Smoke ‘Em If You’ve Got ‘Em

You know that haunting, delicious, ethereal scent that is produced by seasoned meat simmering slowly over a hardwood fire? Pork, ribs, chicken, and beef brisket…oh how wonderful! Your nose perks up, your mouth waters, your stomach growls. Even on a summer evening when you smell it in your neighborhood it frankly just turns you on–makes you hungry!

Well, no matter how it starts, when 63 other people are creating that smell around you and it’s 4 o’clock in the morning, and it’s in your hair and your clothes, and it’s getting a little chilly, and you just want to sleep…it’s fucking repulsive!

On Friday September 30, 2011 two of the five members of the newly formed Dean Street Smokin’ Rib Rubbers showed up at a parking lot in dowtown Jonesboro, AR to begin setting up for Jonesboro’s annual barbecue competition. I wasn’t one of them, but I am a member of the team and I was there at 4 am wishing the guy next to us would have shown up a couple hours earlier to start his fire!

We talked about doing this last year and nothing ever happened. This year we signed up just in time! Our team leader and head cook is Mark Griffith. Mark is one of our catering cooks at ASU, and he has a nice butt…barbecued pork butt that is!

My first holiday season at ASU I had just hired Mark and he brought me a barbecued pork butt for Christmas. He had cooked a bunch for his church and had a couple left over. I thanked him and put it in our walk-in freezer for a rainy day. I live alone, don’t eat at home much, and didn’t have room in my home freezer for a ten pound piece of meat. I forgot all about it and from time to time didn’t really know if it was still there.

One year later I was headed back to North Carolina (the home of American BBQ, I don’t care what you say) for Thanksgiving and I toted the year old frozen roast with me just in case. Not only did it weather the year in the freezer well, it was the BEST barbecue that I and my family had ever had! So good in fact that my nephew and his fiance required it for their wedding the following Spring.

The Dean Street Smokin’ Rib Rubbers 2011
Wes, Dave, Randy, Mark, and Allan

So  when this year’s barbecue competition came up we knew we had to get involved, and Mark was our guy!

The team consisted of Wes Wade (one of our cooks), David Miller (our General Manager at ASU), myself, Mark, and Allan Gates (Mark’s catering partner in the kitchen). Mark is the expert and the rest of us were there to bask in his success, have some fun, and pitch in wherever we could.

It took a day to set the thing up and we started the first fire just after 11 pm. Pork butts went on about 12:30, along with brisket a bit later, and cooked all night. Everything was rubbed with Mark’s own spice blend (which I’m still trying to talk him out of the recipe for), and the larger cuts were injected with a mixture of liquid love and spice!

The competition is broken into four different areas; chicken, ribs, pulled pork, and brisket. Competitors can choose what to enter, we entered all four.

Now here’s where it get’s a bit sticky…

Food competition is not necessarily about whose food is best. It’s about a lot of things seemingly. It’s a little about politics, a little about standards, a little about looks. It’s about texture, timing, flavor…and I think a little about luck! There were 64 entrants in the competition. Now seriously, when 64 people are cooking all night and have spent the money on equipment and food that a thing like this requires, one might imagine that all 64 are pretty good at what they do.

So imagine that you’re the judge…

Mark fires up the cooker

Tell you what, do this…open a brand new bag of potato chips. Eat one. Eat another one. Let’s say you’ve chosen barbecue potato chips. What do you taste? Imitation smoke, sugar, tomato, a little tanginess. Keep eating them (you can’t eat just one). Get down to half the bag. Now tell me what you taste. For me it’s always potato, grease, and salt!

Now, tell me how a barbecue judge whose tongue is covered with smoke, sugar, salt, and tanginess is going to be able to differentiate the next 30 or 40 samples accurately. And this was a small competition compared to some. And now put yourself in that seat for 4 hours tasting as many as 256 unique samples of food. Jesus, I wouldn’t even be able to sit still much less eat all that stuff! I certainly wouldn’t be able to be objective at some point…which is one of the many reasons that I am not a barbecue judge. LOL!

Are you getting yet that we didn’t win?

Well anyway, let’s look at barbecued chicken. We all know what barbecued chicken is right? Guess again. In competition standards we’re talking about thigh meat only. And what the judges want to see (from what we were told) is not chicken to me at all.

I grew up with whole pieces of juicy chicken that are seasoned and cooked slowly on the grill for an hour or even two before being basted at least 3 times with delicious, tangy homemade barbecue sauce. Be careful to wait until the coals are the right temperature and then turn and move the chicken around frequently to avoid burning the sauce. When it’s all done the chicken is juicy, the sugar in the sauce is lightly caramelized, and the skin is thin and crispy and holds most of the flavor. Oh how divine!

Chicken

We were supposed to bone the thigh, remove the skin, scrape off all of the fat from the skin, trim the thigh to a perfect rectangle, then lightly season, roll into a perfect little bundle, and wrap the skin back around it before cooking. You can’t tie it or pin it all together, as this would leave unattractive marks.

At this point you can’t manhandle the pieces or the skin falls off. In fact, no matter how long you cook it the skin will be fine until the very end when we flip the skin side towards the flame for the final crisping and the skin reacts to the direct heat and shrinks up and off of the meat. At the very least the skin now has no flavor and none of the delicious crispness that would have come from leaving the fat in it.

