(Traverse City, MI) — True BBQ is a combination of art and science, and to watch skillful teams compete in a KCBS competition can be an eye-opening experience that puts your own backyard grillin' tactics to shame. Juliet caught the BBQ bug last year, enjoying the experience so much she formed the BBQtease all-female team (well, a two female team anyway) with our foodie friend, Cookie. Their goal is to have a little fun while shaking things up for all the naysayers who do a double-take at two saucy ladies saucing up a few racks of ribs...
If you read this column regularly, you’re probably aware that our friends Cookie and LettersToJ participate in competitive barbeque. They’ve competed for a few years now under the name MetalTek Meatheads, with the generous support and sponsorship of Grand Rapids machining shop MetalTek Inc and its owner and president Paul Bultnick. Last year I volunteered to assist the team at a few events and had a blast. It’s hard and dirty work; feeding the fire in the smoker in 100+ degree temps is not for sissies. By the end of the competition, you’re sleep deprived, covered in sweat and meat juices, and staring at mountains of dirty dishes. Definitely not for the faint of heart.
At some point last year, Cookie mentioned her desire to form an all-female competitive barbeque team and I jumped at the chance. We dubbed ourselves the BBQtease and competed in the September 2012 Silver Lake Apple & BBQ Cookoff Festival. Out of 36 teams, we earned a seventh place win with ribs, third place win with brisket, and a first place win with one of our side dishes. High on the wins, we eagerly started planning our 2013 barbeque season. But reality set in and we quickly realized, an all-female team wasn’t feasible. Quite literally, we need manpower onsite during the competitions. We also just don’t have the heart to “lock out” the boys. And it doesn’t hurt that LettersToJ is an unbelieveable brisket pitmaster.
So Cookie and I decided we’d call ourselves the BBQtease, but happily compete under the MetalTek Meatheads moniker. Our first 2013 event is June 29 in Traverse City as part of the Sam’s Club National BBQ Tour. Nothing like starting out the competition season with 30 top-notch teams at a fairly high-profile national series. The MetalTek Meatheads do not scare easily.
Well, that’s a bit of a fib because the week of the competition I am nervous as hell. What if I screw something up? What if I burn my hand or cut myself trimming meat? What if I take an overnight shift, fall asleep letting the fire go out which ruins all the meat and our friends never speak to me again? These crazy worries float through my head all week long, sometimes waking me up in the middle of the night.
The day before we depart for Traverse City, I volunteer to bring dinner over (vegan sloppy joes if you can believe it) and help trim meat. Typically we trim the chicken and ribs onsite, but it’s incredibly messy and time-consuming. The idea of trimming it all in advance, in a well-lit kitchen with running water and antibacterial soap appeals to me. We devise a system. LettersToJ preps the smoker, chops and loads wood, and puts a new battery in the RV we’ll be taking north (the lyrics to Salt ‘n Pepa’s “Whatta Man” run through my head, no lie). Cookie assembles the rubs, sauces, cooking gear, and trims ribs while I dive wrist deep into chicken thighs.
There are about 30 thighs to prep. I pull the skin off, trim excess fat from the thigh and trim it into a rectangle of sorts. I flip the skin over and scrape off any fat, square up the skin and rewrap it around the thigh. Seems simple enough, but it takes over an hour to prep 10 thighs. It’s tedious work, alleviated slightly by music, a can of Vander Mill cider, and incredibly inappropriate jokes involving thighs and meat. We wrap the trays of prepped thighs in several layers of plastic and I wash my hands about 17 times. It’s getting late and I still need to pack for the weekend. I drive home, swearing I can still smell chicken on my hands. I’m in bed by midnight, but have crazy dreams involving butchery and chicken. The alarm is actually a relief.
In the Traverse City Sam’s Club parking lot, we are crammed into a small, but workable space. At other events we had about three times the area, but maybe this means less ground to cover? We attend the cooks’ meeting where watches are synchronized (seriously) and the event rules and safety precautions are covered.
Normally we’d trim meat now, but since it’s already done, we head out for a fabulous French meal, good conversation, and some lovely rosé in downtown Traverse City. The whole evening is relaxing and carefree, though I remember to taper off the wine and drink lots of water in anticipation of what tomorrow will bring. Our bellies are full and our spirits are high as we drive back to the Sam’s Club parking lot.
It’s getting dark and I’m awfully sleepy. Jeremy heads back to the hotel room (we booked a cheap room within walking distance of the parking lot; pillows and flush toilets are a luxury at competitions). Cookie and LettersToJ take me around to a few tents to meet other competitors and all the barbeque talk begins to make me nervous—I’m downright antsy.
I stay onsite until the smoker gets fired up; I love to watch the improvised flamethrower torch the first few logs in the smoker. It’s just past 11pm and I’m not needed until 5am, meaning I can get in a little over four hours of sleep and a hot shower before reporting back for duty. I trek back to the room and dive under the covers, waking up every hour or so in a panic that I’ve overslept.
While I’m dozing, the bigger cuts of meat—beef brisket and pork butts—are smoked overnight. This means Cookie and LettersToJ take turns, feeding the fire to maintain the cooking temperature near 250-degrees and to keep the smoke levels active. Typically, the briskets and butts are smoked for a given period of time, then wrapped in foil to cook low and slow in their own juices. At some point the meat is pulled from the smoker and let to sit in a “hot box” (kinda like the opposite of a cooler) to continue cooking for a bit while the juices settle and meat cools slightly from the long cooking process.
