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Feats of Smoke (4)

Steve’s pit is well organized and neat. He’s done this before.

Some trailers resemble surgical operating theaters, down to the latex gloves worn by cooks when handling meat and the stainless-steel countertops installed in trailers.

Other pits look more like experimental laboratories where something just exploded — wads of burnt aluminum foil, sauce, and empty containers littering every surface.

In the end, the order and cleanliness of the pit doesn’t matter. Cooks are only being judged on the six to eight portions each of chicken, pork ribs, pork shoulder, and brisket that they will hand-deliver to the judging area.

Judgment Day

Lew Miller of Marshalltown makes the midmorning rounds through the barbeque pits on the day of competition.

As a KCBS representative — and a favorite among cooks and judges in Iowa and throughout the nation — he works with local event organizers, makes sure pitmasters are in compliance with KCBS rules, and oversees the judging process. 

Perhaps most crucial, he tabulates the judging results and declares a winner in each category along with an overall champion for the event.

He walks through the smoky haze with a large digital clock that receives radio signals from the official atomic clock at the U.S. Naval Observatory and keeps perfect time.

After badgering cooks with both friendly barbs and genuine greetings, Miller makes sure that each competitor has synchronized his or her own timepiece. There is no room for error.

Teams are given a narrow 10-minute window to turn in their entries to the judging area. Chicken — the first meat on the schedule — must arrive between 11:55 and 12:05; ribs starting at 12:25; followed by pork shoulder at 12:55 and brisket at 1:25.

Miller’s usual charm turns serious when he reminds cooks that tardiness means disqualification.

Most of the cooks compete against each other several times each season and enjoy socializing around the pits. But the barbeque mitts come off, so to speak, a few hours before the first turn-in. 

(Read more about Feats of Smoke)


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