Saturday, November 17, 2018

Returning to Smoke on the Harbor

Smoke on the Harbor BBQ Throwdown in Mount Pleasant, SC, is a perfect way to close out barbecue judging for a year. Set on the banks of the Cooper River across from historic downtown Charleston, the cookoff is popular among cooking teams vying for final awards and points as the year ends. It is one of the last sanctioned national events with the Kansas City Barbeque Society.

Teams set up near Lookout Pavilion on Patriots Point.

The cookoff is also the last event for determining the champion in the Palmetto BBQ Series, which links six events in South Carolina to select an overall winner. As a result, the cookoff attracts the top cooking teams in the state. For the seventh annual throwdown, 25 teams competed for a share of the prize money that totaled $9,100. In addition, the grand champion is automatically eligible to compete in the American Royal World Series of Barbecue and the Jack Daniel’s World Championship. This year the cooking team Pig on Fire won the grand championship.

The team Pig on Fire took home top honors as grand champion.

The Smokehouse Mafia, which placed fifth overall in the cookoff, scored enough points to win the Palmetto BBQ Series when their score was combined with their points from other events this year. Second place in the series was won by Old Colony Smokehouse, which benefited from the points earned by finishing fourth in the throwdown.

The points won by Old Colony Smokehouse advanced it to second place in the Palmetto BBQ Series.

The throwdown is hosted by the scenic Charleston Harbor Resort & Marina, which creates a large competitor and vendor village centered around Lookout Pavilion in a park-like setting known as Patriots Point. Judging activities were held again on the top floor of The Fish House restaurant that overlooks the harbor.

Several food and beverage vendors set up in Lookout Pavilion.

Schedule conflicts had kept me from attending Smoke on the Harbor after 2015. Because the cookoff this year was rescheduled for the third weekend in November (previously it was the second weekend), I was able to participate and was very happy to be a judge again at this event.

A sign on Patriots Point directs judges to The Fish House where they met.

Smoke on the Harbor is the best place to end the barbecue competition for a year. The scenic location and top-quality cooking teams make this event the place to be in November. I hope to return again next year.

The constant presence of smoke let you know that serious cooking is underway.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Double-Entry Event at Polar Pig Cookoff

The Polar Pig Cookoff has grown in interest and size since it began in 2016. To provide more space, the competition last year was moved from Mount Pleasant, NC, to the Cabarrus Arena and Events Center in nearby Concord, which served as the site again in 2018.

Judges check in for the start of the Polar Pig Cookoff.

This year for the first time the cookoff was a double-entry event, which permits teams to turn in entries simultaneously for two contests. Each contest awards prizes and points, which appeals to teams trying to score points as a year of competition is winding down. Each event is sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society and qualifies teams for invitational championships such as the Jack Daniel’s World Championship and American Royal World Series of Barbecue.

Prizes await the winning teams. Grand champion for contest A was Rooters-N-Tooters from Tennessee; The Algood Bar-B-Q Pit Crew from Tennessee was the top team for contest B.

Although some teams began signing up as early as May for this competition, several teams waited until immediately before the event to register. Until the total number of teams was known, the contest organizers could not adequately plan on how many judges were needed, and several assignments had to be revised just before the first entries were turned in.

The most interesting cooker was brought by Smoke Me Silly from Alabama, placed third overall in contest A and is currently in third for 2018 KCBS team of the year.

All 56 teams that entered the cookoff competed in contest “A,” and 44 of those teams also competed in contest “B.” For the two contests, 100 entries in each of the four meat categories — chicken, ribs, pork, and brisket — needed judging. As a result, the Fair Contest Office Building, where the judging was held, was overflowing with judges, with six plus a table captain seated at each table.

B-S BBQ Outlaws form South Dakota traveled the farthest of all teams.

Most cooking teams were from North Carolina, but several teams came from neighboring states such as Virginia (8) and Tennessee (5). Teams from states more distant also brought very creative names such as Texas (Boomerang BBQ), Alabama (Smoke Me Silly), Rhode Island (Rhode Hog BBQ), Massachusetts (Insane Swine), Indiana (WeQ4U), and South Dakota (B-S BBQ Outlaws).