The ribs and chicken go on in the morning; the smaller cuts need less time to smoke and to cook. From what I’ve observed, it seems like every team has its own method and reasoning. For example, most teams like to cook low and slow overnight, but others do a “hot cook” which involves cooking the meat at a higher temp (350-degrees or more) for much less time. It seems like a fabulous idea after you’ve stayed up from 1-5am to feed the fire every 30 minutes, but it seems like the margin for error is much higher with a hot cook.
Along with various cooking methods, there’s a fair amount of secrecy involved in the competitions. Whether it’s a secret ingredient in the sauce, a special tool or gadget that’s used, a specific marinade, rub or injection for each type of meat...it can be extremely technical. People have an image of these competitions akin to tossing a few pork chops on the grill while drinking a nice pinot noir on the deck with friends. In reality it’s much more complex with Gantt charts, overwhelming to-do lists, team schedules, and the constant monitoring of the fire and the meat (going so far as to use temperature probes with monitors that sit outside the smoker). This ain’t your backyard bbq party!
The past two days of meat trimming, sauce making, rub blending, and grocery shopping will culminate in “turn ins” for each of the four categories. Chicken turn in is at 12 noon, ribs are due at 12:30pm, pork is 1pm, and brisket is last at 1:30pm. Turn ins are the fastest two hours you will ever experience. It goes by in a flurry of action.
The meat is prepped for presentation very precisely. No detail goes unnoticed. Every team is given four styrofoam boxes to present their meat in. The boxes are lined with lettuce or parsley. I can tell you from personal experience a good looking parsey box takes 30-45 minutes to prep. My fingernails are green by 9am today from plucking parsley heads all morning.
The chicken thighs are sauced one last time and placed in the box with expert care. Any excess sauce is wiped away and the thighs are sprinkled with one last bit of seasoning. A team member walks the box to the judging tent and if you’re late, even by one second, you are disqualified in that category. How heartbreaking would that be? We give the leftover chicken a bite and are disappointed to find the skin is flabby. It should snap when you bite into it. I begin to worry I didn’t do a good trimming job. Blurgh!
The ribs are cut with an electric knife to leave a pristine edge. You need to have at least six portions for each turn in box, as there are six judges at each judging table, but with ribs you want to offer more than six for some reason. (One can only hope a judge wants a second serving of your ribs!) Despite prepping six full racks of ribs, it can be difficult to find six identical ribs...bones shouldn’t be bent, they need to be the same size, etc. We struggle to find enough ribs to fill the box and end up turning in seven. Cookie isn’t happy with the end product. I’m still fixated on my trim job with the chicken and don’t try a rib.
During all this activity, Jeremy posts photos to our social media channels. I’m washing dishes, wiping every surface down with Clorox wipes, and generally trying to help but stay out of the way. Cookie begins prepping the pork which gets turned in with pulled pork and slices of what’s called “the money muscle”, a prized strip of meat in the pork butt. You cannot tell what the money muscle will look like when you buy a butt. It’s a surprise until you cut into the end product. We are pleasantly surprised with a very large and immaculate (no nicks or tears) money muscle. Again, the meat is arranged in the parsley box, the sides are wiped down (with Q-tips no less,) and the box is trotted to the judges tent. We all agree the pork tastes amazing.
We have to move fast because brisket is the most time consuming to present. We get the prep area ready for LettersToJ and he slices the brisket, soaks it one last time, layers it in the box, lines the burnt ends in rows in front of the brisket. He is not happy with the brisket, proclaiming it too dry. The bites I try are dry, but flavorful and the burnt ends are pure nirvana. We use tweezers to remove fine bits of meat from the edges of the brisket. Cookie and I turn the box in with three minutes to spare. We manage a small fist bump on the walk back.
Instead of cracking open a hard-earned beer and taking a break, we begin to clean camp. Time to let the smoker burn out, pack the meat into freezer bags, wash piles of greasy dishes, fold up camp chairs and tables, pack up the coolers, etc. I decide to open up a bottle of Hypnotiq and start sipping it out of a red Solo cup. Keepin’ it classy!
Our confidence levels are not high and we Monday Morning Quarterback every little thing that went awry during this cook. The chicken skin was floppy, the rib bones were wanky, the pork is always a hard category to call, and the brisket cooked so much faster than planned. By the time the awards ceremony begins at 4pm we’re all just hoping we don’t embarrass ourselves.
Like much of the weekend, the ceremony is a blur and a surprise. We tie for 4th place in pork and take 2nd place in ribs, missing first place by .0002 points! Chicken and brisket came in 18th and 21st respectively, which isn’t fabulous, but also isn’t last place. You can see our results HERE. Not too shabby!
Our spirits are buoyed. Cookie has a grin on her face a mile wide. We agree to clean up and hit the town for a celebratory dinner. And drinks. Lots of drinks.
Plans are already underway for our next event at the Taste of Grand Rapids BBQ Competition June 19-20 at Fifth Third Ballpark, where we’ll be competing in all four meat categories as well as the four side dish categories. Anyone want to help trim chicken thighs?