic downtown area vibrant with retail shops, restaurants, antique stores, and other businesses. This year a new activity was added to the ThrowDown – a cruise-in of classic cars. For the third year, the ThrowDown also included a home brewing competition, which was judged by representatives of local breweries.

Judges wait for the first meat category to be turned in.
However, the prime attraction of the event was the cooking competition and the successful talents proven by each team that won a trophy. The ThrowDown trophies, hand-blown glass on a marble base and commissioned especially for this event, are some of the most attractive that cooking teams can win.

The contest awards very distinctive trophies.
The Eastern Carolina BBQ ThrowDown continues to be a popular event in October for cooking teams and judges. The distinctive setting by the famous train station in the historic district creates an enjoyable ambiance. Having beautiful, dry fall weather is also important.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Cookoff at a Harley-Davidson Dealership

Have you ever attended a barbecue cookoff at a Harley-Davidson dealership? Neither had I before being a judge at Biker Blues & BBQ in Salisbury, NC.
Judges line up to sign in for the contest.

The event’s full name -- Tilley Harley-Davidson’s Biker Blues BBQ Rally and BBQ Classic – clearly indicates that much more than barbecue is on the schedule. Motorcycles, specifically Harley-Davidsons, are everywhere: new ones on the showroom floor and lots of others brought to the rally that look so good that they could pass for new.

Many new motorcycles are on display on the showroom floor.

Although the event starts with music the night before any barbecue is judged, Saturday is the main day. The rally, a “poker run” that lasts more than five hours, begins well before the cooking teams turn in chicken, their first entries, for the contest. When I saw all the motorcycles parked before the rally began, I was surprised -- more than 100 riders were participating.

The motorcycle rally was a popular part of the weekend.

The cookoff, part of the Old North State Barbecue Series, drew 63 teams, making it one of the largest contests in the Southeast. The large number of teams was attracted by more than $15,000 in prize money. Sauced BBQ! Team from Denver, NC, took home $3,000 as the grand champion – a return to the top and a big improvement from the week before in Goldsboro, NC, when low brisket scores dropped the team to 19th out of 39 teams. (The team incidentally also won the cookoff in Lakeland, Florida, my first event this year, and was the reserve champion in Asheboro, NC, where I judged last month, so it usually is successful.)

Cooking team set up in the back parking area of the dealership.

The contest was flawless in execution, a challenge considering how many cooking teams participated. At the designated intervals for turn-in of the entries, the volunteers smoothly handled the containers to maintain the “blind judging” standards of the Kansas City Barbecue Society, which sanctioned the event.

The People's Choice competition gave the public a chance to vote for their favorite barbecue.

The blend of music, barbecue, and motorcycles attracts a sizable crowd in Salisbury. Begun in 2012, Biker Blues and BBQ is well established among judges and cooking teams as an event to attend. It will continue to be a favorite event each fall for everyone.

The huge Grand Champion trophy was taken home by the Sauced BBQ! Team.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Goldsboro, a City with a Celebrated Barbecue Heritage

Goldsboro, NC, is very proud of its barbecue heritage. It claims to be the home of “the best BBQ,” and its online visitor information brags about its prominence on the N.C. Historic Barbecue Trail. As a result, I’ve wanted to judge here since I was first certified.
Cooking teams set up in the grassy area near Cornerstone Commons in downtown Goldsboro.
However, as the county seat of Wayne County, Goldsboro is more important to me than for barbecue reasons because it’s also the home of my maternal ancestors. I’ve visited the county before to explore the rural areas north of the city where they lived. For this visit, nothing but barbecue was on my mind, and I enjoyed being a judge at the Beak Week Festival.

The stages for music during Beak Week includes several innovative approaches.

Although the festival was begun in 2014 to celebrate the county’s poultry industry, more than chicken is evaluated during the barbecue contest. Ribs, pork, and brisket are also cookoff categories to comply with the requirements of the Kansas City Barbeque Society, which sanctions the event.

Food and crafts vendors along Center Street are ready for the crowd on early Saturday morning.

Poultry is clearly important to the county, and a wing-eating contest, a bird-themed costume fun run, a “fowl play” softball game, and a week-long scavenger hunt for chicken and turkey cutouts in the downtown area add to the festival’s emphasis on poultry. However, the $20,000 in prize money is the main attraction for about 40 cooking teams to compete in the barbecue cookoff.

