Pit Performance Heats up Championship Barbeque
Story by Joe VanDerZanden, photography by David Peterson
Some come alone, others in small packs of two or three. Small talk is kept to a minimum as each reports for duty. Their gathering is somewhat obscured from the nearby commotion, but the smoky aroma that hangs in the air hints at their mission.
By late morning, when the required number is assembled, they take their seats in folding chairs arranged six to a table. Cued by officials with proper insignia, these Iowa patriots stand, raise their right hands, and in unison declare their allegiance.
I do solemnly swear to objectively and subjectively evaluate each
As comic books have taught, lurking in the midst of ordinary citizens are superheroes. They live among the population, unheralded and largely unknown yet ready when duty calls to leap into action — by sitting and eating barbeque for two hours at a pop.
Each weekend during barbeque season (in Iowa, that’s roughly mid-May to mid-September), a group of exceptional men and women pledge to defend Liberty by means of appraising smoked meat.
. . . so that truth, justice, excellence in Barbeque and the American Way of Life
Barbeque is a loaded word. Its mention to some induces an immediate Pavlovian salivary response triggered by pleasant memories of a gooey pulled pork sandwich eaten over a paper plate while standing in line to look at the Butter Cow.
For the less fortunate, the utterance may invoke nightmares of crispy, nuggetlike hamburgers tasting of petroleum distillates and sawdust. Meat cooked with smoke and fire carries so much cultural and psychological baggage that it is difficult to discern exactly what constitutes great barbeque.
Enter the Certified Barbeque Judges — trained by the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) and known in pitmaster parlance as CBJs — who bring knowledge, skill, and stamina to each competition, cutting through the smoke and sauce in order to set the record straight.
If seemingly ordinary Iowans transform into superheroes at competitive Iowa barbeque events, then the folks who cook the meat certainly approach rock star status. Arriving Friday evening before judging on Saturday afternoon, they haul huge trailers festooned with brazen paint jobs and distinctive logos. Team names often feature hogs and menace (Swine Assassins, Wicked Pig, R Butts R Smokin’). The rigs they tow range from the outlandish to downright posh. Some are air-conditioned, featuring full kitchens with running water, sound systems, and sleeping quarters.
For most regular competitors, each weekend during the season means another road trip to another barbeque showdown. And, like a touring band, they are in it for fun and a love of their craft. Of course, money and everlasting barbeque glory are also on the line.
“Set it and forget it,” says Steve Bryant. His broad smile and friendly manner cut through the fragrant haze generated by his smoker after he puts his first meat — brisket — into his cooker at 9:00 p.m. on Friday. Steve is the patriarch of Meadow Valley BBQ, a team from Ames that has been competing for more than 12 years.
For him, cooking and enjoying food is best accomplished with friends and family. He cooks with his wife, Penny, and Josh and Liz, his son and daughter-in-law. His earliest gastronomic memories are the farm meals shared with his family and hired hands during harvest.
Overnight and through the following morning additional mantras will guide Meadow Valley’s culinary efforts.
“If you’re looking, you aren’t cooking,” says Liz, repeating another often-used phrase in her pit. Relaxed in a lawn chair under the awning in front of the trailer, nine months pregnant, and fiddling with her smartphone, she tells about how she once threatened to install a dead bolt on the door of the smoker because a certain team member (husband Josh’s name was not spoken) continually opened the door to check on the meat.
Now an array of thermometers with digital read-outs allows the Meadow Valley team to monitor the temperature of their cooker without letting the precious heat and smoke escape. Meadow Valley’s cooker requires little attention during the 15 hours it will take to smoke brisket.
Tables, chairs, and enormous trunks of kitchen gadgetry are unpacked. Outdoor lighting systems are erected and generators are primed. Wood, charcoal, and pellets are stockpiled. Most important, ice chests full of uncooked chicken, ribs, pork shoulder, and brisket are lugged to the prep area.
