Vv Magazine‘s West Coast editor, Alex Gill, takes you behind the scenes of competitive BBQ with the Bulleit Bourbon Canadian National BBQ Championships.
A Howdy Doody lookalike on stilts lurches over a gaggle of excited children stuffing their faces with corn on the cob. Cute blondes in cowboy hats and gingham shirts give away free samples of ice tea and bourbon. Dogs slobber. The sun shines bright. Thick billows of hickory-scented smoke waft through the fresh mountain air.
It’s an idyllic afternoon at the Bulleit Bourbon Canadian National BBQ Championships in Whistler Creekside, BC. The vibe seems so lighthearted and cheerful.
Then a beefy cook sweating buckets barrels down the stroll. He’s holding a white plastic takeout tray out in front of him and looking as awkward as a nervous father carrying a newborn baby.
Here comes another cook. This one’s guarded by an unofficial point man, arms outstretched, eyes scanning the crowd to ensure no one gets in the way or jostles their precious cargo.
“Shit! Shit! Shit! Shit!” the first competitor shouts, before turning around and hightailing it back to his cooking tent at top speed.
After slaving over their brisket for the last 14 to 18 hours, competitors have a ten-minute window to deliver it to the judges – moist and tender, perfectly sliced, in an official unmarked container on a bed of parsley garnish.
The first chef returns to the judging room with only seconds to spare. Trembling, he hands his meat over to the master judge anxiously waiting next to the official time clock in the doorway.
Unbeknownst to most of the carefree festivalgoers, who have come to soak up the country fair ambiance and chow down on $1 leftover samples, this is a serious competition with high stakes.
The three-day event is one of the most prestigious on the Pacific Northwest Barbecue Association circuit with more than $14,000 in cash and prizes up for grabs. Today’s main competition, a cook-off of pork butt, beef brisket, chicken and ribs, determines the Grand Champion, who qualifies to enter the American Royal World Series of Barbecue Invitational in Kansas City. The winner is also entered into the draw to enter the Jack Daniels World Championship in Lynchburg, Tenn., the Holy Grail of southern-style competitive barbecue, access to which is so fiercely fought over the organizers have to use a draw system.
The competitors who travel this circuit are a curious tribe of chubby merrymakers, bootstrapping from contest to contest all summer long. They pitch tent in parking lots and camping grounds, setting up their sites in ramshackle cities built from pit rigs, moveable kitchens, hammocks, fold-out chairs, sleeping trailers, patio lanterns and beer coolers.
They stay up all night swapping stories, tending their smokers and devising new strategies that will them earn them bragging rights and the chance to keep going.
Barbecue competition is a mad, mad world unlike any other subculture we’ve ever encountered. After three days of being saturated in meaty smoke and welcomed into their friendly tent-city sanctum, here’s what we learned.
1. Competitors don’t eat their own BBQ
“Nope, never,” says JD McGee of Wine Country Q, the weekend’s Grand Champion and PNWBA Team of The Year since 2011. “I’ve eaten so much of it, I’m sick of it.”
“It’s disgusting,” explains Rusty Johnson, the defending Canadian backyard burger champion from Port Moody, B.C.
In order to wow the judges with one bite, the competitors hit their meat with so much sickly sweet flavour that most would never serve it in their backyards or restaurants.
2. They don’t trash talk each other
The rivalries that are blown up on TV’s BBQ Pit Masters and BBQ Pit Wars don’t exist in real life. The contests are competitive, but it’s a friendly rivalry.
“If not, I wouldn’t come out every weekend,” explains Tom Wallin of Dances with Smoke. He and his wife Kay have been Grand Champions at 13 competitions and placed second overall in Whistler. “These are people I want to spend time with. It’s all about fun. This is adult camping with good food.”
3. But they don’t trust shiggers
shigging (shig-ging) , 1. v. to enter a persons BBQ site with intent of stealing BBQ secrets in an effort to improve one’s own BBQ score. 2. v. to position one’s self to view the contents of the inside of a fellow competitors BBQ pit when it is opened.
“Can I help you?” Diane Mee of Lake House BBQ (who placed third overall) asks suspiciously when we enter her tent. “Uh, huh,” she says, unconvinced, when we request an interview. “Maybe later,” she adds, shooing us out. Being one of the very few female team leaders on the circuit, she perhaps has more reason than most to suspect us of barbecue espionage.
4. They don’t sleep
Even with hotel rooms just around the corner, most competitors choose to camp out overnight. The serious contenders come equipped with canvas cot camps in their trailers. Some look like military barracks, others like frat houses. They only take short naps on the final night to keep their eye on the meat. If they lose temperature for too long, the results could be disastrous.
5. They all hate chicken
“It’s a crap shoot,” explains Wallin. “But it’s also the great equalizer. You can do really well in the other three categories after cooking all night, then screw up your chicken in one hour.”
6. Judges have to take courses
For about a hundred bucks, you too could be a Kansas City Barbecue Society member by taking a one-day certification course. Anyone who has completed the class can sign up to officiate any contest in North America. There is a volunteer corps of about 13,000 active judges. Sounds easy, but the rules are strict. Judges aren’t allowed to make faces that might influence the others. They’re not even supposed to look at each other.
7. Vegetables are “foreign objects”
If the judges detect any green matter other than parsley or leaf lettuce garnish, the entry is automatically disqualified. Even onion in chili is verboten.
“If they’re smart, they’ll put their onion in a cheese cloth and pull it out before entering,” explains senior judge Yung Hsi. “I wouldn’t even trust a blender because little bits can get caught in the blade. If we see it, game over.”
8. Oversmoking is the most common mistake newbies make
“If it tastes like a pig that died in a barn fire, there’s a problem.” — Master Judge Mayben Amos.
9. There are regional flavour differences
Cooks adjust their seasoning to the regional preferences of the judges. People from the American South favour sweeter sauces and in the Southwest they like spice. Here in the Northwest, it’s all about balance. The judges want to taste a harmony of sweet, salt and spice.
10. It’s a one-bite competition
Barbecue is scored on appearance, texture and taste, with the latter accounting for more than 50 per cent of the score. But in the end it all comes down to one single bite that will make the judges’ mouths water.
What do you think of the crazy world of competitive BBQ? Let Vv Magazine know in the comments below, or tweet us @ViewtheVibe.