Yesterday we shared our interview with Tuffy Stone, winner of the 2015 Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbecue. One of the most prestigious contests of the year, the Jack is certainly one of the best looks a competition newbie could have at the work that goes into being a successful team on the barbecue cooking circuit. As such, we turn to a great friend, Matt Wolfersberger, for his impressions of his visit to his first contest. Here's his story:
Main Street in Lynchburg, TN is actually a block off the highway passing through town. While it was clear I had arrived in Lynchburg, finding this street proved to be a small challenge for an old GPS. After parking in the front yard of a house across from Missy Mary Bobo’s Boarding House, I immediately went to the pleasant downtown square in search of a cup of coffee. No bars in this dry county.
The first thing you realize when arriving at Lynchburg, TN is that Lynchburg and Jack Daniels are synonymous. About half of the businesses appear to be owned by Jack Daniels, while the other half fully embrace the relationship by offering Jack Daniels infused food and Jack Daniels branded souvenirs.
The barbeque competition officially begins with a parade of competitors that started lining up at 5 PM on Friday night. An enthusiastic group, this is the first time you realize just how many competitors there are. Team sizes seem to range from two to over 10. I’m still not clear what everyone on the larger teams do; perhaps a meat specialty, perhaps a hanger on. I also came to learn that in some cases one person owns the team, but contracts out their cooking. As an example, I enjoyed the gossip about an embarrassing situation where a team showed up to compete but without a cook, so the owner stepped in much to his team’s disgrace given that the owner didn’t know how to barbeque.
Walking around the festival grounds is fascinating on many levels. The competitors have essentially moved their backyards to a campsite set up in a field. Around a typical campsite are lawn chairs, grills, eight foot prep tables and a trailer. The trailers range from an open container packed with gear to RVs featuring full size commercial kitchen, complete with an industrial stove and oven, stainless steel counters and full-size industrial refrigerators. For a mere $70, the competition will provide a portable toilet, while other supplies are provided in bulk form, including ice, wood and grease disposal containers.
In front of each site is a team banner that serves a dual purpose. One, it advertises who the team is and where they are from. Two, and seemingly more important, it blocks the view from spectators who might want to walk in uninvited. The team names range from clever double entendres to some reference to a piece of meat, but please do not assume that every reference to a piece of meat is a double entendre. A small percentage of the teams are offshoots of restaurants.
In some cases the teams felt they were doing something proprietary that needed to be hidden. In my opinion, that simply is not the case. The secrets are in the rubs, the sauces, the quality of the meat and the cooking detail, none of which can be ascertained even by close observation at any one time. That said, I also don’t blame the teams for seeking privacy behind the banners; without them it would be hard not to feel self-conscious while folks walk by and gawk at you. I intend to try rubs from The Shed and buy meat from the overwhelming meat vendor of choice, Snake River Farms.
The most famous teams have their own TV shows. For example, the winner of The Jack (the unofficial name of the Jack Daniels World Championship Invitational Barbecue competition) is Tuffy Stone, better known as a judge from BBQ Pitmasters. A crowd was typically in front of Tuffy’s campsite which made for an interesting site: folks watching his banner and site while cooks and friends milled around and looked back at the onlookers.
The judging occurs under a large pavilion. Food is prepared at the campsites and put on top of parsley or green lettuce in a Styrofoam box, then sent to the pavilion during a 10 minute window every half hour. Getting the food to the pavilion on time is of the highest priority. I was highly amused by competitors yelling to get through the roaming crowd to get their food in on time. The crowd was neither big enough or the space so confined as to warrant an entourage to deliver the box. This yelling was a regular reminder though that this festival was built around a fierce competition.
Most campsites have a list of the times and category order hanging on a wall to reference at all times. As the actual due time approaches, nerves heighten and busywork commences. It is somewhat ironic that a brisket that took over 10 hours to cook can be ruined by a poorly looking box prepared minutes before it is due. I don’t believe any deadlines were missed, however humiliating that would be, but I did hear tales that made clear this was a real risk.
Once the box arrives for judging it is distributed to judging tables. Each judging table consists of six judges around an eight foot table; one on each end, four down one side, one side open. A second eight foot table is in front of this table. The procedure of judging is as follows: collect tasting boxes on the empty table, display box to each judge, allow each judge to sample, repeat. When finished, each judge has a few bites from each box and judges on such items as presentation and taste.
I know all of this because you can sit on stands to watch the judges. I quite enjoyed watching judges eat, mostly because the whole process was so bizarre, but transparency is clearly a well achieved goal. The biggest disappointment was how few tastes of the excess food the crowd got. Perhaps hygiene or food safety was to blame, but so much food is prepared and never eaten. Fixing this should be a priority. What I did taste I can clearly state was barbeque. Some good, some bad.
Which brings me to a tip: do not offer your opinion on barbeque if you are not a professional. Clearly the palates of the judges is very specific. Moist is a must. Sweet and not overly spicy. Rib meat should pull cleanly from the bone when bitten but not "fall off the bone." Offering feedback to a professional based on the garbage I prepare in my backyard makes me a detriment to the team effort, so quiet is best. I found this out after realizing that dry rubbed barbeque sans sauce never wins. Also, more frequently I would taste a fruit or sweet aftertaste; never anything spicy. Quiet conversation between competitors often revolves around such details as injecting meat and what parts of a cut are best.
The actual festival part of the competition is fairly typical with one big exception. Barbeque vendors are out to advertise and sell you their goods so even the everyday man can pretend to be a professional. This includes wood chips, charcoal, sauces, rubs and grills. In order to drive traffic, these vendors prepared barbeque and handed them out to folks who waited in lines, often 50+ people in length.
Past winners sell barbeque from huge tents, as do typical festival vendors of gyros, kettle corn and other concessionary delights. I was apparently the only person that found it ironic that someone would attend a barbeque competition, but freely choose to eat gyros. I’m not sure at what point someone decides to move from competitor to vendor, but given the passion of the competitors, it should not come as a surprise that the part-time competitors would like to find a way to make barbeque a profession.
I will have fond memories of the weekend. The competitors were across the board overwhelming nice. As you might expect from a competition built around a grill, hanging out came second nature to these folks and they truly enjoyed sitting around and talking. Second, some of the trailers were truly spectacular, and in many cases custom designed. I was thankful my wife was not in attendance, as a kitchen remodel would be hard to argue against when in the presence of a state of the art kitchen located in the back of a trailer.
Finally, the awards ceremony was long, but truly entertaining. It was nice to see teams cheer for the success of their peers. After all, barbeque is meant to be enjoyed.