It helps that Steve and Josh are big men because unloading their trailer is a task equal to that of a Bob Seger roadie. A cursory glance around the pits reveals that the majority of the cooks fall well to the plus side of the bell curve in terms of average height and weight. Many of these guys are built like NFL nose tackles.
Once the meat goes on, each team has a system for organizing tasks that has in some cases been perfected over time. Steve Bryant has his system down to a science, which should be of no surprise considering his day job as manager of the Iowa State University Meat Lab. 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.
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. After a friendly shot of whiskey between contenders early Saturday morning — a tradition among Iowa pitmasters in the spirit of friendly competition — the barbeque crews get down to business.
Teams are willing to share just about anything: foil, utensils, garnish, and advice. According to first-time competitor R.J. Voss of Voss Grill and Chill from Ames, the affable attitude among cooks has been essential to his debut experience. “I don’t know what I am doing,” he says with a laugh. “Really, I don’t. Thankfully these guys parked next to me are willing to show me the ropes.”
Voss was lucky enough to set up his pit next to Jeff Naslund and his Red Bandana BBQ crew from Galva. The competing neighbor tried to keep the newbie on track by sharing pointers and tips when he looked confused or frustrated, says Voss.
“It’s the friendships and quality of people that attract me to this,” says Mike Whitney of Big Mike’s BBQ, who was still somewhat surprised to even be at this day’s event.
The previous afternoon, after loading up his team (consisting of his wife, Dalene, two kids, and a gray terrier), he was only a few minutes out of his home in Huxley when his smoker fell off the back of his RV. After dragging the bent and twisted smoker off the road, he called fellow competitor David Hintz, who offered one his own smokers for use in the competition. A few hours later, Mike’s fire is lit and his meat cooking. (Big Mike’s BBQ went on to place third overall with the borrowed smoker.)
One thing not shared among cooks is seasoning and sauce formulas.
On this detail, the cooks are tight-lipped. In his eighth year of competitive cooking, David Hintz is a self-described foodie and, unlike some of his neophyte counterparts, takes great pride in his homemade sauce.
“I try to create a flavor profile,” says David. He and his wife, Melissa, are the heart and soul of Pork County BBQ from Lambs Grove. Using various homemade rubs, seasonings, and sauces tailored to the type of meat he is cooking, David attempts to achieve a blend that will trigger all the right taste sensors on the judges’ tongues.
With judging about an hour away, David spends the remainder of the morning tending the cooker containing ribs, pork, and brisket and fusses with his chicken on another grill. He mists the meat with a spray bottle filled with his own special glaze and moves some of it to warming trays. Melissa, meanwhile, makes final preparations in the trailer, gently placing chopped fresh parsley into the four Styrofoam clamshell containers that KCBS rep Miller issued earlier.
Minutes before the chicken turn-in, most cooks disappear inside their trailers or get to work at secluded tables in their pits. The lively pit scene goes quiet as each cook concentrates on saucing and boxing chicken thighs for the first turn-in.
The big LCD digits on the clock inside Pork County BBQ’s trailer shift: 1:01 p.m.
Having already garnished, boxed, and submitted chicken and ribs, David and Melissa have precisely four minutes left before they miss the pork shoulder turn-in. They have been saucing and slicing meat for the last hour, engrossed in perfecting the entry that will meet the judging table. David bends over the pork, his eyes and nose just inches from the meat, trying to determine which parts are worthy of boxing.
“1:02.” From the other end of the trailer, Melissa chants each number, her eyes on the clock.
He knows that the pork will be judged on appearance, among other qualities, so he is looking for those pieces with a pronounced smoke ring, a tell-tale sign of good barbeque.
Taste and tenderness are the two additional judging criteria, each weighted more heavily in scoring. So as David cut his slices, he’s also looking for the section of the meat that is most tender and more flavorful.
According to Scott Nelson of Swine Assassins from Mason City, cooks must quickly decide which parts of the pork will yield the highest marks from judges. “My money muscle is on the back, on the other side of the bone,” he explains. “It’s medallion size, about two inches in diameter, sometimes smaller.”
