“I hate losing more than I love winning, and there’s a difference.”
– Billy Beane (from Moneyball, the movie)
When I started this blog, my goal was to narrate my journey from incompetent to proficient, not to create a How To guide for BBQ. Keep that in mind as you read this post. It’s about Failure with a capital F.
If you ever want to win a BBQ competition, this is a How Not To Guide.
I entered the Third Annual Backyard BBQ Bash, held yesterday in Arnold, MO. The categories were chicken, ribs, and mystery meat. With all proceeds going to the Wounded Warrior Project, you could also give away samples for $1 suggested donations. So I decided to make some stuffed mushrooms and give those away.
Chicken was due at 3:30, mystery meat at 4:15, and ribs at 5:00. I rolled in at 8:30 and discovered that the mystery meat was beef tri-tip.
People would be by for samples after 11am, so I got cracking on my stuffed mushrooms. I bought a couple containers of baby portabella mushrooms, then popped out the stems and cleaned the caps, before washing them off in cold water. Each was generously stuffed with a mixture of muffuletta olive salad and feta cheese crumbles.
From there, each was wrapped in bacon and placed on one of two water soaked red oak planks on the Weber 22″ kettle.
It took about an hour and a half to fully cook all of the bacon.
I put them out for sampling by the public. Frankly, these were quite delicious. The pork fat basted the mushrooms while the wood smoked the concoction and added a hearty wood flavor, without letting the appetizer burn. Feta cheese, which you don’t normally describe this was, provided a smooth, rich and creamy complement to the salty, earthy mushroom/olive combination.
These things went fast and I made $34 for the Wounded Warriors. Tons of positive feedback from the hungry hordes. This was the highlight of my culinary day.
Let’s get to the parade of failures that comprised my BBQ competition efforts. First, let me be clear that I paced myself on beer. No alcohol-related errors today. Lots of bad timing, poor decisions, lack of garnish, misuse of ingredients, inept performance, lack of planning, etc.
For my chicken sauce, I roasted and peeled six large Anaheim peppers, then de-seeded them. Those were chopped up with half of a white long-sliced onion and sauteed in a skillet with cider vinegar and chicken stock.
To make a seasoning paste, two garlic bulb’s worth of unpeeled cloves and a handful of whole peppercorns were cooked in a non-stick skillet on the grill. I smooshed it up with a pestle and mortar and smeared it over the chicken skin, then put a tablespoon sized pat of salted butter under the chicken skin, next to the meat. The chicken went right on the grill, adjacent to the sauce (which had reduced quite a bit and been re-thinned with more cider vinegar), about 45 minutes before service.
Most unfortunately, the chicken’s internal temperature did not rise as I expected. With ten minutes left, I was looking at 140 degree chicken. That’s some Holy Shit territory. USDA says 165 for poultry and I was low on time.
To remediate, I moved the chicken thighs closer to the fire, pulled the sauce, and put a lid on the grill. Eventually the largest thighs got up to 158, and a few of the small ones were at 165. I couldn’t tell if the temps were false positives because they were so close to the fire – the thermometer spiked to 180 in some instances.
Meanwhile, the sauce had thickened horribly. I wanted those distinct flavors, so I portioned it out and tucked it under the thigh skins.
So I served the smallest six of the eight, thinking those would be done for sure. I didn’t garnish at all, which apparently was a huge disadvantage. Dumb dumb dumb.
I tried my last two thighs. Blah. When you eat meat and think, “Yeah, I think this is done… I think“, it’s probably a terrible sign. In fact, two of the six judges DQed my chicken, presumably due to under-doneness. I didn’t think the flavors were very good, the sauce had very little zest and added nothing. Horrific effort. I felt a little down after this one.
Next in the sequence of shameful BBQ was my tri-tip. I should have done something creative. I should have tried a new recipe. I should have used flippin’ Google on my iPhone to figure out how to do something distinct and interesting. I didn’t. Due to my chicken dejection, I didn’t think to take many pics of this tri-tip fiasco.
Instead, I went simple. Seasoned salt, garlic powder, a little cayenne pepper on the meat side and I tossed it on the grill with some apple wood smoke, fat side up to baste. Tick tock, tick tock…. 30 minutes to go and I was looking at 85 degree meat. W.T.F.
Drastic measures were taken. I carved the fat, then dropped the meat into a foil wrap of Sweet Baby Rays, liquid Parkay, and some honey. This went over semi-direct heat with the thermometer probe inserted.
With 7 minutes left, it hit 135 degrees. I pulled to give it a chance to rest.
I sliced it up, giving six fairly large pieces to the judges. No garnish once again, seeing as how I am an inexperienced jackass. Some of the sauce/juice was liberally sprinkled on the meat in the service box.
Although this was just another step in my journey towards serious public shaming, I have to say I really enjoyed this meat. It was juicy, tasty, tender, succulent. No smoke lines, a tad short of medium. While this wasn’t ideal, I felt a little lifted since I had saved a disaster… or so I thought.
