Standing atop the North Wildwood sea wall, nursing a growing case of swamp-ass, I looked out over the temporary encampment of pop-up tents, trailers, and smokers and admired how one common passion could bring so many people together at one time. It was early Sunday morning at the New Jersey Barbeque Championship, and like Kilgore, I was breathing it all in. The land breeze that had been blowing tents and flags all night had finally settled down, and the sea breeze that would carry the smell of slowly cooking meat over the town that hosted the event for the last sixteen years had not yet kicked in. But at this moment, before the heating differential of the land and sea really kicked in, a thick layer of smoke blanketed the tarmac parking lot where 63 of the area’s best and upcoming competition barbeque teams would pit their creative and time tested recipes against each other for prize money, trophies, prestige, and an invitation to the Big 3 national invitationals. It was the morning that many of these teams had prepared for all year. The briskets and pork had been on the smoker for hours, tended to throughout the night. The ribs would go on soon, and then, a little later, the chicken. The teams had been marinating in beer, whiskey, moonshine, and barbeque sauce for days. All was as it should be. The calm before the storm.
The camp was slowly coming back to life. Fire boxes were being checked and logs thrown in. Team members headed out to Quick Chek or McDonald’s in search of coffee. Guys looking around for a place to spit their toothpaste and finally deciding that the bathroom was too far away and the ground in front of them was adequate enough. Clocks checked once, twice, (rub the eyes) and thrice. Beer cans being cleared from tables to make way for cutting boards. People walking from tent to tent, dazed from lack of sleep, to wish friends and familiar foes a good morning and to see how their night had been. I have been taking part in competitions for almost 15 years now, and this first hour after dawn, between preps and before the crowds, is one of the most intimate moments of an event. When culinary warriors that have stayed up all night, abusing their bodies with drink but remaining ever vigilant over the temperature guage, can converse and empathize with others that endured the same hardship. One of the reasons why I love this venue is that the sea wall allows me and my swamp-ass a bird’s eye view of this moment, one well worth staying up for. The next few hours, leading up to the first turn-in at noon, would get pretty hectic and would allow little time for reflection (or wind up the shorts (btw: the best method for this is the Captain Morgan over the box fan for anybody who is interested)). The time to talk about meat and rubs is over, and soon, it would be in the hands of the judges to decide who cooked the best barbeque this weekend. It would be almost impossible for me to talk about everything at this event in just one post, so I won’t even try, but rather will punish you by writing multiple posts in the hopes of giving you an inside perspective of one of the most important barbeque events in New Jersey.
A barbeque competition generally consists of four main events: brisket, pork, ribs, and chicken. You may come across an event that is for only one day, in which case they may only include the quicker cooking meats like ribs and chicken. Since brisket and pork can take longer than 10 hours to cook, competitions that include these events will last two or three days. All meat is inspected before the competition starts in order to make sure that it has not been prepped in any way before it begins. Each meat is turned a half an hour apart, starting with chicken, then ribs, pork, and finally brisket, according to the estimated cooking times. Each team must submit their dish within five minutes before or after the turn-in time or be disqualified from that particular event. Because of this, it is important that teams be on top of their timing and temperatures, to the extent that some teams take into account air temperature, humidity, wind, and other weather conditions when cooking. A smoker that does not have enough fuel or air flow to maintain the correct temperatures can be disasterous and make all that hard work for nothing. Driving home as a loser sucks, but it sucks even more to drive home after being disqualified from an event.
While any organization can run a barbeque competition, it is always good to have the backing of a sanctioning body, to set guidelines and ensure fair play. The New Jersey State Barbeque Competition has been run by the Anglesea Fire Department from the beginning, and they have always done a great job and have never had any problem getting enough teams to compete because of this. They have also expanded the event to include the Anglesea Blues Festival and have created a great party atmosphere for families and hard core partiers as well. The amount of teams has only been limited by the amount of space available, from the beginning when about 24 teams competed down near the firehouse (oh the fun we had in the wee hours watching the people come out of the bars at closing time) to the limit of 65 teams that can fit in the current parking lot. The event is and has always been sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS), one of the largest and most influential barbeque organizations in the world. (More about them in the next post). They set the guidelines that teams and judges must follow in order to be successful at this event.
Each entry of meat must have at least six separate portions for six judges. If a team does not turn in enough portions, then a judge cannot give the team a score, and their overall score will be affected. Entries must be presented in styrofoam boxes, with or without a bed of greens such as lettuce or parsley, as per the team’s choice. It is a double blind turn-in, in that each team has a number that is not known by the judges and the entry gets a different number when it is turned in, so that judges cannot know which entry is from which team. Judges score entry from 5 to 9 on three categories: appearance, texture, and taste; weighted respectively. Teams with the highest score from each event will place in that event, while the one that scores the highest overall cumulative score for all four events will walk away the Grand Champion. Since this event is a state championship, the Grand Champion is then invited to compete in the national barbeque invitational events.
While these competitions give teams an opportunity to test themselves with the best in the state, it is not the only reason, or sometimes, the most important reason. For us, Team BoyBQ, the events offer us an opportunity to get together in the increasingly busy schedule that seems to revolve around our kids and family. As long as we keep the wives supplied with juicy meat every now and then, they let us go out on these occasional forays. For Crotchwood BBQ, it’s an opportunity to honor their friend who met an untimely death five years ago. I have tasted their food and I am sure that Crotchwood is saying, “Niiiiiiice!”. For the young members of Beerbeque, it’s always a party. For Lincoln Creek Smokehouse (more about them later), it’s a way for a young couple to express their passion. For Sir Porks A Lot (more about them later), it has been a successful venture into his own team after being part of another team for so long. So while there are many reasons that teams compete, winning is not always the most important. And while they may not go home as Grand Champion this year, they are not necessarily going home disappointed either.
Stay tuned for more posts about KCBS and the teams of the New Jersey State Barbeque Championship soon.
Best mustache of the competition: Al of Red Ants Barbeque!!
This post is dedicated to Crotchwood. I heard some of the stories told by your friends and they miss you. Rest in Peace