“1:03,” warns Melissa. David does not seem rushed. He continues at the same careful pace, arranging the contents of the box, making it look perfect. Just before the clock turns to 1:04, the box is sealed shut and wrapped in an ordinary white kitchen towel to keep it warm.
It takes Melissa less than one minute to walk from the Pork County BBQ trailer to the turn-in table at the Judges Tent. (She did a timed practice run the night before.) Melissa is steady and calm but wastes no time as she walks up the street holding a box of meat cooked with smoke. She delivers the pork to the judging area with plenty of time to spare — at least 30 seconds under the wire.
With his “runner” safely off, David turns his attention to the final meat, brisket, just off the smoker. He only has 20 minutes to decide which portion of this cut to put in front of the judges. The clock is ticking.
Scrutinize, Savor, Score
As the team runners arrive at the turn-in table, the clock begins ticking for the judges. In the next two hours, each will evaluate six portions in each of the four meat categories.
Judging is performed in double-blind fashion. Cooks don’t know who will judge their entry; CBJs have no idea who cooked the meat they are about to taste. At turn-in, the Styrofoam containers are randomly renumbered and recorded. KCBS rules further ensure judging purity by forbidding CBJs to fraternize with cooks before the competition. Guidelines clearly dictate that “meat shall not be sculptured, branded or presented in a way to make it identifiable.”
Because the one-day KCBS certification course has trained these men and women to be fair and impartial, judges don’t talk much while tasting. Following instructions, they maintain a neutral body language while judging — “facial expressions of rapture or disgust” will not be tolerated.
After closely inspecting the meat inside each container presented by a designated Table Captain circling the table, CBJs mark a score for “Appearance.”
Next each judge selects one portion and places it on the corresponding square of the official KCBS Judging Plate in front of him or her. Barbeque is a sensory experience, and after smell and sight come touch and taste. Fingers reach for the goods.
“Chicken is always the messiest,” says Miller of the judging process.
Although napkins are provided for this hands-on experience, many CBJs bring along their own damp dish towel to de-sauce between tastings. (According to KCBS rules, premoistened wipes are not allowed because they may contain scent.)
There are no forks, no knives — this, says Miller, is not only how barbeque is meant to be eaten but also provides CBJs with critical tactile feedback about the texture and tenderness of the meat.
If the entry container is in violation of KCBS Official Rules and Regulations for any reason (such as foreign material, unauthorized use of garnish, sculpted meat), CBJs will mark it a 1, and the entry is disqualified.
This is perhaps the most challenging aspect of judging. “You are not rating one versus the other; you judge each individually,” says Brad Henning of Ames, who has been a CBJ for seven years. “It is a very hard thing to do, especially when you first start.”
With experience, most CBJs cultivate a sense for rating each barbeque entry on its own merits. Dean Schoeppner of Des Moines, a CBJ for seven years, says there are subtle differences between each portion that finds its way to his judging plate, and he pays close attention to what he tastes.
“You’ll taste one and it’s got pretty good flavor, but it’s mushy,” he explains. “The next one will be perfect texture, but the flavor just won’t quite be there, at least not for what I’m looking for anyway.”
Strengthened and Preserved
After 12 hours of absorbing smoke, heat, and seasoning, the last meat to meet the judges is brisket, a notoriously difficult cut of beef to cook but when done correctly is the favorite of many CBJs. In addition to slices, some cooks choose to place burnt ends in their containers.
Cut from the point of the brisket, burnt ends are sort of a happy accident after smoking the meat for half a day. They are slightly barky but still soft and full of fatty deliciousness. Schoeppner particularly enjoys them.
When judging brisket, Henning, too, looks forward to burnt ends. In his opinion, it is the best of the brisket because it contains all the taste and tenderness elements of world-class barbeque and showcases the talent of the cook.
“The outer bark has all the smoke in it, the seasoning, and sauce,” he says. “It’s just a little bit crispy, and you really get the essence of the brisket — and with more flavor than you do with the brisket itself.”
