Friday, June 02, 2006

The Makings of an Obsession

It’s been a few weeks since our first BBQ competition in Rhode Island. The next one, the New Hampshire Rock’n Ribfest is one week from today. I’m starting to get fired up.

It turned out to be a great idea to do the Rhode Island competition. I chose that one to start because it was smaller, with only 21 teams participating. The idea was to get a little experience under my belt and not get trounced, as I had never done anything like this in my life. In fact, I had never even been to a BBQ competition before. My only experience was watching recaps of some of the big Q events on the Food Network, and from reading the many informative posts on the Virtual Weber Bulletin Board. Here’s a link to the board.

I stumbled onto that site a few years ago after Sheila showed me an article about beer can chicken that intrigued me. I Googled beer can chicken and came across the board. That’s when I began learning about “low and slow” cooking.

I had always loved ribs. Going back to my teenage years, there was a restaurant in New York City called “Rusty’s.” Rusty Staub, a former baseball player for the Mets and a few other teams, owned the restaurant. My father used to bring me there from time to time, and the guy’s ribs were out of this world. Nothing like any ribs I had ever had before in my life. I guess that’s what laid the groundwork for the current obsession.

Too bad he had apparently opened his joint with backing from the mob, and in the early 1990's Rusty's was gone.

I went to college at the University of Alabama. The school is located in Tuscaloosa, which is also home to world famous Dreamland Ribs. This also helped fuel the fire.

Once I learned a little about how real Q is made, I decided that I needed a smoker. My mother had one of those el cheapo Brinkman’s water smokers sitting in her garage that someone had given her as a birthday present a few years ago. I believe it was only used once. It was Thanksgiving, and I have no idea what she did, but the turkey arrived at the table and was as black as night. This was not bark, the bird was completely burned. She never used the smoker again.

I took the thing and began experimenting. Made ribs first, then a Boston butt, and both turned out pretty good. Then, a life changing experience occurred.

For my birthday in March of 2005, Sheila gave me a Weber Smokey Mountain cooker.

I had done my research and knew this was the most cost effective backyard smoker out there. With a WSM, you could smoke around 10 racks of ribs at once. This is when I began getting serious.

I had learned about a BBQ competition in Connecticut at the Podunk Bluegrass Festival in East Hartford in August. My goal was to smack together a team and the equipment and enter that competition in 2005. It was just too soon, and logistically it didn’t work out.

However, we decided to have a BBQ for friends and family that same weekend at our house in New Haven. We invited some 40 people and around 30 showed up. I cooked 12 racks of ribs, two Boston Butts for pulled pork, a seven-pound brisket flat and around 30 chicken thighs. I cooked the butts and brisket overnight, pulling them off the WSM at around 8AM, wrapping them in foil and putting them in an empty cooler wrapped in towels to hold until the bash started. That freed up the WSM for 10 racks of ribs (some in racks and some rolled) and used the old Brinkman to do the chicken and the extra two racks of ribs.

I used all my own rubs, and made all my own sauces. The food was a big hit, and proved to me that I would be able to manage the four categories in the same day if I decided to compete.

I started getting serious in the beginning of 2006. I bought a second WSM, and a 22-inch Weber kettle and began assembling all of the other things needed to compete. I bought tables, chairs, sanitation stuff and all kinds of other things that are necessary to enter a competition. We did well in Rhode Island, but that was largely because of an extremely strong showing in brisket, where we finished second. We just missed getting a call for chicken and took sixth, but did not do well at all in ribs or pulled pork.

We have a lot of work to do in order to have a strong showing in New Hampshire. There are more than 30 teams entered, and several top teams that were at Memphis in May when the Rhode Island contest was going on will be at this one. There is no room for error. Hopefully we won’t shoot ourselves in the foot.

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