Saturday, July 12, 2008

Smoke on the Mountain, Day 2

"Barbecue With Altitude" is the subtitle for the Smoke on the Mountain Barbecue Championship in Galax, VA. Our strategy for today was to stay with one team and follow it through the preparation and the judging. We chose to spend about five hours with the 2008 National (World) Champion Natural Born Grillers (NBG) from Mississippi.

"If it looks dirty, clean it" was the instruction given to the team by John Wheeler, the team captain. So, the street space is hosed down and any debris picked up, all surfaces in sight of a judge are cleaned, and a table setting is prepared for the judge.

Each category (whole hog, shoulder, and ribs) is judged by three judges. The team presents the judge with information about the meat, the smoking process (type of fuel, temperature, time), and the three sauces. At the table, the captain pulls apart pieces of meat and serves the judge who chooses the sauce and eats. A finger bowl is at the table setting for each judge. All this must be completed within 15 minutes.

In the preliminary round this process is repeated with separate shoulders and ribs, serving trays, and table settings for each of the three judges. If the team is one three teams to make it to the final round, the captain makes the presentation and serves all four judges at the same time.

There is also a "blind box" that is prepared with no identifying marks on the styrofoam container. This box must be presented to the judges table at a specified time, coded by a judge, and passed on to a judging panel.

Returning to team NBG, it seemgs to stretch one's belief that judges are not influenced by the World Champion trophy at the entry gate and the lists on the tent wall and the fence of the presentation area of all the awards they have won.

While preparing the "blind box" to be taken to the judges' tent, John did some trimming on the pieces of the whole hog that were being included. This box contains the same sauces that the judge who comes to the tent would have available to him/her.

Two hours later, the team learned that it was one the three finalists in the whole hog competition.

A slight problem developed in the shoulder competition. They had not punched holes in the foil under the shoulders, so when John Bradshaw pulled the shelf out a bit to remove the foil the grease ran down his arm and the shelf dropped a bit. Nothing serious for either John or the shoulders. They were able to remove the foil and present the shoulders for judging.

The team soon learned that they were a finalist in the shoulders competition.

A major problem in the ribs category, however, resulted in the team's disqualification in this category. The "blind box" that had to arrive at the judges' station at the specified time was 2 seconds late. 2 seconds.

The team continued with the competition, meeting with four judges for the finals in each of the whole hog category and shoulder category. (That's Jason Guwatney wiping the brow of John Wheeler,) Even with being disqualified in one category, there was hope that they could still compete for the Grand Champion trophy.

Stay tuned for the final judging results.

All during this competition, we are talking to team members during the breaks. Asking questions about the categories, the judging ("Didn't that judge shortchange you on the time?" "Not the judge, but the timekeeper with him did, but there isn't much we can do."), the costs of the equipment vs. the prize money (John is in construction, but we're starting a catering business; he does if for fun, and he's been pretty successful so far"). One of the team members is a volunteer from Roanoke, VA, who helps out when the team is in the area.

Competition rules prohibit the team from giving out samples of the barbecue until they have been eliminated from competition. Now, if they could give out samples before they were eliminated, I think the conversation might have gone something like: "Have you ever tasted World Champion barbecue?"

We would have answered, "No." Had we then been offered some pulled pork, for example, we would, I'm sure, have said, "Wow, this is fantastic, even without any sauce it is so moist. And the flavor is much more intense--this smoke ring is not just a line; it must be 3/4" wide." If we had then been offered some of their original recipe sauce, I bet we would have said, "This is unlike any barbecue we've eaten before. It really adds more levels of flavor and taste."

And, if later we had been offered a container of their original recipe sauce, we would have quickly accepted it and asked how to get more. Jason might have said, "Well, you might find some with our competitors. Some of them are using it, but you can order it from our web site as soon as its up and running ("

And finally, if we had then been offered a rib, I bet I would have said, "If that was a rib, then I've never had a rib before." Since Jason might have only heard me say I've never had ribs before, I would have clarified it by saying that nothing I've had would have compared to their ribs. Just letting the meat sit in my mouth and slowly melt away would be a wonderful taste experience.

That's how I imagined the conversation going with members of the team if we had been offered some pulled pork and ribs. If . . . .

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