When it’s all over, each CBJ will have faced down somewhere in the neighborhood of seven pounds of meat. Smart, practical judges tote along small coolers that they stash under their chairs. Uneaten portions — plenty of them because judges learn early to pace themselves — will be bagged up and stashed in the cooler to enjoy later.
After her judging is finished, Jana Klauke, a first-year CBJ from Davenport, says her appetite for barbeque has definitely been sated.
“It’s fun judging,” she says. “But if you take one bite of each of the pieces that you are judging, you will have consumed two pounds of meat. Even though it’s spread out over two hours, the last thing I even want to look at afterwards is barbeque.”
Shortly after Miller collects the final sauce-stained judging slips from the Table Captains, the CBJs are gone. Their work is done, the Oath fulfilled. The judges return to their civilian lives with bellies full of meat and coolers stuffed with barbeque, content that a vital tenet of American culture is secure.
Later the Judges Tent will slowly fill again, only this time with cooks. When the teams are assembled at the closing ceremony, they look a little haggard. Some are covered in smoke and ash. Many appear bloodied — sauce and glaze splattered on their t-shirts.
Once final scores are tallied, winners from each meat category are announced along with an overall champion. There is money involved, too. Top prizes in these championships can net a cook a few thousand dollars or more. National event winners are looking at six figures.
More on BBQ
BBQ Events in Iowa
A list and map of KCBS sanctioned BBQ Events in Iowa for 2012.
By the Rules
No. 12: Garnish is optional. If used, it is limited to chopped, sliced, shredded, or whole leaves of fresh green lettuce, curly parsley, flat-leaf parsley, and/or cilantro. Kale, endive, red-tipped lettuce, lettuce cores, and other vegetation are prohibited. . . .
Know Your Meat
After a one-day KCBS judging certification class, CBJs are able to register as judges for KCBS-sanctioned competitions in Iowa and around the country. (A class schedule and event calendar can be found online at kcbs.com.) The KCBS sanctions over 300 competitive events each year in more than 40 states.
The Iowa Barbeque Society cosponsors a Barbeque Spring Training Camp each March with the Iowa State University Meat Lab. The daylong workshop is designed for anyone interested in learning more about barbeque — whether a backyard cook, someone interested in forming a competitive barbeque team, or a seasoned pitmaster.
A Short History of Cooked Meat
With its thickly enameled teeth, deep olfactory pit, and bipedal stature, Australopithecus had all the genetically evolved tools to experience and enjoy cooked meat.
Alas, fire was just becoming the latest fad around the time Australopithecus was gathering its last nut. Despite more than two million years of roaming the earth, old Lucy likely never experienced cooked carnivorous treats.
Fast forward another few million years or so: past Homo erectus gaining control of fire, past the first Homo sapiens who had a hankering to sink their incisors into roasted ribs, and past the absolutely genius idea of burying an entire goat in the ground over hot coals and cooking it for days.
Entire economies have been built upon the production and purveyance of quality meat. Barbeque, when done well, is considered an authentic American art form. It is so beloved that Food Network viewers know exactly how Guy Fieri feels when he mugs at the camera and exclaims, “I could put this on a flip-flop and it would it taste good.”
Most cooks and judges refer to the cut used in the Pork Shoulder category as “pork butt” or simply “pork.” In the lexicon of American butchery, pork shoulder is used interchangeably with Boston butt or pork butt.
This cut should not to be confused with the pork shoulder roast or pork picnic roast, which is also cut from the front shoulder but below the joint and above the shank (or leg).
“Butt” is derived from the Old English term for a specific type of barrel or wine cask used to store and ship cut hogs. In this archaic unit of measure, a butt is a large barrel equivalent to two hogsheads, yet another size of barrel.
A butt, also called a pipe, holds about 126 gallons (or 1-1/2 [no fractions online-BR] firkins if you’re across the pond).
In colonial America, the choicer cuts coming from the top parts of the animal such as the ham and loin were usually consumed locally, thus the saying “high on the hog.” Lesser cuts were preserved, packed into barrels (butts), and shipped around the colonies or back to England and used in sausage.