On to my ribs! Surely I could turn in some serviceable ribs, right? I worked hard on the ribs.
Three baby back slabs from Sam’s were met with a rub of brown sugar, paprika, seasoned salt, cayenne pepper, onion powder. The first of the three out of the pack gave me no problems with respect to the concave rib membrane – it came right off. The next two were shredded… I could not get the membrane off cleanly. Perhaps a sign of problems to come.
They went on the Big Blue smoker with a heapin’ helpin’ of hickory wood chunks.
Hours later, I checked on my ribs, which had been put on concave side down.
Uh oh. We have some serious charring on the underside of the ribs. I had been spritzing them with a mist mop of beer, cider vinegar, juice, and a dash of Frank’s hot sauce. Still, the bottom didn’t get much liquid and apparently burnt a little bit.
The smoker performed well, by the way. I had problems at the pork steak competition with it, but nothing like that today. With minimal interference from me but for some fiddling with the ball valve baffles at the base of the smoker, I kept a temperature between 195 and 225.
After four hours of smoking, a dozen or so coals were added to the fire and the ribs were wrapped in a foil full of liquid Parkay butter, honey, and some of the rib rub. Each was returned to the smoker.
After two and a half hours in foil, the ribs were unwrapped. I could tell that I had some problems. It looked like I had over-tenderized the ribs. In trying to pick up a rack with two tongs, some of the rib bones began to separate themselves from the meat. Crap.
I let the ribs rest on the cutting board for about 10 minutes before carving into six rib portions. I was hoping that the meat might firm up a little.
From a tenderness point of view, they were really good. I didn’t see much of a smoke ring, which disappointed me. Since I don’t typically sauce my ribs, I rely on the flavors from the rub and the moisture/stickiness from the sugar of the rub interacting with the mop and foil wrap. The ribs had a strong smoky, paprika flavor and held their own as tender without completely falling off the bone. I wanted some bite and got it, but only after they rested for a little while.
Going back to my samples, I gave out Rib in a Cup to the hungry public.
Feedback from the commoners of Arnold, who I can presume have no formal BBQ judging training, was generally positive. All of my ribs were eaten, and a few people stopped to tell me that they were their favorites amongst all competitors. A judge’s wife even told me that they were her favorite!
My kids loved them, which is really important to me. I don’t get a trophy for that, but it makes me happy.
So… the results. The awards came and went and I left empty-handed. No shock. A little disappointing, but no shock. My kids were really dejected for me. They are somewhat disillusioned with regard to my BBQ skills, but I appreciate it. It’s important to think your father knows what he is doing.
Then I got the master list with all of the scores. Where was Simpson BBQ? Dead last. Last. Worst team of 25 competitors. Last place chicken, second to last place tri tip, and fourth to last place ribs. Complete annihilation and failure. I can’t deny that I felt pretty shitty at this point. Luckily, I had been drinking beers since noon and stepped up beer consumption after the rib turn in time.
Scott, who runs the Grillin’ Fools website and ran this event, seemed to genuinely feel bad for me. He said he needed to work with me on my technique… a few times. He asked if I would write up my Backyard BBQ Bash experience for the blog. Well, of course. This is a learning experience and I can’t hide from my failure. My complete failure.
(Scott, by the way, deserves a ton of credit. This event raised over $3K for the Wounded Warrior Project, and then every winner who earned cash donated it back to the charity. They have to have cleared $4K. Awesome.)
A lot of things went through my PBR-filled head when I read the results. Give up. End the blog. Delete the blog. Pick a new hobby. You suck. Generally not a pleasant feeling.
Then I realized that, had I come back in time from Sunday afternoon (now) to Saturday morning at 6:00am when I got up and said “You are going to have a ton of fun today and meet some really awesome people and raise money for a great charity, but… you are going to finish in last place overall and none of your food will be any good (in the eyes of the judges),” I would probably still have come to the event. I was sandwiched between a team I have competed against at Schlafly (really nice people) and some great guys who chugged Jameson and smoked cigars all day while trying to ignore Mizzou’s thrashing at the hands of South Carolina. What a total blast I had with these neighbors.
Plus, I can use this failure. Every great comedian has bombed. Yesterday I bombed. You can either stay on the mat or pick yourself up, and I choose to pick myself up. I know what I did wrong and I am going to improve. This is a huge motivator for me, and it’s a great teaching moment for my kids. Everyone loses and you don’t always win. It’s part of competing in anything. Someone has to be last, and it was my turn.
In the end, and I apologize for being so verbose, this competition was about doing a lot of things wrong and being humbled for it. Work harder, practice more, dig deeper. Next year I am going to kick ass at this competition. I will never finish last again at a BBQ competition. I am not quitting my amazing, heart-unhealthy hobby. I am going to use this experience as a push for success in the future. Hugely disappointing and humiliating and dejecting, but I had a ton of fun and this is not going to hold me down.