Cooking teams, which had set up in the 11-acre midway of the Cabarrus Arena and Events Center, begin the process of disassembly after the cookoff ends.

In all, teams came from 14 states. Polar Pig is one of the few events where competitive teams come from so many distant locations. The high caliber of teams participating made being a judge very rewarding because the barbecue was exceptional.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Revisiting Hemingway, SC

So much has happened concerning the appreciation of Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, SC, since I visited four years ago. It still occupies the old variety store in a town of fewer than 600 residents. The business begun by Roosevelt Scott, when he was 30, continues the family tradition of cooking whole hogs and serving the area’s favorite pork barbecue sauced with peppery vinegar.

A new sign was added after my visit in 2014.

However, Scott’s son, Rodney, has gone on to fame and fortune far beyond that ever imagined by his parents. This second-generation pitmaster has branched out from his family’s business in rural South Carolina and launched his own eponymous restaurant in busy downtown Charleston, only 80 miles away.

Scott's Bar-B-Que is now a certified heritage site.

The contrast between the two locations couldn’t be greater. Because I had just visited Rodney Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Charleston, I wanted to see what changes had been made in Hemingway at the family business. Fortunately for me, the only significant changes were a marker designating the store as a certified heritage site in eastern South Carolina and a new metal structure that encloses the pits.

The relationship of Scott's Bar-B-Que to South Carolina barbecue culture and the four regional sauces (or "mops") is explained in a new sign by the pits.

A simple menu board still hangs above the serving windows, the menu is as limited as ever, the lineup of customers wanting to take home their next meals never ends, and the whiff of smoked barbecue permeates the country variety store as before.

Although a menu board is above the serving window, most customers know what they want to order before they enter.

When I ordered a barbecue dinner to go, I was pleased to see that it is still served in a Styrofoam clamshell and comes with sliced white bread. I also appreciated coleslaw and baked beans as sides with the barbecue; however, the expansion of sides to the level of Rodney’s restaurant in Charleston clearly hasn’t been considered even with all of the success in the big city.

My plate of pulled pork (and sauce in the lower left corner) came with coleslaw and beans in a Styrofoam clamshell.

After son Rodney has been profiled in national publications such as Time magazine and The New York Times and received the award as Best Chef: Southeast from the prestigious James Beard Foundation, it’s reassuring that the family business continues with few changes, unaffected by all the glitter and publicity. The residents of Hemingway would be shocked if Scott’s Bar-B-Que wasn’t still preparing and serving barbecue like it has for the past four decades, and the out-of-town visitors would be disappointed if the trip back to nostalgia ever ended.

A new metal structure now encloses the pit area.

Note: This post fittingly is the 100th one that I have added to this blog. The barbecue journey that I’ve been on couldn’t have timed a better return to Hemingway, SC, to appreciate the work and legacy of the Scott family.

Judging in an Alligator Zone

Being a BBQ judge usually has nothing to do with alligators. All that changes in Summerville, SC, where Brew & Cue on Shrine Lake is held.

The Brew & Cue contest was held at scenic Shrine Lake.

After checking in with the organizers when I arrived, I had time to walk through the cooking team area before the judges meeting began. As I walked, what captured my attention more than the smoke coming from the cookers were signs posted to beware of alligators. Later during the day, judges entertained each other by telling tales about past alligator experiences at Shrine Lake.

Signs at the lake warn about alligators; clubhouse where judges meet is in background.

The cookoff was organized by the Dorchester Shrine Club as a fundraiser to support Shriner Hospitals for Children. All judging activities took place in the organization’s spacious clubhouse. The cooking teams set up at shaded campsites on a scenic peninsula jutting into Shrine Lake. Although we were on the lookout for the possibility of spotting an alligator, none were seen during the contest.

Cooking teams set up at campsites on a scenic peninsula.

The competition featured 15 cooking teams. Because 14 had won as a champion of other events, the level of competition was very high. In fact, when all the judges’ scores were totaled, only 0.026 points separated the top two teams (a big contrast to the 21.12 points that separated teams 14 and 15). The cookoff is one of six contests in South Carolina that are sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society and contribute to a points chase that determines the winner of the Palmetto BBQ Series. By winning the grand championship of Brew & Cue with such a high score (698.2740), the team Smoke Central BBQ significantly advanced its standing in the points chase.

