Competing grill teams face the heat

Barbecue championship is a first for Maryland

August 14, 2002|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Ask a champion barbecuer to spill the beans behind a secret marinade or spice rub, and you'll probably get smoked. Ask him for the secret of his success, and he'll gladly extol the virtues of a single ingredient.


The 34 teams that competed at the first-ever Maryland State BBQ Championship in Bel Air last weekend didn't just cook food: They coaxed it. They coddled it. They misted it as finely as an ocean fog and took temperatures like nurses in the intensive-care unit.

Some cuts of meat spent as much as 18 hours over tiny flames that would barely simmer a poached egg.

For the Woodstock-based DeGroen's Beer Porkitects competitive barbecue team, one of the most valued pieces of equipment - besides the $2,000 smoker that could hold up to 54 racks of ribs, of course - was the espresso maker. It kept the night shift awake so it could baste meats hourly and keep the fire at precisely 225 degrees.

"I'm starting to realize I'm a control freak," said Brad Hammond, 39, of Granite, the architect (both literally and figuratively) behind the Porkitects. "I'm sure everyone on the team has suffered my wrath."

You couldn't blame Hammond for feeling the heat Saturday. His team is one of the best in Maryland, a state that isn't known widely for the quality of its barbecue, and he was determined to do well on his home turf.

That's not to say Maryland doesn't have some fine grilled meat. But that's not barbecue as the true aficionados of Southern-style barbecue know it.

To accomplish that requires low-temperature, slow cooking that relies more on smoke than fire. The process turns tough cuts of meat like brisket into flavorful, tender delicacies that have been known to make grown men blubber and women swoon.

"You take your time. You don't get rushed," said Jim Tabb, 70, of Tryon, N.C., a former airline pilot and longtime barbecue competitor. "And it's a great way to meet women, too."

Barbecue competitions have become a hot thing in recent years, not only in the South but across the country. The Maryland contest was the centerpiece of the Bel Air BBQ Bash, a two-day celebration in downtown Bel Air. It was sanctioned - and closely monitored - by representatives of the Kansas City Barbecue Society.

The competitors had to produce in five categories - chicken, pork ribs, pulled pork (created from pork shoulder), beef brisket and, in a nonofficial category just for the Maryland event, seafood (any type would do). Samples were judged for flavor, tenderness and appearance - with points off for such no-no's as sauce puddles "larger than a half-dollar" or meat falling off the rib bone.

"A brisket should be tender, but it shouldn't stretch like an accordion or break apart in your hands," Jerry Mullane of Williamstown, N.J., the official Kansas City overseer, informed the 36 volunteer judges, most of whom had taken classes in judging barbecue.

With $10,000 in prize money at stake, including a $2,500 award for grand champion, the contest attracted competitors from Florida to Massachusetts. Among the entrants were some heavy hitters from the "cue" world like George and Linda Pulley, whose 3P's Cooking Team of Windsor, Va., won last month's New Jersey state championship in Wildwood.

The Pulleys arrived in a customized, air-conditioned trailer. But what most competitors envied was George's porcine experience. A former hog farmer, he now supervises a hog-processing plant owned by a Smithfield subsidiary. You could say he knows pigs inside out.

"It isn't how fancy your equipment is, it's about what you know," said Pulley, 59. "You can win this thing with a $60 backyard model. You just have to know how to use it."

Of course, the competition was also a social event with considerable fraternization among the contestants. Even the team names revealed their attitude toward their craft - Pork Floyd, Elvis Pigley and Smokin Grillbillys were among the more memorable.

"It's like a mini-vacation," Linda Pulley said.

Still, competition isn't for slouches. The Porkitects, a 10-member band that includes architects (hence the name), a software engineer, a lighting designer and a federal bureaucrat, has about $12,000 invested in equipment. That doesn't even count the $150 entrant fee or the cost of supplies, all of which the team must provide itself.

And then there's the madness of competition. Like figuring out the proper rib seasoning - Hammond spent last winter testing dozens of formulas - or injecting marinade into the brisket with a veterinarian's syringe the size of a chair leg. When it's time to submit samples to the judges, everyone scrambles to make sure the food is just so.

"Who would go to this much trouble? Stupid architects and people without a life," said Barry Miller, a teammate and Hammond's partner at Barry A. Miller Architects in Canton. "You really have to be committed - or maybe you just ought to be."

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