… The good, the bad, the ugly, and the emotional, from our First BBQ Competition at the McKinley Springs BBQ Showdown & Benefit.
I don’t function at my best when I am severely sleep deprived. Really, who does? But I feel like I function less well than others and I easily turn into a moody demon at a simple trigger.
Being able to function (and stay positive) while suffering sleep depravation, however, is necessary for competitive barbecue. I learned this lesson (and so many more!) this past weekend, when we participated in our very first barbecue competition.
Prior to this weekend my only experience with professional BBQ competitions was watching BBQ Pitmasters. So I guess you could say, I knew very little. Aside from that TV show, we did our research in the form of reading articles, blogs, books, and anything we could get our hands on in the subject of competitive barbecue. We understood the rules and had a vague idea of the judging criteria. We had a hunch that it was really a hands-on experience that was needed to understand the ins and outs to succeed at an event like this. What we didn’t have the slightest clue about was what the judges were looking for.
There are several styles of BBQ, and while we don’t have loyalty towards a specific style, if we had to choose, we’d say our style leans towards a Carolina style. That means we prefer vinegar to tomato sauces. Our food tends to be more savory rather than sweet. Sugar is not a major ingredient in anything we cook. So much so that we even forgot to pack sugar in our already overloaded car. Dammit. Sugar is, however, a minor ingredient in the dry rub we use for pork.
Turns out, the judges, at least in this competition, lean towards a sweet style (over savory). Forgetting our sugar at home meant we were screwed from the beginning. Or were we?
We had a very busy week leading up to the event. Having just come off the Phelps Creek Nacho Party, plus a busy workweek, we were already a little flustered and tired. We rushed through the packing, throwing items in whatever large Tupperware box had room. Not the best method of organization.
We quickly loaded up our two midsized cars and headed out towards McKinley Springs Winery, located roughly three hours northeast of Portland, in the middle of nowhere (quite literally!). The closest town or even gas station was around thirty miles away. This meant that we really needed to bring every item we could possibly need with us, not being able to easily run to the closest store to get anything we may have forgotten (like sugar!).
Driving through the Columbia Gorge scenic area, past Hood River, past The Dalles, and up into the open desert area of the Horse Heaven Hills, we could tell it was going to be a hot weekend. There was little shade at the competition site, and we only had one tent to cover our prep area.
McKinley Springs BBQ Showdown & Benefit
The first thing I noticed was that nearly every other team (there were thirty) had large trailers for their supplies, and many had RVs for comfort and lodging. We arrived in a Subaru Outback with our supplies shoved into Target twelve-gallon Tupperware containers. We slept in tents next to the vineyard, not in air-conditioned RVs. Though since we were so close to the vines one might consider it glamping. Throw in an air mattress and a glass of cold bubbles and I might agree.
Looking around at how little we seemed to have I started to feel like we were out of our league? We clearly looked like rookies. But would our food present and taste like it? That would be up to the judges to decide.
After getting set up we immediately got started prepping our brisket and pork butt. Those not only take the longest to cook, but they were also the first to be judged the next morning. Preparing the dry rub for the pork butt is when we realized we had forgotten the sugar. Sean quickly came up with an alternative rub that didn’t have sugar, but it certainly leaned more towards umami flavors. Not what we are used to, but it tasted good.
The brisket looked great, and went on the smoker first.
After dinner and s’mores (we had the kids after all, we couldn’t skip on s’mores during their first camping trip! And yes, I should also mention this was the very first time the kids camped anywhere other than our backyard), I put the mini pitmasters-in-training to sleep and then went back to the site to help with the fire while Sean took a quick nap. We had to sleep in shifts – short shifts – to ensure the fire was constantly monitored.
The temperature outside went from hot to cold in what felt like minutes, and the wind started picking up. These extreme temperature shifts are what make it a great wine growing area, but not necessarily the best conditions for great barbecue. Throughout the night we saw 30 mph wind gusts, which really played games with our fire. It needed constant monitoring to keep it at a consistent temperature. This could really effect how our brisket and pork butt turn out. It didn’t help that other teams were losing their tents because of the wind. This played games on our psyche.
Sometime around 1:00 am I left the pit crew so I could try to get some rest and wake Sean up. It would soon be time for him to trim and prep the ribs.
A couple short hours later, after a rough nap on the hard ground (ouch) I joined him for some much needed coffee and a game day chat. I tried bribing the kids with a movie on the iPad so that I could focus on prepping for the competition, but they had no intentions on relaxing or staying out of the way. Instead, they wanted to play in the dirt, get into the supplies, and devour all the snacks I brought. They are only four after all. I had to keep reminding myself that one day they would be at an age where they could actually be helpful to the team. They’re not quite there… yet. At least they’re cute.