Rusty Cook, contest rep, checks that every team has the correct time before turn-ins begin.

Being a judge at Brew & Cue was rewarding because the barbecue was exceptional and deserved very high scores. The location was scenic — and not seeing any alligators was very much appreciated.

Friday, November 2, 2018

The Pitmaster Who Won a James Beard Award

Enjoying barbecue prepared by award-winning pitmasters is a hobby of mine, but it’s not often that the award has been presented by the prestigious James Beard Foundation. Rodney Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Charleston, SC, is the home of the award-winning pitmaster, although his roots in Hemingway, SC, are not that far away.

Cut hardwood stacked outside the restaurant lets you know that you've arrived at Rodney Scott's. 

Opened in July 2016, the restaurant is a continuation of success for Scott, after having been profiled in Time magazine, The New York Times, Saveur, and other publications. With the James Beard Award in 2018 for Best Chef: Southeast, Scott has reached another pinnacle. The award acknowledges Scott’s culinary talent and broadens his reputation nationally. With the recognition came backing for Scott to open his own restaurant on King Street in food-centric Charleston, about 80 miles away to the southeast from his family’s business where he learned to cook whole hogs.

Rodney Scott's BBQ is now a destination on King Street in Charleston.

Having lunch at Scott’s was the most important part of my recent trip to Charleston (although the purpose was to be a judge at a cookoff in the area on the next day). I was surprised how extensive the menu is at the Charleston restaurant. It’s much more expanded than the simple menu of Scott’s Bar-B-Que in Hemingway.

Customers wait to order at the peak of lunch hour.

For my first visit to Rodney Scott’s in Charleston, I had to order the pit-cooked barbecue, although fried catfish was tempting. Pork smoked over oak coals with a little hickory and pecan hardwood carried me back my first visit to Scott’s Variety Store and Bar-B-Que in Hemingway. On his menu in Charleston, Scott proclaims that he gets the wood that he needs every week “to put flavor in what we do — kind of like the chef picking out tomatoes from a garden.” The barbecue flavors of the family’s traditional approach of slowing cooking whole hogs have amazingly been brought intact to the big city.

Rodney Scott is a gracious host, and his smile is as award-winning as his barbecue.

True to the tradition of the Scott’s family style in Hemingway, two slices of white bread accompany the pulled pork on a plate, which is served on a tray and comes with two sides and cornbread (only one side with sandwiches).

This combo plate, served on a tray, includes pork and ribs with beans, greens, cornbread, and white bread. An order of banana pudding is at the top left.

The sides are tempting. Baked mac ‘n’ cheese with a crispy breadcrumb topping seemed to be the customers’ favorite while I was there. Being a traditional Southerner, I ordered the greens. Coleslaw, potato salad, hushpuppies, and baked beans are among the other sides.

A sandwich is served with one side (coleslaw in this order).

Although I didn’t save room for dessert, I ordered some anyway — only one is on the menu, and it’s the only one needed. Traditional banana pudding completes a perfect barbecue lunch. What Scott’s serves reminds me of Sunday dessert when I was growing up. It is that good.

Banana pudding is the only dessert on the menu.

Not every BBQ restaurant has a drive-thru window. Rodney Scott’s does, and it stayed busy, although most customers come to eat either inside or at tables on the patios. The line inside seemed to never end while I was there, and often than a dozen people were waiting to order.

The drive-thru window awaits the first lunch customer after the restaurant has opened.

The excitement that has developed for Rodney Scott’s barbecue in South Carolina is a clue that another state deserves a location. Not to worry. Another restaurant — this one in Birmingham, Alabama — is already on the books and being planned to open in 2019. Now I need to start planning a trip to Alabama.

Whole hogs smoked for hours are ready to be taken from the pits.

Few spaces inside are available during the lunch hour.

The tables outside are popular places to enjoy barbecue.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

From Food Truck to Restaurant and More

The goal of some pitmasters is to begin small and grow as customers appreciate their barbecue. Sometimes when pitmasters want to venture into commercial enterprises, food trucks may be all that can be afforded initially. Such is the story of Michael Markham who began Big Mike’s in 2011 in Apex, NC.