Judges meet in the gym of the Goldsboro Police Department.

Goldsboro’s reputation for hosting a superb barbecue contest grows each year. Even though the cookoff is part of a poultry festival, the crowd of more than 10,000 knows that barbecue encompasses much more than poultry, although in Wayne County, it’s an indispensable part.

Several photo opportunities are available during Beak Week, which celebrates the local poultry industry.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Pigs and Pedals Again

Judges are directed to their area.
Pigs and Pedals in Asheboro, NC, is a favorite contest of mine, and I enjoyed returning for a third time. The cookoff is well organized, and cooking teams are very competitive. Because Asheboro is in the center of the state and is easy to get to, several judges return each year.

Cooking teams set up on the center of downtown Asheboro.

Judging with friends and judges that I’ve met in past events makes the contest even more enjoyable. The contest offered $12,000 in prize money, and 49 cooking teams competed. The barbecue entries were superior, and many entries earned high scores.

Judges relax before their meeting begins.

New for this year was a kids cooking contest. The inaugural Kids Q competition was divided into two age categories: 6 to 10, and 11 to 15. The younger group grilled hamburger, and the older one cooked steaks. The kids got a taste of real competition because the judging criteria -- taste, tenderness, and appearance -- complied with the standards of Kansas City Barbeque Society.

The Kids Q competition area is ready for the junior competitors.

The barbecue cookoff was also held in conjunction with the annual car show of the Zooland Region (so named because of Asheboro’s close proximity to the N.C. Zoo) of the Antique Automobile Association of America. Although the People’s Choice competition of the barbecue contest was very popular, the car show was clearly a crowd favorite, and many people lingered among the old vehicles parked along several blocks of downtown Asheboro.

The antique car show was very popular.

Asheboro has definitely established itself as the place to be in early August for great barbecue, superior cooking teams, and experienced judges. Pigs and Pedals will continue to be an event where I want to judge.

A table full of trophies is ready for the awards ceremony.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Returning to Galax

Smoke on the Mountain in Galax, Va., is an annual favorite for cooking teams and judges. Set in the center of a small city (population only 7,000), the cookout has a venue envied by many other contests.

The last time that I was a judge for Smoke on the Mountain was in 2015. The community support for the event and the hordes of enthusiastic barbecue fans who attend continue to impress me.

Teams keep wood burning to have hot coals for when needed.

Local citizens and visitors spend a good part of the weekend walking among the cooking teams, enjoying the live music on street stages, looking over items being sold by arts and crafts vendors, and checking out sales at several antique stores.

The marquee of the historic theater in Galax promotes the barbecue cookoff.

Before the judges were required to take their seats, I joined the downtown scene and visited several vendors and stores. The most surprising find for me was to see a squash pie for sale. Although my focus for the day was barbecue, I couldn’t resist taking home a squash pie made by a 95-year-old lady who was one of the street vendors.

Judges relax before the first entries arrive for them to judge.

The judges again met on the second floor of the Chestnut Creek School of the Arts, which conducts classes in contemporary art and traditional music. Located in the historic National Bank Building, it has a gift store that features creative items made by local artists. I was particularly struck by artwork using a theme of the galax leaf. The prominence of the low-growing evergreen shrub, native to the southern Appalachian Mountains, is how Galax got its name in 1906.

The watercolor "Small Galax Leaf" by local artist Paula Melton is on display at the Chestnut Creek School of the Arts.

The cookoff occurs in Galax a month before it hosts the Old Fiddlers’ Convention, the world’s largest and oldest fiddlers’ convention. The city is known as the World Capital of Old-Time Mountain Music, a traditional American music that gave rise to bluegrass, country, rock and other styles. With its Smoke on the Mountain contest, Galax also continues to build on its reputation for excellent barbecue. In the cookoff, cooking teams compete in separate contests sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society and Memphis Barbecue Network.

A team prepares one of its entries for judging.

Smoke on the Mountain continues to be one of my favorite contests. The cool temperatures in mid-July are an added enticement to attend. Judging barbecue and enjoying the street scene are great ways to spend a Saturday in a lively small city.

Trophies for earlier cookoffs in Galax take center place among others at a competitor's site.

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.