Arizona Barbecue Festival: Lessons Learned from Competing in a KCBS Event

I planned to smoke a lot of meat while competing in the Arizona Barbecue Festival this weekend. I did not plan to smoke a 2006 Mitsubishi Lancer.

I am embarrassed to report that in addition to preparing pork ribs, pork shoulder, brisket, and chicken at the Scottsdale contest, which I was dared into participating in after a heated exchange in the comment section of our blog (backstory here) I very nearly caught my teammate Jonathan McNamara's car on fire.

Turns out that even after sitting for eight hours, some of our coals weren't totally out. It also turns out that the smoke they produced was enough to make quite a bit of heat seep through the rear seat of Jonathan's car, forcing him to pull over to the side of Galvin Parkway where he waited for me to smash our $15 smoker to bits, putting out the coals with two bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale then tossing the shrapnel in a dumpster.

Here are a few more things we learned from competing -- and beating at least a few people -- at this weekend's festival.

1. Jonathan and I are not the best barbecuers in the state. Now, it's true that I never said we were, all the angry commentators who left spiteful notes on my original BBQ competition post can rest easy knowing Some Dumb Pork-Related Pun placed 52nd of 55 non-disqualified teams. Our last-place showing in chicken probably accounted for that (discussed below), because our ribs (47), pork shoulder (38) were solid, and our brisket (52) didn't embarrass us. Three other teams were registered and scoreless, though I don't know why.

A lot of competitors are really, really great people. I can't say "all" the people we encountered were nice (see below), but we talked to some incredibly nice guys and girls who truly love barbecue. I can't count how many people stopped by and offered to assist in any way possible. Truly, it was a joy to spend the weekend with a lot of these people. We were humbled by their knowledge, kindness, and generosity.

3. There are some BBQ teams that can prepare better 'cue than any BBQ restaurant in Arizona. To competitors and their apologists, this probably seems like a given, but after the crap I tried at the Chandler BBQ Throwdown, I wasn't so sure. Fact is, since professional cooks at a typical barbecue joint prepare the meat every day on the same pit, they tend to be a lot better than the amateurs, even when the amateurs are singularly focused on something.

That said, a slice of brisket given to me by the guys in I.A.B. 30, a bunch of great guys who we shared space with, was the best I've had in this state. I told the guys it was a winner when I ate it and, sure enough, it took fourth. I also tried the People's Choice brisket offered up by the third-place winner and was underwhelmed, but who knows what cut they gave the judges. I.A.B. 30 (It's Always Beer:30) is just starting a catering business and I wouldn't hesitate to hire them -- not only are they great guys, that brisket is incredible.

4. Do not compete using a single $15 smoker unless you're better than we are. I don't say this to make any excuses, but when I originally planned to enter this competition I sorta figured I would beg, borrow, or steal an 18-inch Weber Smokey Mountain, like the ones I've used before. That still would've left us with the most modest smoker at the competition, but at least it'd be a modest smoker a few other people were using.

Instead we used a $15 Brinkmann that we lined with tin foil in a vain attempt to keep in as much smoke as we could. A rig like that required swapping in more coals every two-and-a-half hours and had no way to get a thermometer inside it. Actually, even if we'd have known the internal temperature, we couldn't have done much about it, because our smoker was totally vent-less, offering no way to alter the temperature beyond carefully watching the amount of charcoal we put in it.

Considering we were up against guys who had up to six smokers going, all monitored by electronic thermometers connected to a laptop, I'd say it's a miracle we were 38 out of 55 competitors in pork.

Honestly, though, the most talented chefs at the festival probably could have cooked award-winning cue on the smoker we used without electronic thermometers. But rookies like us had no margin for error when trying to impress judges, and we needed one. I'd love to see someone like the grand champion, Rhythm N' Que, or the Reserve Grand Champion, QN4U, try to do it sometime. This "sport" is getting too geeked-up on gadgets and expensive equipment, and it'd be cool to see some of the best teams take it back to its roots.

Can someone out there get "a call" (a top ten finish) without electronic thermometers and using an unmodified sub-$75 smoker? We couldn't, but I believe someone could. And should. If you truly want the general public to be interested in barbecue you need to show them it's attainable, that they themselves could do cheaply it in their backyard. They can make their own pulled pork with a cheapo smoker -- better than 17 other teams, at least!