BBQ egg rolls are popular appetizers.

What began as a food truck has since expanded to two “brick-and-mortar” locations – one in Apex and the other in nearby Cary. Known as Brew N Que, the restaurants feature pastured-raised barbecue and local craft beer. When I was at the Apex location, about ten beers and ciders were on tap. The beer is as important as the barbecue, and the bar scene confirms that some customers are more thirsty than hungry.

Chopped barbecue pairs well on a tray with smoked potato salad and cornbread (and extra servings of coleslaw).

Nevertheless, the serious side of the menu is the meat. The choices include Eastern NC-style chopped pork barbecue, beef brisket, and smoked chicken. In addition to typical sides of collards, baked beans, and mac ‘n’ cheese, the restaurants offer two unusual ones: blue cheese coleslaw and smoked potato salad. The dessert menu is limited but does include the obligatory banana pudding.

Redneck nachos (with cornbread) offer pork barbecue in an unusual format.

Brew N Que is another example of the “new” style of barbecue establishments (see my earlier visit to Buxton Hall), as described by food writer Kathleen Purvis, that offer interesting sides, creative appetizers, and craft beer with meat sourced locally. For example, several appetizers are entertaining. BBQ egg rolls come in two versions — pork barbecue with collards and chow chow, and buffalo chicken with blue sauce. Redneck nachos combine pork barbecue with baked beans, Fritos, and blue cheese coleslaw.

Several sides, including collards, are appealing.

Even with the success of its two locations, the food truck is still on the road. Its schedule and location are announced regularly by Twitter. Big Mike’s has also ventured into conducting smoking classes. In one class, each student learns how to smoke brisket and takes home a whole brisket when the class is over. Another class on smoking a pork shoulder includes a dinner in an outdoor picnic format.

Banana pudding is the favorite dessert of many.

With a food truck and two restaurant locations, Big Mike’s is well postured to satisfy the barbecue (and beer) cravings in central North Carolina. Its creative approaches will continue to attract hungry and thirsty customers.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Returning to Rocky Mount

The city of Rocky Mount, NC, has developed an excellent reputation for being a wonderful host and excellent organizer of a barbecue cookoff each fall. The entire city seems to participate in the event, known as the Eastern Carolina BBQ Throwdown.

Cooking teams set up near the historic train station in Rocky Mount.

Because this year’s people’s choice contest followed a national pitmaster competition televised on the Food Network two months earlier, it seemed to attract more attention that the one held last year. The line at Prime Barbeque, a contestant on the broadcast program, was the longest of any during the contest.

The line at Prime Barbeque team was always long during the people's choice contest.

As the crowd walked by the teams set up on the grounds of the historic train station, bands played music from the “BBQ Stage” for several hours. This year 39 teams vied for a share in the total prize money of $20,000. The team Muttley Crew, winner of the 2017 cookoff, took home grand champion honors again.

Doug Reid, contest representative, begins the meeting for the judges.

Many judges had participated in this event in previous years, perhaps because the contest is so well-organized. However, a more compelling reason may be the cheesecake that each judge receives at the end of the contest. I’m persuaded — I hope to return again next year.

Cooking teams quietly prepare for the people's choice contest.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Southern Smoke in Garland, NC

Southern Smoke in Garland, NC, is quickly gaining a following. It’s popular not because it is listed on a historic barbecue trail — it’s been in business only eight years — but because its excellent barbecue is smoked in the traditional way over hardwood coals.

By 1:30 p.m., customers are usually no longer standing in line but late arrivals are disappointed if all the barbecue has been sold.

Opened in 2010 by Matthew and Jessica Register, Southern Smoke has brought new life to the small town of Garland, home to fewer than 700 residents, in Sampson County. It is open only two days, Thursdays and Fridays. Business is brisk when the doors open at 11:30 a.m. (and customers start gathering much earlier). When all the barbecue is sold, the lights are turned off until the next business day. Most people “in the know” plan to arrive at least by 12:30 p.m.

Cut oak and a smoker are all that's needed to make customers happy.

