Smokehouse BBQ at Smokin’ Down the Highway
Over the weekend, Smokehouse Digital competed in the Smokin’ Down the Highway PNWBA barbecue competition. It took place on the Harvest Fairgrounds outside of Sublimity Oregon and included a classic car show, some really great bands, and competitive barbecue teams from around the Pacific Northwest. This was our first BBQ competition and we had no idea what to expect. Saturday We arrive by 7:30am and set up the booth before 9am.
Brett and Jason got breakfast fixin's the first morning. Brett made some kind of bacon and eggs ranchero. it was outstanding.
I stay back in case the judge comes around to inspect the booth. She isn’t long and we pass with no problems. Milestone #1 complete. Brisket Jason preps the brisket and has to leave to meet his daughter back in Portland. All afternoon and evening we hang out, wander around, take short naps, do rubs and marinades. Brett takes the afternoon to remove the skin from 10 lbs. of chicken thighs, scrape the fat off each one, then reattach the skin to the thigh with tooth picks. He’s prepping a special Asian Fusion recipe with a sweet soy glaze he’s mastered over the past month of practice cooks. I’m prepping the pork butt with a Carolina style rub to enter in the pulled pork category. To compete we have to turn in four meats or else be disqualified. So I’m also prepping pork ribs, my other specialty. Around 11 pm we start lighting fires and warming up the smokers and put the long cook meats on (pork and brisket). The night crew arrives. Malana and Laura tend the fires for us through the night so we can get some sleep. We notice all the other teams have computers that keep their fires going through the night. Maybe next time! Sunday
All night Malana and Laura tend the fires and keep things rolling. As morning breaks, people start waking up and coming back to their cook sites. It’s quiet but there is a sense of focused purpose as the other teams start gearing up for their turn ins. Jason and I are up by 6 am. Brett soon joins us for breakfast and coffee (thanks again Malana) and we start getting ready to take the long-cooking meats out and put on the shorter cooking meats (ribs and chicken). My biggest concern was that we would not get our meats turned in on time. There is only a 10-minute window for each turn in which means your submission must be perfectly ready at that time. By 9am the booth is a kitchen in full motion. Long meats come out, go into Cambros. The ribs go in. Chicken get final prep and ready to go into the smokers The other booths are becoming a flurry of activity. As one cook is pulling meat out of a smoker another is putting something into a Cambro and another is slicing and selecting exactly the right pieces to go into the turn in box. Each person focused on trying to do each step exactly on time. Meats can sit too long or they dry out. They can’t cool down too much or the texture will be wrong. They can’t be over sauced or you lose points for taste. They can’t be cut uneven or you lose points for appearance. Every point counts. 10 am is whiskey shots. All the teams gather round one booth and hand out little cups of Jack. We all cheer, gulp the whiskey down and head back to start the serious work.
I start by trimming the pork and shredding the best pieces. Looking for the right mix of bark, smoke, meat, and no fat. Drip on some sauce, not too much. It can’t overpower the flavor of the meat. 11am the walk to turn in turn in the pulled pork begins. Walking to the judging booth to turn in a sample almost takes your breath away. After months of planning, 18 hours of limited sleep and anticipation, and at least 2 hours for the final push, each step toward the judge’s table is taken with caution. Contestants hold the box with two hands, close to their body. Tripping on a rock or stumbling on uneven ground could mean disaster. People walk slowly and in pairs. Deep breaths. Don’t chat much. Take every step seriously until the box is placed squarely on the table. The intake judge scans the barcode. The submission is in. Big exhale. The eagle has landed. …just 3 more meats to go… 12pm turn in brisket 1pm turn in chicken 2pm turn in ribs
When everything is in there is nothing to do but sell samples, eventually start packing up, have a beer to celebrate a good effort. The day is easier then. Just clean up messes. Pack. Speculate on what the scores will be. What will they like? What will work in our favor. You can’t know. You almost don’t care because the big effort is over and it is time to take a break. But you do care. At 5 pm everyone gathers in the big tent–23 teams in all at this event–to hear who did the best. The event organizers thank the sponsors and congratulate each other on a good event. Then they start announcing the winners, starting with 8th place and counting up to first. Pork is first, then brisket, then chicken, then ribs. The judges are turning in their scores, in order, to us. We clap for everyone that walks. Then the top 3 overall. The Grand Champion gets a ticket to the American Royal and is entered into a lottery for the Jack Daniels Invitational. There is a lot of cheering for Bad Bones BBQ. They got their ticket punched this time. Our team did not walk. It’s sad, but okay. It’ll take a day or two to regroup. After so much effort and anticipation it would have been deeply gratifying to walk. Every team thinks that and we were no different. But we competed at our first event and we actually got our boxes in on time, for the first time.
We learned a lot about what the judges are looking for. There is a definite regional flavor bias to these barbecue competitions. And even though we placed poorly, I’m now inspired to bring what I love most about the local food culture to our next Pacific North West barbecue competition. I can’t wait for the next time.