To do this, though, there would need to be a sponsor. These teams are competitive and they have their eyes on the prize money. I know I've bashed our old, crappy Brinkmann a lot here, but I truly believe a company like that should do something to promote their inexpensive products, maybe sponsoring a team, or offering a special monetary prize to anyone who can qualify for, and compete at, one of the two Super Bowls of barbecue: the Jack Daniel's Invitational and the American Royal.

Even if competitors don't want to man up and prove this point, there has to be someone, somewhere who has a financial interest in selling cheap smokers. They ought to use barbecue competitions to do it.

5. Chicken sucks. Chicken was our worst event. We finished, as the competitors say, "Dead Ass Last." Honestly, that last-place finish stings, even though Jonathan and I both started this competition with the express belief that "chicken is not barbecue."

There's no excuse for our poor finish. However, there are a few explanations, which I feel the need to share. Sadly, other work obligations forced me to skip six hours of the competition (4:15 a.m. to 11:15 a.m.) so I just missed the chicken turn-in time, leaving my co-cook to do it alone.

Really, though, the root of the problem was stuck in some dumb decisions we made the night before.

We stupidly decided to dump the four fresh chicken halves we bought in the trash, replacing them with frozen thighs at the recommendation of other competitors, even though we'd never smoked anything smaller than half of a chicken before and had no idea how to handle the tiny thigh pieces. We should have stuck with the halves and served up the delicious breast meat we're capable of making but, alas, we didn't.

Why? Well, KCBS rules require you to serve six "equal" portions of meat. We assumed it'd be okay to smoke two halves and cut them up into six roughly equal pieces. Nope. So we considered maybe just putting six slices of breast in there, or maybe pulling the chicken and serving it like pork, however, we were told the judges like to see six nearly identical pieces and that competitors almost always use thighs to give them that. We decided to follow the herd.

Also, we ended up smoking the chicken for nine hours, instead of the typical two, in part because one of the many competitors who came by to razz us at midnight said, "What, you don't have the chicken on yet? Everyone has their chicken on already. You need to get it on there!"

Having never smoked thighs alone -- and being just a wee bit intoxicated on high-grade Cruz tequila, which we were sipping over ice with a squeeze of lime -- we believed him and made the dumb decision and put the chicken on nearly 11 hours before it was due to judges. If I'd have been there to see the chicken come out at 9 a.m. I'd like to think we'd have trashed it and started fresh. Hell, I might have just tossed six of the extra thighs in the smoker for flavor for a few minutes then grilled them to see how they turned out. All alone and up to his eyeballs in work, Jonathan was in no position to make that call, and he stuck to our plan, which backfired. Our loss.

Fool us once? Well, actually, shame on us. We're smarter than that -- at least when tequila isn't involved.

6. Beware men with cameras. Like I said, we met so many great people that I hate to point out the few douchebags, but I was a little troubled by a few of the "spies" who established a shady network of espionage closely monitoring us. Because of the controversy that drove us to enter the contest, it was very clear we were being watched closely by people who never bothered to introduce themselves but who kept dropping by our booth to observe. One gentleman really sticks out.

From time to time, a middle-aged guy with a point-and-shoot camera would appear, silently snapping a few photos of us with a creepy Cheshire grin on his face. I was later told on background by another competitor that he was watching us cut meat without gloves so he could blackmail/attack us "if we wrote anything negative about the competition."

Now, first let me say that we didn't serve anything to the general public. Also, we sanitized our hands often and thoroughly. I'm not sick and neither is anyone else who I know ate our meat. So, yeah, case closed. I won't even address the issue of how common or uncommon the practices we used appeared to be from booth to booth.

The point is this: Most of the barbecue competitors were truly wonderful people and it was a pleasure to spend our Saturday with them.

7. If you cook for your own palate, be prepared to make your own trophy. The Kansas City Barbecue Society rules, which we competed under, are pretty strict. Even stricter is the code of same-ness that rules the roost.

For example, we were warned by the judging supervisor not to even use cilantro -- which, along with lettuce and parsley, is one of only three approved garnishes -- because it "messes up the flavor of the meat." Now, cilantro just might be my favorite flavor in the world, so I found this odd, but we complied.

It goes a lot deeper than that, though. I'll explain using our ribs, which placed 47th, with a total score of 139, one point less than both our friends in I.A.B. 30 and Karnivorous' a.k.a. The "Leather Purse" Crew.

Jonathan and I decided early on that we were going to cook what we liked, judges be damned. That meant absolutely no sauce for the brisket or ribs, just like in his native Texas. For us, the flavor of the meat was the most important element, and ribs should be firm but not soft or sloppy with sauce and falling apart. "Sauce is cheating," as they say in dry-rubbing Texas, and as we held firm to that, even when our brisket and ribs turned out a tad drier than we wanted.