Just before it was time to start turning in our dishes we realized we never prepped the sauce for our chicken. Dammit! I frantically gathered ingredients to prepare a last minute BBQ sauce to glaze the chicken with.
This is happening simultaneously while our pit crew is prepping the turn-in boxes, and while the kids are off kicking dirt and getting in trouble. Bad timing, but it had to be done.
11:00 am: Pork Butt turn in
Our first ever turn in box at our first ever competition. This is kind of a big deal for us!
It was finally time to turn in our first meat – pork butt. We’ve made killer juicy tender flavorful pork butt in the past, but without our normal dry rub, and fighting the intense wind gusts from the night before we were nervous. It wasn’t as tender as usual. But we had to play with the cards we were dealt.
Immediately after turn in we gave out samples to the public. And tasting other teams pork samples I quickly realized ours was different. Nearly every other team’s pork I sampled was on the sweet side, doused in lots of sweet BBQ sauce. Ours was savory and would stand out for either better or worse. But I didn’t have time to think about that. We had to move on to Brisket.
12:00 pm: Brisket turn in
Suddenly it was time to turn in Brisket. How the heck did that happen so fast??
Sean was getting flustered that it wasn’t slicing perfectly. We were supposed to buy new knives that week, but ran out of time. We were now suffering the consequences of using dull blades and old knives to cut the most important piece of meat! With just a few short minutes to go we had to just go with it. We weren’t proud of the way it looked and the way it was cut, but damn, it sure tasted good and tender.
1:00 pm: Chicken turn in
Time was suddenly moving in fast forward. Like really fast forward! And just before chicken turn in the boys needed to go down for a rest. They were getting cranky and getting in the way. So we took them to the tent to “attempt” to get them to nap, despite the 90-degree heat outside.
I thought the chicken tasted okay, but was a bit heavy on the sauce, and there wasn’t as much meat on each piece as I’d prefer.
The kids lasted a whole 20 minutes in the tent before wanting to come back. #napfail
No time to care, we had to prep the ribs.
2:00pm: Ribs turn in
The ribs suffered the same knife dilemma as the brisket. Lesson learned. They also were fairly thin and lean. This is something I love in a rib, but know it’s not very popular in competition. Most folks like them much meatier. The perfect bite was also missing this time. Likely due to being slightly undercooked.
This was a huge disappointment to me since just two weeks ago we cooked pretty much the best ribs we had in a very long time!
But there was no time to dwell in this. As soon as we turned it in it was time for the final category – tri-tip.
3:00 pm: Tri-Tip turn in
I was already exhausted by Tri Tip time. And hot. And getting cranky. But we had to keep going. When Sean pulled the Tri Tip and started cutting we noticed it was super moist and tender and had great flavor. I was feeling good about the Tri Tip, but I had no idea what criteria they would be judging it by? But by this point I was really just ready to be done.
Now it was just time to wait.
And clean up.
I was tired and ready to go home. Between the heat, the combo of chasing the kids all day long while helping out with the crew, I was beat.
6:00 pm: Announcements
It was finally time to announce the winners.
The very first category called was Tri Tip.
“In 8th place, Ember and Vine.”
THAT’S US!!!! We placed in Tri Tip!!!!! Halleluiah.
I was suddenly feeling optimistic. Could we actually place in other categories?
Pork Butt — No
Ribs — Nope
Brisket – Nada
Chicken — Zilch
I was suddenly feeling a mix of sadness and discouragement, yet combined with the excitement from winning in at least one category. I should just be living on the high that we met our goal – to not finish last – and we exceeded our expectations by placing in a category. Yet I still felt a bit disappointed. And I felt like a sore sport for even feeling that way. Why was I feeling like this?!
48 hours later, I think that it was probably the extreme exhaustion that had taken its toll on me. Kinda like when a toddler is due for his nap and gets upset over something minor. There is no consoling his out of control response. Emotions are hard to control in a child. And I suddenly felt like a child. In those situations the only medicine is rest.
But we still had a 3-hour drive ahead of us after the event was over, so there wouldn’t be rest until much later that night.
8:00pm: The Incident
Halfway during the drive home, somewhere outside The Dalles, we received a call from Zack who was driving with Sean and The Beast (I drove the kids in the other car) that there was an accident. My heart stopped.
The hub bearing of one of the tires blew and the tire went rolling down a hill. Nobody was hurt. Thank God. And the tire was retrieved (thanks Zack!).