We did brine the meat for a hour so our chicken was delicious, tender, and juicy…but barbecued chicken it wasn’t. Not our fault, but the fault of the system that dictated this heinous bastardization in my opinion.

We didn’t place in the chicken category.

Ribs…now Mark’s ribs are without peer! Ribs are what Mark does…and pulled pork.

We were told that we could use any kind of pork ribs that we wanted to, as long as they were delicious. We bought St. Louis style ribs (my personal favorite) and baby back ribs. We cooked both…some with the membrane on the backside left intact to be removed after cooking, and some with the membrane removed prior to cooking.

After the team sampled them all we decided unanimously and without reservation that the baby backs with the membrane removed after cooking were far superior not only to each other but also to any ribs we’d ever eaten! These we sent in with great pride.

Ribs

We didn’t place in ribs.

We later found out that the judges in this region are currently (but not always apparently) looking for Kansas City ribs. I don’t even know what in the hell that is.

Pulled pork is Mark’s claim to fame, and my family will back it up from Arkansas all the way to North Carolina and Virginia. We took morsels from 5 or 6 different butts to submit the perfect entry. And it WAS perfect!

We didn’t place in pulled pork.

Beef brisket is more of a western barbecue favorite. Though certainly part of the standard barbecue repertoire we don’t do it in the Carolinas. I think it starts in Arkansas and makes its way south to Louisiana and west to Texas. I like barbecued brisket…always have. I’ve never made it and neither had Mark. We menu a more institutional version at school once a week or so, but have only really gotten it right once that I remember. It’s not easy!

Brisket is a tough, fatty, but higher flavorful and less costly cut of meat from the front shoulder of the cow (or steer as it were). It requires proper trimming and just the right amount of fat. Fat…good, too much fat…not good.

It requires the right seasoning, a dark but thin and tender outer crust or “bark”, and it needs to be not too tender and not too tough. Not easy! When sliced it needs to be thin and across the grain. There should be a substantial pink “smoke ring” around the edges. It should taste smokey. When sliced it should slice easily and you should be able to stretch it just a couple or 3 millimeters before the meat breaks apart–it should not just fall apart. It should stay together pretty well.

Pulled Pork

You should not need a knife to cut it for eating, and the necessary remaining fat should melt in your mouth and create a symphony of flavors and textures that you just can’t get from any other food!

Our brisket was overcooked. The bark was too thick from too much cooking, and it was tough which made it difficult to slice. We were to produce six perfect slices, and we cut portions of 3 briskets to get them. I would liked to have seen a wider smoke ring and a little pinker meat than grey. The flavor was delicious, but the meat tended more towards falling apart than stretching.

We took 7th place in brisket.

We laughed!

They didn’t even pronounce our name right!

Nonetheless, the name was heard and will perhaps stick in their minds for the next time.

Will there be a next time?

A few months ago I did an ACF culinary hot food competition (Category K-4 for those of you who are in the know). I had never done one and I took a bronze medal, which to this day I am ashamed of. The lamb rack I used was supposed to begin unfabricated and the only lamb I could get was already “frenched”. The judges awarded me with enough points for a high silver, but later reviewed the rules and took some away because of having the wrong product.

However, they loved my dish. One judge said that he “would love to order this dish in a restaurant”. They didn’t say anything like that to any other competitor. Had I brought the right product and utilized the trim in an additional item on the plate I would have no doubt been given a gold medal and quite possibly “Best in Show”.

Beef Brisket

The guy who got that designation produced an awful looking combination of foie gras, soft potato, and fried egg (which was tough and brown on the bottom) all served with a salad of vegetable peelings. I kind of liked the salad actually, but the presentation was sophomoric at best and the combination of flavors and textures was in my opinion way to rich and terribly uninteresting. Nonetheless, he got a gold medal and $2,000.

I couldn’t help but notice that one of the judges spent the entire hour standing and talking to the gold meal guy as if to “catch up” and reminisce about old times and mutual acquaintances. The same judge told me that my coriander chutney was more of a pesto and that if I was going to use multicultural ingredients and labels that I should study them a little more. I obviously eat more Indian food than this guy, and I assure you that I have studied the cuisine exhaustively. I wanted to tell him to do the same…but I didn’t.

So finally what I think is that when one is planning to compete in anything, one must first attend a few competitions and really study what the judges are looking for. Study who wins. Watch what they do at the next competition or two that they enter. Talk to them–pick their brains. Ask them what they do to be successful. Find out who the judges are, and why they are judges. Practice what you do…A LOT! Practice making mistakes and plan how to recover from them successfully. From all of this one should be able to distill what the competition is really all about, and perhaps what it takes to do well in it.

What you and all of your friends and loved ones thinks is spectacular may not mean much at all to the people who don’t know you exist. So in the end one must feel a sense of accomplishment from it all. Most importantly one MUST have fun–and the Dean Street Smokin’ Rib Rubbers collectively had a blast! We perhaps learned more about each other in a non-occupational setting. We bonded at times. We learned from one another. We respected one another. And we ate some great food!

Would I do it again? Not if my life depended upon it! But if someone else’s life, happiness, or success depended upon it, or even if they just asked, I would gladly show up and do anything I could to help! It’s what I do.

As for the ACF, I dunno. I don’t think so…but who knows what the future will hold. I change my mind all the time.

What I know for sure is that I know food, and Mark Griffith makes the best ribs and pulled pork east of the Mississippi–and at least 100 miles west of it–and that’s all that matters! I’m proud to have been there.