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.

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