Wednesday, July 28, 2010


I will be the first to admit it, I did not go into this year's Harpoon New England BBQ Championship with the best attitude.

When I applied for the contest, I made it clear that I was expanding my vending operation and was looking for a high volume vending spot. They assigned the spots in some kind of non-transparent lottery, and when I got my assignment it was on vending "death row." behind the main drag, out of sight and way out of the foot traffic. When I inquired why and asked if there was anything that could be done to change this, I was politely told that if I didn't like it, they could send me my entry fee back and I could stay home.

So I decided to basically not vend, only selling leftover competition meat for the most part. But it did not really put me in the best mindset going into the contest. I didn't even bring my modest collection of trophies.

Also, Sheila is swamped at work these days and made the executive decision not to come up at all for the weekend. While we clearly would not need vending help, Sheila handles garnish and is my wife and partner and #1 supporter. She knows my program inside and out, so her not being there hurts on a competition and a personal level. And being away from Max for three days is always rough too.

Sheila and Max

Complicating things, my company denied my time off requests for Thursday before the contest and the Monday afterwards. At least I got Sunday off (I work Sunday to Thursday these days).

Oh, did I forget that my mother had triple bypass surgery the day before I was scheduled to leave? (She is doing great and went home from the hospital Tuesday!)

So with all that as a backdrop I packed the camper Thursday night, and around 9:00 Friday morning I climbed into the Ford Imploder, I mean Explorer, alone, for the three hour drive to Windsor, Vermont.

The drive was uneventful, and there was no traffic at all, which was great. Well, uneventful until I crossed into Vermont.

Between exits one and two, I'm going down a hill and I see the cars in front of me all slam on the brakes. At the bottom of the hill, the road eases to the right and starts heading back uphill. At the bottom, I see that a camper that was being towed by a pickup truck had jackknifed. The pickup was on its wheels in the median, perpendicular to the road. The camper was on its side, and was on fire. I immediately recognized the camper, and the people outside as a fellow BBQ team.

The accident had just happened, and the first responders had not yet arrived. I got out and ran over, and thank god everyone was ok. The camper, well not so much. But seeing it really affected me. As someone who tows a camper that scene is one of my biggest fears. Needless to say I drove very carefully the rest of the way.

Arrived at Harpoon and did the setup by myself, which I am getting used to. Because of the location of our site off the beaten path, nobody really came up and visited, so I had plenty of time to take care of all my prep and get things ready for the KCBS contest Saturday.

The Site

The bummer was that I wasn't situated anywhere near any of my friends, especially Lakeside Smokers. They are our great friends and I always want to be next to them. We were kind of on an island in the back of the contest site.

Friday night seemed kind of mellow by Harpoon standards. My brother Cristiaan and sister Kathleen arrived to round out our team for the weekend. We all needed the time away, especially Kathleen who has been doing a great job handling things at home with Mom in the hospital. If anyone needed a little Harpoon fun, it was her.

Got a few hours of sleep, and was up at 5:30 to start cranking things up. The team next to me had about a hundred people there, and there was a tent city literally a couple steps from my cooking operation. I'm sure I woke them all up, but sorry folks, it's a contest, not a campout. If you want to have a campout, go sleep in the woods.

Anyway, the cook went pretty well throughout the morning. The chicken came out well, finished 12th, although I thought it would do better. The brisket was great too, it finished 12th but overall I was happy with the meat and the presentation. Pork, well I am kind of struggling with pork these days. It used to be that my pork would finish around 10th consistently. Not lately, 25th place.

Then there were the ribs.

The rib cook was coming along great. Nice flavor, big and meaty ribs, and the recipe I have been working on is really coming along. However, when I returned them to the smoker for the final stage of cooking, the temperature spiked. I had added some charcoal a little while before and the result was that the ribs were all really dark. Really dark. I had trouble finding six ribs that I was comfortable putting in the box. So until awards, I was telling people that I ruined my ribs.

That's why I pretty much lost it when Q Haven was called for 1st place ribs. I spiked my beer like a football (giving a nice leg shower to the sister in law of Mike from Lakeside Smokers in the process). Sorry!

But first place ribs in this crowd is a big deal to me, especially this year when I haven't been cooking a lot of contests, and not scoring very well when I did.

I have not cooked as many contests as I would have liked over the last year, and this call has really energized me.

While I am not really happy with the other categories and a 12th place overall finish, I feel like I'm close to putting it all together and having a great day sometime down the road.

An interesting thing also happened on Saturday. I was running my rib turn in box and heard my name on the way. It was my former girlfriend who I had not seen or heard from since 1995. While those situations can be very uncomfortable, it really wasn't. It was nice to see her and to hear that she and her family are well, and I'm glad she is happy. The whole experience was surreal, made me think of the Harry Chapin song "Taxi."

Also Saturday, we were visited by new friends Larry and Evelyn Pointbriant, who live in my new home town of Norwich, CT. Larry is very close to being ready to compete on his own, and I hope seeing the excitement of Harpoon will give him that extra nudge.

Saturday night we got pretty tore up. The local product was free flowing and ice cold, and the damn dip was stellar. There is nothing better than damn dip after an evening of drinking.

Sunday was the grilling contest. Chicken wings, sausage, shrimp and chef's choice were the categories. Chicken wings, I did smoked BBQ wings that have scored well for me in grilling contests in the past. Not so much here, 22nd place. That's exactly where my shrimp came in too, 22nd. The concept I had for the shrimp was a good idea, but I don't cook a lot of shrimp, and in this case I overcooked it. That's the bad news.

The good news is that we got a call for 5th place sausage and 6th place chef's choice. I did short ribs, and based on my calculations I was the 1st place among teams that did not do desserts.

I wish chef's choice did not include desserts. My opinion is that if you are going to allow desserts, you might as well make the entire category desserts. It's really strange from a judging perspective to have a cake, a creme brulee, an ice cream sandwich, then a filet mignon or a beef short rib. When I organized the Cape Cod contest this year, I made the chef's choice category "no desserts." It just works better in my opinion.

Or I am going to have to start learning to make some desserts.

So overall, we were 9th for the grilling contest. Although that's not awful, the Harpoon grilling contest is really a "winner take all" kind of contest for me. There is no money in any of the categories, only ribbons, with money payouts only for grand champion and reserve grand champion. But if you win, you get a coveted Harpoon tap trophy, $500, plus a free entry fee for next year, which was $325 this year. That combined makes the grilling contest worth taking a shot at, but you've really got to nail it.

The big winners of the weekend were Feeding Friendz. I am very happy for Wendy, Tim and the rest of their crew, they have been getting better and better and they really nailed it this weekend. Congrats! You're going to the Jack!

I used to linger after contests, sometime being the last team to leave. But lately I get sad when a contest is over, so I think it's better to just hit the road.

I get especially sad leaving Harpoon. Harpoon has something special that I have yet to really experience at any other contest, and it is not the free beer. To me it's a magical place for reasons I can't 100 percent explain. So if I'm lucky enough to get selected to go back to Harpoon in 2011, I will be there. And I will not complain about where my site is either.

So anyway, I got the heck out of there and made it home before Max went to bed. I told him that I won first place ribs and he told me that he wanted to watch Calliou.

1 comment:

Sledneck said...

Congrats on the rib call. I know what mean by that "something special".That is the way I feel about New Holland PA.