In the last post, I alluded to the fact that one of the reasons that the New Jersey State Barbeque Championship has been so successful over the years is that the organizers enlisted the help of the Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) from the very beginning. While the Anglesea Fire Company takes care of the competition logistics such as permits, space, water, garbage disposal, restrooms, etc., when it comes to the barbeque, the KCBS, a non-profit organization that has over 19,000 members and runs over 450 contests throughout the United States, helps set the rules for preparation, presentation, and judging. The KCBS has been in existence since 1985, when the only requirement for membership was that he or she could not take any of it seriously, and the history page from its website (www.kcbs.us) makes for some very interesting reading. Without the KCBS, and at least one of their 95 total representatives on site, all of the 65 teams at the competition would be turning in different products and would result in the judges trying to compare apples to oranges (not any of the four events). Frustrated teams would not return, and New Jersey would lose one of its premier culinary events.
On the Saturday of the event, I had the opportunity to speak to three of the representatives from the KCBS who were on hand for all three days to make sure that the contest ran smoothly. John Busch, from Upper Marlboro, Maryland, was one of the “cozy family” of competitors here in the early years of the New Jersey competition and now helps oversee about twelve competitions a year from South Carolina on up. Don and Nancy Muller, a barbeque loving couple from Wappingers Falls, New York, travel from Virginia, through the Mid-Atlantic, and all of the way up to Michigan, to supervise about 15 competitions a year. This was their third year back at the New Jersey Championship. Each is also also a certified judge, when off-duty and hungry. In the off-season, they judge each other for taste, tenderness, and appearance and get straight 9’s across the board, resulting in a long marriage. (Sorry, Don and Nancy: took a little creative liberty there, so don’t let your friends at KCBS give you shit).
So when they graciously granted me some time with them, I took the opportunity to finally address one of the big questions that I had about New Jersey barbeque, from three people who were living the dream: meeting teams up and down the East Coast (and beyond), tasting hundreds of barbeque bites, and witnessing the crowning of multiple grand champions. So, how does Jersey barbeque compare to that from the other states, especially the strong ones like the Carolinas that have been basting in sauce and lying on coals since banjos were first plucked. Were Jersey teams sticking with the big boys when they went below the Mason-Dixon line or when they competed nationally? If anybody could answer this question, it would be John, Don and Nancy. Sitting down with them, I thought that it could go 50/50. We are just starting to explore this art of smoke, and it is relationships and conversations like this like this that will expand our knowledge and understanding of where we stand and need to go. With a smile across their faces, they all assured me that I need not worry. From what they have seen, and with the expanding popularity and exposure of barbeque on television, they are seeing more and more teams from New Jersey that are highly competitive and winning events; teams that reach the nationals by winning against teams from other states and going on to place at the invitationals.
The New Jersey State Barbeque Championship is a testament to this. Since Team BoyBQ, has started competing, the amount of teams that have entered has more than doubled, and who knows how many more tried after the limit had been reached. I told them that from what I have seen, the teams at the competitions are no longer the back yard gladiators like us, but are now mostly professionally trained cooking teams that represent restaurants and catering companies. How were regular guys like us supposed to do well when every barbeque joint in the state was sending their guys in to scoop up trophies and bragging rights for award winning barbeque to put on their menus? John agreed that nowadays the competition is more fierce, citing how the quality of the meat has improved, teams are taking advantage of growing sponsorship opportunities, and winning teams that have gained recognition on television are now paying it forward through teaching others. But he disagreed that teams coming to the competitions are different. “It is not that the teams are different, it is that the teams are evolving”. Citing examples like Local Smoke, a team that started out in 2007 and gained success on the competition circuit before opening up two restaurants in Central Jersey (yes, I am one of those that recognize the existence of this region), he stated that the same teams are around, but have risen to the next level and return under different names that now represent their companies. BTW, my sister, Kristen, and her family go to the Neptune location often and love the food, so throw an extra cornbread in that bag. But it good to see that teams that have gone on to be successful in the restaurant business continue to come back to test themselves against the best of the best in order to help themselves improve and, in the long run, help put New Jersey on the barbeque map.
If, after reading these posts, you want to find out more about KCBS and how they are promoting the art of barbeque in New Jersey (and other areas, I guess), pull up their site and become a member. Not only can you take classes, share recipes, and get scholarships, but you can even become a certified judge and taste some damn good barbeque. But only if you don’t take yourself too seriously!
Next: A Tale of Two Teams: Sir Pork-A-Lot and Lincoln Creek Smokehouse