Barbecue as I knew it back then was pork; pulled pork often from a whole hog pig pickin’. This was traditional barbecue at its finest, cooked low and slow, over a combination of hickory and either pecan or oak, in a pit. Sauce was always on the side, and there was usually a huge variety of sauces to be found. Ribs, however, was something my father did on the grill. He fancied himself quite the rib aficionado. He’d take 2 or 3 full racks of spare ribs, slather them in a very spicy sauce, put them on a blazing hot grill for about 10 minutes on the front side, then flip them and re-slather. One final flip to make sure the sauce was burned on both sides, careful to make sure the meat was as tough and chewy as possible and that the sugars in the sauce were as burned as possible. Did I mention that he took special care to make certain that no fat had been rendered? Suffice it to say I grew up thinking I hated ribs. That was barbecue to me as a kid. From wonderful social gatherings of a pig pickin’ with family and friends, to the trying to find a reason to be anywhere but home when my dad had an urge to cook ribs, it was all part of my upbringing and my heritage.
In my early 20’s I was finally introduced to fall-off-the-bone ribs and discovered that I didn’t hate ribs after all. This was the beginning of my barbecue journey. It wasn’t long before I purchased my first smoker, then another, and it’s still going (big smoker envy). In 2003 and 2004 I had the honor of judging a few back-yard barbecue cook-offs and was invited to become a MIM CBJ. I took the class and had an idea that I was about to be hooked. Was I ever right! My first sanctioned cook-off to this date is probably my most memorable. I remember coming away thinking that of all the ribs I sampled that day, the worst of them was head-and-shoulders better than the best ribs I’d ever had. I was hooked. I immediately began traveling to all the local MIM contests (before they became MBN). Along the journey I’ve judged roughly 80 sanctioned cook-offs and 20 un-sanctioned.
I consider myself a bit of a barbecue traditionalist. To me the best tasting barbecue comes from cooking low and slow over natural hard woods. Pellets, wafers, electricity and gas can all be used to cook low and slow and create barbecue, but it’s just not the same as large pieces of meat cooked over a natural wood fire. Over the years I’ve learned to appreciate different barbecue styles and have come to understand that barbecue, down to the definition of what is and is not barbecue, is quite regional. From sauces and their styles to the meats being barbecued, it can vary as much as we vary from one person to another. And it brings out very strong emotions, as it’s tied to our histories. It is every bit as American as apple pie and baseball (here in the deep south it’s peach cobbler and football, but those are topics for another blog).
I’ve begun to scale back on the competitions judged and have replaced the hobby with competing. I’m not sure how much I can afford to do this, but it sure is fun. The camaraderie among competition teams and cooks is beyond compare. I do enjoy competing particularly in MBN cook-offs, and the judges are already on to my spiel about tradition and wood, etc. However, darned if my team mates aren’t fond of KCBS and FBA, if for no other reasons that they get to eat the extra brisket!