This meant that the boys had to call a tow truck to transport The Beast to Hood River where it wouldn’t see a tire doctor until the following week.
My car proceeded home with the kids and Becky (our other teammate).
We got home around 10 pm and unloaded the car and the guys didn’t make it home until after midnight. This was on top of an already exhausting 48 hours.
I awoke the next morning still tired and feeling a bit melancholy. Why was I still feeling so weird?! Snap out of it, missy!!!
I finally sat down, with a cup of much needed coffee, and read the comment cards. One of the nice things about a BBQ competition is that you get to see the comments from the judges (for better or worse!). I was prepared for the worst.
The BBQ Competition Feedback
Our ribs had the lowest scores, and I’m not surprised by the way they looked and by how small they were, though a couple judges thought they had good flavor and were balanced.
5 out of the 6 judges really liked the chicken. The comments were good; “good color,” “nice bite,” one even called it “the perfect box” on appearance. But the sixth judge thought different, “slightly tough” and gave it such low scores that it brought down our average. At least I knew it wasn’t terrible!
We had a similar experience with Pork Butt. “Moist appearance,” “nicely arranged,” “excellent balance with good smoke.” One judge nearly gave it perfect scores on all three categories (appearance, texture, and taste). However another thought it had a creosote taste and marked it so low that it, once again, brought down the average. Bummer!
Brisket was mixed, with some calling it “tender” and “moist” and others thinking it was either “overdone and dry”, or “lack luster” (not a very helpful term btw). Another thought it was salty, which is strange since there was zero salt added to meat. Once again confirming my savory style vs. sweet preference.
The most uniformly positive feedback came with the Tri Tip, not surprisingly since it placed. Overall a couple judges thought looked dry, yet all the feedback on taste and texture said it was very moist and tender, with good beef flavor. Hooray!
In reading the feedback there were several discrepancies. One judge would think it was dry, another moist and tender. One would think the appearance looked perfect, when another judge would have a criticism. That’s the way things go when subjecting your food to criticism, especially in a judging situation like this. I’m reminded of the many times I’ve judged wine competitions and experienced similar discrepancies at a judging table. Judges are not perfect, and food (like wine) is so subjective!
What we gathered from all the feedback is that our food was missing the sweet factor, at least with this crowd. Like I said, we lean towards a savory style of meat, rather than sweet. I could tell by the judges’ notes that many of them prefer the sweet style. Ours was missing that. Lesson learned.
Other lessons learned?
After reading the comment cards I realized that we actually didn’t do as bad as I had feared. In most situations it was one or two judges (out of six) that brought down our scores (I will find you whoever you are!!! Just kidding. I have no idea who you are.). But really, most of our scores were fairly consistent, and overall generally positive. We weren’t entirely out of our league!!
I need to work on my attitude. It’s barbecue for heaven’s sake! It’s supposed to be fun. I was reminded of this every time I looked over at this guy (above) who had much less sleep than any of us, and yet maintained this attitude throughout the entire experience (even when losing a tire on the highway!).
I also learned that we need to get better organized. We’re not ready to invest in a massive trailer, industrial toolboxes, or RV yet, but there are steps we can take to organize better. Pinterest board already started. Check. (Container store….call me…let’s work out a deal!!!)
Prep! We need to use any time before the competition to prepare. Prep our dry rubs, make our BBQ sauces for starters, and trim our meat (if that’s allowed). Any possible thing we can do before the competition, do it.
Get a babysitter for the kids. At least for the crucial times like meat turn in times. And at least until they are old enough to contribute to team E&V.
Rest when you can.
And above all, don’t forget the effing sugar.
On the exhausting drive home I was convinced that this would be my first and last competition. I felt defeated. It reminded me of my first marathon. I had trained. I felt prepared. But on race day everything went wrong. I felt defeated then too. I decided back then that I would never race again. But a few days after the marathon, when going over everything in my head, I realized I did my best. And that no matter what, you can prepare like the best of them, but on race day things can and will go wrong. You can’t let it kill you. It’s okay to cry a little on the inside, but then you have to put your shoes back on.
And I did race again. Several times since! And I got much better.
Just like my first marathon, I decided I was over this BBQ competition thing the moment it ended. But as I write this, 48 hours later, much less sleep deprived, we’re already planning our next one. I guess it wasn’t so bad after all.
And like I said, we did place in a category! And we didn’t finish last!
And, finally, a HUGE shout out and thank you to our crew, Becky and Zack, who were amazing throughout the weekend! You guys rock.