When I stopped on a drive from Wilmington, NC, I didn’t arrive until 1:30 p.m. The pile of cut oak wood (next to the famous smoker Jezebel) on the side of Southern Smoke let me know that I had arrived at an authentic barbecue pit. Arriving that late saved me from having to stand in line as is usual for regular customers. Although I was worried that I was too late, I was still in time for barbecue, but the ribs, beans and pies were already sold out. The mac and cheese, which was still available, was a fine complement on the barbecue tray I ordered (with an additional side of coleslaw), but next time I’ll arrive early enough to enjoy some homemade pie. The sweet cornbread, however, made up for the missing pie. 

The hand-chopped barbecue, with two homemade sauces, goes well with sides and cornbread.

Although Southern Smoke cooks only pork shoulders to make its barbecue, the flavor is true to the tradition of eastern North Carolina with a moist, tangy vinegary-pepper taste. Two sauces — Two Brothers (named for the Registers’ sons), a traditional eastern N.C. sauce, and Sweet Grace (named for their daughter), a Memphis-style sauce — are homemade and let you flavor the barbecue to your preferences.

Matthew Register, the pitmaster (right), takes a break from kitchen duties to pose for a photo. 

My wife and I were greeted at the counter by Matthew’s parents, who enjoy their role in serving customers as they arrived. Although Matthew took time for a picture, it was obvious he and others on the staff were busy in the kitchen. Most of the business is takeout, and my wife and I were the only ones to eat on site while we were there.

A large chalkboard lists the menu of the day.

The space inside is too limited for any tables and chairs. Although two picnic tables are out front, we ate in the shaded backyard where the South Supper Series is held. While enjoying our lunch, we looked around at the interesting displays and artifacts — including a hollowed-out classic car that serves as a bar.

An antique Ford Fairlane finds a new purpose as a bar.

The following that Southern Smoke has is well-justified, and I now consider myself one of the admirers. Excellent barbecue smoked over oak coals is definitely a reason to drive to Garland. Next time I’ll arrive early and join in the conversation with other customers waiting in line.

The shaded backyard is an inviting place to enjoy barbecue smoked slowly over oak coals.

Signs in downtown Garland help BBQ fans find their destination.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Operation BBQ Relief in Action

When barbecue is handed to you, it’s usually a time of celebration or a moment of friendship, unless it has been prepared at a cookoff. Then a pitmaster in a competitive spirit may have something to prove and claim, “This barbecue is the best.”

Cooking equipment sets up quickly after a hurricane has damaged an area.

When barbecue is handed to someone after a hurricane or another natural disaster, it’s a different scene. In this case, the barbecue has been prepared by a volunteer with Operation BBQ Relief, a group of champion cooks. The person receiving the barbecue may be homeless or could have been waiting for a hot meal because the power is out and won’t be restored for days. Such was the scene when I saw Operation BBQ Relief in action for the first time in Wilmington, NC, in September 2018. Hurricane Florence had just brought destructive winds, storm surge, torrential rains, and excessive flooding.

Volunteers work many hours each shift during a deployment.

OBR had taken over the huge parking lot of a vacant shopping complex, where trailers, campers, tents, and cookers had been assembled to feed people devastated by the hurricane as well as first responders and other emergency personnel who were providing help to those affected by the hurricane. At its peak, OBR served 30,000 meals a day as it used six massive cookers that can handle 2,000 pounds of meat at a time. Before leaving Wilmington, the nonprofit served 320,000 meals – and thousands of pounds of turkey, pork and beef  in 18 days. Other volunteer groups such as the Salvation Army distributed the food at sites throughout the area.

Volunteers with Salvation Army provide hot meals at a distribution site.

While in Wilmington, its longest deployment, OBR surpassed its 2 millionth meal since 2011, when it was founded to serve residents of Joplin, Missouri, that had been devastated by a tornado. Since then, it has quickly expanded and now mobilizes teams to any area of the United States where a natural disaster has struck. I have just signed up to be an OBR volunteer and hope to contribute to OBR’s mission soon.

Large quantities of barbecue meals are picked up and delivered throughout an area devastated by a natural disaster.

Operation BBQ Relief has created a different image of barbecue than the usual one of someone enjoying a simple meal with meat slowly cooked. OBR’s quick response to those in need gives a new significance to the question, “Want some hot barbecue?”

Hot barbecue cooked by OBR is a welcome meal by many people after a hurricane has struck.