As promised, I'm trying to get back to posting regularly here beginning today. It's been an odd couple of months in my life (to say the least) but I think we're now back to a semblance of "normal." Part of "normal" in our lives is judging BBQ competitions and we ate some fantastic smoked meats at the Sam's Club National Barbecue Tour's regional competition held at Sam's in Laurel, Maryland today. This contest was a second tier event in this inaugural tournament series. All of today's 30 cook teams had already cooked in local contests and won, qualifying them for this round. In two weeks, today's winners will compete for $100,000 in prizes at the final step of the tournament in Bentonville, Arkansas (Sam's home base.)
Sam's initiated this tournament to raise their customer's awareness, knowledge and understanding of barbecue and to promote their many BBQ related products. Competitive cooks have long purchased many of their supplies and meats from their local Sam's Clubs, so the partnership seemed to be a good one. They turned to the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) for assistance in this project.
The entire tour- nament which began with 40 local contests beginning back in March, has been coordinated by Troy Black, a former KCBS Board of Directors member and a long-time competitive cook himself. In addition to coordinating each individual contest, Troy is also doing cooking demonstrations for the public while the competition is going on. The folks attending the demo are getting to sample some excellent food. (I'll personally attest to the excellence of the smoked lamb this morning!!)
The competition itself is run strictly by KCBS rules and includes only the 4 meat categories required by KCBS to be a sanctioned event - chicken, ribs, pork and beef brisket, in that order. All judging is done by 100% Certified Barbecue Judges. Sam's has taken great care to be sure all fields have been equal throughout the country for all local competitions and then, for all of the regionals - even down to the basic physical layout of the event. Judging rules have been very tight and additional rules and restrictions have been in place. All to insure that all competitors have a fair shot at walking away with the big prize and bragging rights.
The only thing Sam's can't control is the weather and today created it's own challenge for the pit crews (cooking teams). We've been very wet around these parts lately (Maryland has had almost 4 times the normal rainfall for the month of September.) and high humidity poses challenges to the cooks. They must be careful to avoid over-smoking the meats. Over smoking (when using wood, as required by KCBS) creates a creosote effect and really tastes a lot like starter fluid. (Want to insult a competition cook? Accuse him of having a starter fluid taste. Them's fightin' words, my friend!)
Most of today's cooks came from areas between New York and Georgia so all should have gotten used to cooking with high humidity, however, last night the mercury also chose to suddenly change the playing field. Temps through the night dropped into the high 40s and low 50s. They stayed below 55 throughout the day. Cool temps make it more difficult to maintain steady temperatures in the smokers. Temperature variations cause tenderness variations. Tenderness is a large part of the scoring.
I'm thrilled to say, these cooks, on the whole, successfully overcame the challenges and the competition plates presented to my judging table were top-notch. There wasn't a bad entry among them. Some, of course, were better than others. That's how competitions are won.
I do not yet know who the winner was as we left before the Awards Ceremony. (I will be checking the website in the morning to find out.) We were completely chilled through from sitting out there in the cold breeze for so many hours. This is why the BBQ season is now wrapping up here in the Mid-Atlantic region. This will probably be our last contest for the 2011 season (no guarantee about that, though).
I'm already looking forward to our first event of 2012 in mid-April.
Happy Thanksgiving, Serious Eaters! - With the Thanksgiving preparation madness winding down, and the cooking madness about to begin, I have to take a moment to reflect on the many, many things...