Bitten by the barbeque bug

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You might be surprised to hear this:

I, a former vegetarian, lover of green smoothies and salad, many days raw ’til dinner, healthy food advocate, occasional detoxer, health and fitness advocate who’s toyed with the idea of getting trained to become a holistic nutritionist (still an option), am dating a barbeque pitmaster. A barbeque pitmaster is a cook who competes in barbeque competitions and wins. You might be familiar with the TV show BBQ Pitmasters.

It’s a world of which I was previously unaware – or vaguely aware of in the last year and a half. Often when I mention “competition barbeque” to people their reaction is intrigue and surprise that such a thing exists. “That’s a thing?” and “You mean, like rib fests?” Yes, rib fests (kind of), and more.

BBQ Pork Ninjas' Weber smoker

Nothing revealed but the smoker

Jason is a member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) which sanctions over 400 barbeque contests. Recognizing barbeque as America’s Cuisine, the mission of the Kansas City Barbeque Society is to celebrate, teach, preserve and promote barbeque as a culinary technique, sport and art form.

Some of the better known competitions (previously not to me, but to people I know who I didn’t know were aware of such things) include Memphis in May, which happened recently over the Victoria Day long weekend (we weren’t there), and “The Jack”, the Jack Daniel World Championship Invitational Barbecue.

Competition season

Barbecue competitions have begun for the summer season and this past weekend I went to my first one. We drove to Rochester, NY for Roc City Rib Fest on Ontario Beach Park on Lake Ontario (read Jason’s blog post about last year’s competition). Just across the lake, but without the ferry running anymore it was a 3+ hour drive. This competition was actually a two-fer, with a New England Barbecue Society (NEBS) competition on Saturday and KCBS on Sunday. It was a “rib fest” like those that many people know about, but KCBS competitions also include chicken, pork and brisket. The NEBS categories change from competition to competition (wide open grilling contests designed to encourage creativity and be approachable) but at Roc City it included burgers, meatballs, bacon and white hots, a type of hot dog that, seemingly only people from Rochester enjoy the taste of. The only “white hot” I like is the Tom Cochrane & Red Rider song that I couldn’t get out of my head all day (it’s back). In two weeks I’ll be at a competition that has shrimp and smores categories.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about BBQ competitions because I’d like to use this experience as an article or series elsewhere, but here are a few things I took away from the weekend, things I learned about competition barbeque and myself:

  • Competitions are a ton of fun but they’re also hard work. Fun is the reward even if you don’t win. It’s a reminder that work doesn’t always feel like work.
  • Most teams are supportive of one another and while they won’t share recipes and secrets, they’ll share techniques.
  • The camaraderie is high. It’s a brother and sisterhood. A family.
  • I enjoy doing manual labour. I’d forgotten.
  • I’m driven to succeed when I find something I’m passionate about. I’d forgotten this about myself. I worked my ass off at the competition. When I was told that there was nothing for me to do and that I could sit down, I tidied or cleaned. I hated sitting down. Occasionally I recall this line from the movie Reality Bites: “If you’ve got time to lean, you’ve got time to clean.”

Bitten and smitten

Going into it, Jason told me “You’ll love it… but maybe you won’t.” with a tone that suggested that it’s okay for me to not like it. He was right when he said I’d love it. I was smitten by barbeque competitions and I’m ready for a summer full of ’em. I fell in love with the frenetic pace and the supportive community. It reminded me of my work in theatre years ago and why I liked it: Low and slow for hours (in the case of meat) or weeks (in the case of theatre), then the pace quickens. In theatre, the closer you get to opening night, the more work there is to do and the longer the hours. At BBQ comps the pace gets frenetic close to judging time. You want to be on time but you don’t want to be too early because you want the food entered to be fresh and hot.

I was familiar with some of the cooking methods and the way he makes his barbeque. I’ve seen him do practice cooks, and helped him with catering jobs. When we had 3 racks of ribs to finish at the competition, my reaction was “Is that all?” because I’d helped prep ribs for 50 people as opposed to six judges. I knew the technique. I learn quickly. I learned a lot this weekend. Constantly learning.

Competition BBQ is different from backyard barbeque, something I didn’t know previously. Most people grill on gas or charcoal at home, but competitors cook on smokers.

A lesson on BBQ and carcinogens

The distinction between smoking and grilling is the heat level, the intensity of the radiant heat and where the meat sits in relation to the fire. During grilling, the meat is mostly exposed to the open air and it’s quite close to the fire. Smoking is the “low and slow” method. During smoking, the BBQ lid or smoker door is closed, causing a dense cloud of smoke to envelop the meat. The smoke needs to move freely around the meat and out of the top of the cooker quickly otherwise creosote will build up on the meat. Coal-tar creosote is toxic. Creosote build up is nasty.

Tip: I’ve seen friends use their gas and charcoal BBQs at home to vaguely mimic the smoker effect by adding wet wood chips to the fire.

In general, there are two types of chemical reactions that occur when you BBQ foods. First, fat drippings from meat create smoke that is full of chemicals called PAH’s (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons). When the smoke surrounds the meat during the cooking process, it transfers these carcinogenic PAH’s onto the meat itself.

In addition, when you grill meat at high temperatures (about 300˚ F or above) and for long periods of time, a reaction in the food occurs, creating HCA’s (heterocyclic amines). Most HCA’s are found in meat that has been fried or grilled, two different high temperature cooking methods. Lower temperature cooking methods like boiling, baking or poaching tend to produce the least amount of HCA’s.

Ordinary barbecue grills cook the food using direct heat given off by the burning propane or charcoal. As the meat cooks at a higher temperature, chances are of it getting charred or burned outside and remaining raw inside. The structure of smokers is this: Fire on the bottom (charcoal and wood chips), water pan, chamber, cooking grate (the thing the meat goes on), meat. The charcoal burns and produces the smoke in the first chamber, which is then passed into the second chamber. Without meat immediately above the fire your exposure to carcinogens is limited. (Read more at Outdoor Smoker Grills and Wikipedia).

Read what my nutritionist friend Meghan Telpner – and Harvard – says about BBQ and carcinogens and learn about some antioxidant powered anti-inflammatory spices.

Invest in a winning team!

Barbeque isn’t a cheap hobby. There’s entrance fees, travel and food costs. Corporate sponsorship money means a lot. Past and present sponsors include a beer sponsor and a charcoal sponsor. This year the Culinary Adventure Touring Company has provided their support because they know that sponsoring the Pork Ninjas is an investment in a winning team. Join them. Be a part of a winning team! Contact me and I’ll make it happen.

Hobbies are good. I might need to create a new blog category for this new-found passion.

You want photos? I might add some but they need approval first.

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