Honestly, I suggested covering our mistakes in sauce, but Jonathan wouldn't hear of it, claiming it'd be disrespectful to his ancestors. I had to comply. As a result, our ribs were scored a viciously low 16.5 by one judge, who probably favors the sort served at Chili's. That judge wrote "tough + dry" on a comment card, which is probably how it seemed to him or her based on their experience with mainstream ribs.

Meanwhile, another judge doubled that up, and gave us a 33.7. Since the highest score I saw on the ribs page was 36, that was no small feat for us. That judge (or that judging slot, at least) actually had us higher than the category's winner, Smokin' Triggers, whom you might know from TLC's Pitmasters.

Those numbers confirmed it for me: Our ribs were good. At least according to the standard we set for ourselves, which has a lot more to do with the style they serve in Lockhart, Texas, than the sugar-coated crap they eat in Kansas City and Memphis.

Were our ribs amazingly great? Honestly, no, or I think they'd have broken through the sauced-up mess anyway. No one with taste buds could honestly prefer the Kool-aid covered junk to a brilliantly cooked rack from Kruez Market. But I ate enough of those ribs to know they were good -- at least based on what I like. Cooking for the judges means saucing it up, though, since, as chain restaurants have proved, you're unlikely to lose customers by making your meat too sweet or fatty.

It's a numbers game: With six judges, the meat with the widest appeal wins, so set your sights on the broadest possible demographic. Chances are, places like Famous Dave's long-ago figured out what that means, which is why they serve what they do, and barbecue competitors would do well to emulate them. We cooked what we liked instead of what we thought would win and I, for one, am happy we did. At least I had some delicious ribs to eat while the judge who gave us a 16 dreamed of his or her next trip to Applebee's.

8. Why the Chandler festival was a disaster: The general public is a nuisance for competitive barbecuers, aside from their money. I'm sure a lot of people will find fault with what I'm about to say, and that's okay. I think I earned the right to have an unvarnished opinion on this subject by spending two sleepless weekend nights immersed in the world of competitive barbecue.

Here's the deal: Barbecue cooks go to barbecue competitions to cook for the judges. They're not vendors and they don't really care much about what the general public thinks. They might cook the equivalent of a whole hog, but the only meat they really, really care about fits into four Styrofoam containers.

We weren't serving to the general public, and I had no interest in talking them. I just wanted to prepare our meat in peace.

So why, you ask, are the rest of us there? We're underwriting it. Competitors have to pay for the meat, which is expensive. Not to mention coals, wood, and the other provisions required. The only way they can make up for that cost is by selling a lot of $2 samples to the general public. Enter you and me.

The paying public is also a great way to test your meat and a great way to unload anything overcooked. I'm not going to name names, but I'm fairly certain that's what a few teams were doing in Chandler: serving the hungry public overdone 'cue, because otherwise it would go to waste. My problem with that was that I felt competitors need to be ambassadors for the cuisine, and that serving substandard cue to the masses undercuts that, but I was probably wrong. Anyone who's really interested in 'cue will hopefully stumble into a great barbecue restaurant and get hooked.

Fact is, the prize money on the line is probably more than you can make off even a really good showing in "People's Choice" -- a.k.a. how many sample tickets you collect -- anyway. If you're confident you have a shot at winning a $1,000 purse with one beautiful rack of ribs (and get a yard-tall trophy to boot), why would you want to slave over 500 single ribs to equal that? You wouldn't and they don't.

Barbecue competitions are serious undertakings and you need to have a lot of resources behind you to do well. Do you have a truck? If so, barbecue might be for you. Two compact Japanese sedans are not the right cars to do this sort of thing in, as I showed by almost torching Jonathan's car. Do you already own a smoker? Don't compete on a piece of crap. Honestly, if you're thinking of taking up this "sport," you need an RV and a couple thousand dollars to put into a smoker. If not, stay home.

9. Barbecue competitions are a lot of work. Too much work -- for me, anyway. These competitions require a lot of time, resources, and commitment. I have new-found respect for what these guys and girls go through.

There were some great moments, like the feeling of fraternity I found at the traditional midnight appetizers, when the cooks gathered on Friday night, and the excitement of the awards ceremony. What I'll really remember, though, is trying to steal a few winks of sleep in a sleeping bag atop the asphalt parking lot while a guy with a megaphone called me a pussy for hitting the hay so early before returning to his comfy trailer.

Well, that and almost setting a car on fire.

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